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ENDA under review prior to April reintroduction

Insiders mum on possible changes to bill

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Jared Polis, Colorado, United States House of Representatives, Democratic Party, gay news, Washington Blade
Jared Polis, Colorado, United States House of Representatives, Democratic Party, gay news, Washington Blade

Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) acknowledged a review process is underway for ENDA. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

A long-standing piece of pro-LGBT legislation is under review and may be redrafted prior to its expected introduction in the U.S. House next month.

In an interview with the Washington Blade on Wednesday, Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), the senior openly gay member of the U.S. House, announced that he plans to introduce in April the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, a measure that would bar workplace discrimination against LGBT people.

“I’ll be the lead author of ENDA, which we are at least planning to reintroduce in April,” Polis said.

Multiple sources familiar with ENDA say the legislation is being reconsidered before its reintroduction in the 113th Congress, and maintain no final decisions on the bill have been made.

It’s unclear what the nature of the changes might be, but one source familiar with ENDA told the Washington Blade the bill is being reconsidered with respect to religious exemption and disparate impact to make the legislation’s protections stronger for LGBT workers than previously written. The changes are being considered under the assumption the legislation won’t pass anyway with Republicans in control of the U.S. House.

ENDA has previously included a strong religious exemption. In the most recent version of the bill, Section 6 provided an exemption for religious organizations and businesses that were also exempt under Title VII of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964.

The legislation also avoided the issue of disparate impact. Under that doctrine, which is found under Title VII, a violation of the law may be found if an employer has a practice that discriminates against workers, even though it doesn’t seem discriminatory on its face.

For example, a company that says it won’t hire anyone for a job who’s shorter than 5’10” could be found in violation of the law on the basis of gender discrimination because most women aren’t that tall. It’s unclear how disparate impact would apply to LGBT people.

Polis declined to identify any specific changes being contemplated to ENDA, but acknowledged a review process is underway.

“We’re going through ENDA now and have been working with many of the advocacy groups and my staff, and the [LGBT] Equality Caucus staff to make sure that concerns are addressed, and we’re going through that now,” Polis said.

In response to a follow-up question about whether changes would be made with respect to the religious exemption or disparate impact, Polis reiterated that a review process is happening.

“There haven’t been any decisions made yet about that,” Polis said. “We’re listening. We’re listening to folks in the equality community, and there are many different ideas on how to improve ENDