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San Francisco City Attorney speaks out

Herrera played key role in challenging Prop 8

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Dennis Herrera, San Francisco, gay news, Washington Blade
Dennis Herrera, San Francisco, gay news, Washington Blade

Dennis Herrera is described as a ‘straight, devout Catholic, married man’ who has championed the cause of marriage equality. (Photo courtesy Herrera)

Dennis Herrera, San Francisco’s City Attorney since 2002, will be in the Supreme Court chambers in Washington next Tuesday observing the oral arguments over whether Proposition 8, California’s 2008 ballot measure banning gay marriage, should be upheld or overturned.

Although Herrera won’t be delivering the arguments against Proposition 8 on Tuesday, gay rights advocates in California say he has played a pivotal role since 2004 in pushing for marriage equality in that state.

Among other things, he has worked side-by-side with high profile attorneys Ted Olson and David Boies as a party to the case Hollingsworth v. Perry, which seeks to overturn Prop 8.

Jack Song, deputy press secretary for the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office, said Herrera and his legal team have been involved in “every case, every court, through every procedural twist since February 2004” in efforts to legalize same-sex marriage in California.

It was in 2004, Song noted, that Herrera provided legal support for then-San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom’s highly controversial decision to issue marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples and perform same-sex marriages at city hall.

California courts initially ruled that San Francisco lacked legal authority to perform same-sex marriages and quickly invalidated those marriages. But the action by Newsom and Herrera, which was denounced by same-sex marriage opponents, has been credited with triggering litigation by marriage equality advocates – including Herrera’s office — that led to the May 15, 2008 ruling by the California Supreme Court legalizing same-sex marriage in the state.

In response to a campaign led by same-sex marriage opponents, California voters overturned same-sex marriage rights in the November 2008 referendum known as Prop 8 by a margin of 52 percent to 48 percent.

In an interview with the Washington Blade on Tuesday, Herrera discussed his work on the Prop 8 case – in the words of his deputy press secretary Song – as a “straight, devout Catholic, married man” who has championed the cause of marriage equality.

Washington Blade: What are your thoughts on the chances that Prop 8 will be overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court?

Dennis Herrera: We’re very, very optimistic. You just need to look at what has been the course of this litigation. If we go back nine years ago, all the state court proceedings and more recently in the federal court system, I can’t tell you how gratified we were both at the District Court’s ruling and the Ninth Circuit [U.S. Court of Appeals] ruling clearly showing that there’s absolutely no constitutional justification whatsoever to discriminate when it comes to the issue of marriage equality.

And that for the community to be denied equal protection under the law when it comes to the issue of marriage strains all credulity. So we’ve been gratified by the District Court’s ruling. If you look at Judge [Vaughn] Walker’s decision – a well-reasoned, well thought-out opinion after sitting through a weeks-long trial, hearing from a variety of witnesses and hearing the Prop 8 proponents come up with virtually no argument, no evidence to support their position and then to have that decision affirmed by the Ninth Circuit – we’re very, very optimistic as we’re heading into next week’s argument.

Blade: What role has your office played in the U.S. Supreme Court case on Prop 8?

Herrera: We intervened and stood shoulder to shoulder with the Gibson Dunn firm — the David Boise firm — both at trial and at the Ninth Circuit and here as we’re leading up to the Supreme Court argument. So we have been involved in every piece of state litigation on this as well as the federal action. In fact, we were the only party allowed to intervene in the case and participate on our side as a party. We have been working alongside the lead counsel in the case and continue to do so leading up to the [U.S. Supreme Court] arguments.

Blade: Could you explain as best you can in layman’s terms what we understand to be the possible outcomes by the Supreme Court? In one outcome they can uphold Proposition 8. But is the court also being asked to rule that under the U.S. Constitution, no state can ban same-sex couples from marrying?

Herrera: I think that what you see if you look at the briefs of the plaintiffs and ours – we’re very, very complimentary. Clearly the plaintiffs in the case, as represented by Ted Olsen and David Boies, are seeking the broadest possible remedy to strike down discrimination vis-a-vis marriage equality nationwide.

And if you look at our briefs, what we do is try and make sure that we offer the full panoply in a very complimentary way. We fully agree with Ted Olsen and Boies and support their contention that heightened scrutiny should apply in this case, which would essentially, if found in the plaintiff’s favor, would basically have nationwide impact. But in addition, we have argued in our brief, while we fully agree with them, that even if you limited it to California and states similarly situated to California — the prohibition on marriage should not apply. So it’s a more limited but complimentary approach. Just so the court has the full panoply of possible avenues before it. But we’re in full support of the broad argument, but if the court wants to rule in our favor but limit it to California and other states that are similar to California, we briefed that issue as well.

Blade: How would it affect other states that are similar to California?

Herrera: If you look at the [U.S.] Solicitor General’s brief, the government’s brief, they have essentially said that states like California that have extended domestic partner benefits that allow same-sex couples to adopt, those that have been out there granting rights to same-sex couples cannot take them away through tools like Proposition 8. So there’s about seven or eight states that are similarly situated to California. And they have come in and said for those states, not just California but for those others, you can’t take an approach like folks have done with Proposition 8.

Blade: Does that include states outside Ninth Circuit?

Herrera: Yes.

Blade: Some constitutional experts that study the Supreme Court, including some who support same-sex marriage, have argued that it would be better for the court to limit an affirmative decision to just California rather than issue a ruling that would require all states to recognize same-sex marriage. They say that a ruling forcing all states to legalize same-sex marriage would create too great a shock to the culture, especially in southern and certain mid-Western states. What are your thoughts on that?

Herrera: I have heard that. But, like I said, in this case we’re working along with the lead counsel and have really offered a variety of different directions the court should go. And I would like to say this. I know that people make that argument. But think about how things have changed.

Let’s just go back. Proposition 22 that passed here in California in 2000 was against marriage equality 60 to 40. And with Proposition 8 we saw what the numbers were [52 percent for Prop 8, 48 percent against]. Recently, on the same day that the federal government – the administration – came in support of our position there was a Field Poll released here in the State of California that showed that 61 percent of people now in California favor same-sex marriage as opposed to 32 percent. …

So I’m fully in support of a broader approach and I think that would be the best thing for the country. But if in its judgment the Supreme Court does not want to go that route we have offered them and the United States government has offered them another direction to go that perhaps might be more limited but ultimately we know is going to lead to the same result nationwide.

Blade: In 2004, when San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom allowed marriages to take place at City Hall, you supported that, right?

Herrera: Yup.

Blade: But some lawmakers in Washington at the time, including Congressman Barney Frank, thought that might be jumping the gun a little bit and that it could lead to a greater push for a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. That never passed, but some were worried that it could. Was that something that entered your mind back then?

Herrera: I think history has borne out that we in San Francisco were on the right side of history when you look at the tremendous progress that has been made over the course of the last several years. So I think that sometimes it is somewhat scary for people to take the unconventional approach and to push the envelope. But I think that the wisdom of that approach has been borne out by history.

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The White House

EXCLUSIVE: Jill Biden to host White House Pride celebration

Event to take place on June 26

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First lady Jill Biden (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

First lady Jill Biden will host the White House Pride Month celebration on June 26, according to a press release previewed by the Washington Blade.

The party on the South Lawn will also feature a performance by singer, songwriter, actress, and record producer Deborah Cox and musical selections by DJ Trifle.

This year’s event comes on Equality Day this year, which honors the anniversaries of three landmark U.S. Supreme Court decisions that expanded rights and protections for LGBTQ Americans: Lawrence v. Texas (2003), which struck down sodomy laws, United States v. Windsor (2013), which struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, and Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), which made marriage equality the law of the land.

The White House highlighted some of the “historic action” taken by President Joe Biden to “advance LGBTQ+ equality for the community,” including:

  • Signing into law the landmark Respect for Marriage Act which protects the rights of same-sex and interracial couples;
  • Appointing a historic number of LGBTQI+ and transgender appointees, including the first transgender American to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate;
  • Directing all federal agencies to strengthen civil rights protections on the basis of gender identity, resulting in agencies working to strengthen protections in housing, health care, education, employment, the criminal justice system, nutrition programs, and more;
  • Reversing the ban on open service by transgender members of the military;
  • Signing an executive order focused on LGBTQI+ children and families that directs agencies to address the dangerous and discredited practice of so-called “conversion therapy” and finalized rule-making that ends disparities that LGBTQI+ children and parents face in the child welfare and foster care system and protects against disparities in health care; and
  • President Biden continues to call on Congress to pass the Equality Act to enshrine civil rights protections for LGBTQI+ Americans in federal law.

Last year, the president and the first lady hosted the celebration, which was the largest Pride event ever held at the White House.

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National

65% of Black Americans support Black LGBTQ rights: survey

Results show 40% have LGBTQ family member

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(Logo courtesy of the NBJC)

The National Black Justice Coalition, a D.C.-based LGBTQ advocacy organization, announced on June 19 that it commissioned what it believes to be a first-of-its-kind national survey of Black people in the United States in which 65 percent said they consider themselves “supporters of Black LGBTQ+ people and rights,” with 57 percent of the supporters saying they were “churchgoers.”

In a press release describing the findings of the survey, NBJC said it commissioned the research firm HIT Strategies to conduct the survey with support from five other national LGBTQ organizations – the Human Rights Campaign, the National LGBTQ Task Force, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, Family Equality, and GLSEN.

“One of the first surveys of its kind, explicitly sampling Black people (1,300 participants) on Black LGBTQ+ people and issues – including an oversampling of Black LGBTQ+ participants to provide a more representative view of this subgroup – it investigates the sentiments, stories, perceptions, and priorities around Black values and progressive policies, to better understand how they impact Black views on Black LGBTQ+ people,” the press release says.

It says the survey found, among other things, that 73 percent of Gen Z respondents, who in 2024 are between the ages of 12 and 27, “agree that the Black community should do more to support Black LGBTQ+ people.”

According to the press release, it also found that 40 percent of Black people in the survey reported having a family member who identifies as LGBTQ+ and 80 percent reported having “some proximity to gay, lesbian, bisexual, or queer people, but only 42 percent have some proximity to transgender or gender-expansive people.”

The survey includes these additional findings:

• 86% of Black people nationally report having a feeling of shared fate and connectivity with other Black people in the U.S., but this view doesn’t fully extend to the Black LGBTQ+ community. Around half — 51% — of Black people surveyed feel a shared fate with Black LGBTQ+ people.

• 34% reported the belief that Black LGBTQ+ people “lead with their sexual orientation or gender identity.” Those participants were “significantly less likely to support the Black LGBTQ+ community and most likely to report not feeling a shared fate with Black LGBTQ+ people.”

• 92% of Black people in the survey reported “concern about youth suicide after being shown statistics about the heightened rate among Black LGBTQ+ youth.” Those expressing this concern included 83% of self-reported opponents of LGBTQ+ rights.

• “Black people’s support for LGBTQ+ rights can be sorted into three major groups: 29% Active Accomplices, 25% Passive Allies (high potential to be moved), 35% Opponents. Among Opponents, ‘competing priorities’ and ‘religious beliefs’ are the two most significant barriers to supporting Black LGBTQ+ people and issues.”

• 10% of the survey participants identified as LGBTQ. Among those who identified as LGBTQ, 38% identified as bisexual, 33% identified as lesbian or gay, 28% identified as non-binary or gender non-conforming, and 6% identified as transgender.

• Also, among those who identified as LGBTQ, 89% think the Black community should do more to support Black LGBTQ+ people, 69% think Black LGBTQ+ people have fewer rights and freedoms than other Black people, 35% think non-Black LGBTQ+ people have fewer rights and freedom than other Black people, 54% “feel their vote has a lot of power,” 51% live in urban areas, and 75% rarely or never attend church.

Additional information about the survey from NBJC can be accessed here.

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U.S. Federal Courts

Club Q shooter sentenced to life in prison for federal hate crimes

Five people killed in 2022 mass shooting in Colo.

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Assistant U.S. Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. (Justice Department YouTube screenshot)

Anderson Lee Aldrich, 24, formerly of Colorado Springs, Colo., was sentenced to 55 concurrent life sentences to run consecutive to 190 years in prison after pleading guilty to 74 hate crimes and firearms charges related to the Nov. 19, 2022, mass shooting at Club Q, an LGBTQ establishment in Colorado Springs.  

According to the plea agreement, Aldrich admitted to murdering five people, injuring 19, and attempting to murder 26 more in a willful, deliberate, malicious, and premeditated attack at Club Q. According to the plea, Aldrich entered Club Q armed with a loaded, privately manufactured assault weapon, and began firing. Aldrich continued firing until subdued by patrons of the club. As part of the plea, Aldrich admitted that this attack was in part motivated because of the actual or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity of any person.

“Fueled by hate, the defendant targeted members of the LGBTQIA+ community at a place that represented belonging, safety, and acceptance — stealing five people from their loved ones, injuring 19 others, and striking fear across the country,” said Attorney General Merrick Garland. “Today’s sentencing makes clear that the Justice Department is committed to protecting the right of every person in this country to live free from the fear that they will be targeted by hate-fueled violence or discrimination based on who they are or who they love. I am grateful to every agent, prosecutor, and staff member across the Department — from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Colorado, to the Civil Rights Division, the ATF, and FBI — for their work on this case. The Justice Department will never stop working to defend the safety and civil rights of all people in our country.”

“The 2022 mass shooting at Club Q is one of the most violent crimes against the LGBTQIA+ community in history,” said FBI Director Christopher Wray. “The FBI and our partners have worked tirelessly towards this sentencing, but the true heroes are the patrons of the club who selflessly acted to subdue the defendant. This Pride Month and every month, the FBI stands with the survivors, victims, and families of homophobic violence and hate.”

“ATF will not rest until perpetrators like this defendant are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” said Steven Dettelbach, director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). “I hope today’s life sentence brings at least some peace to the victims and survivors of this senseless, horrific tragedy. That this sentence should come during Pride month reinforces how far we have left to go before all communities, including all LGBTQIA+ communities, are safe here. It also shows how far ATF and all our partners will go to ensure hatred does not win.”

“The defendant’s mass shooting and heinous targeting of Club Q is one of the most devastating assaults on the LGBTQIA+ community in our nation’s history. This sentence cannot reclaim the lives lost or undo the harms inflicted. But we hope that it provides the survivors, the victims’ families, and their communities a small measure of justice,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “Our message today should be loud and clear. No one should have to fear for their life or their safety because of their gender identity or sexual orientation. The Justice Department will vigorously investigate and prosecute those who perpetrate hate-fueled, bias-driven attacks.”

“Hate has no place in our country and no place in Colorado” said Acting U.S. Attorney Matt Kirsch for the District of Colorado. “I hope that today’s sentence demonstrates to the victims and those connected to this horrific event that we do not tolerate these heinous acts of violence.”

The FBI Denver Field Office, Colorado Springs Police Department, and ATF investigated the case.

Assistant U.S. Attorneys Alison Connaughty and Bryan Fields for the District of Colorado and, Maura White of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division prosecuted the case.

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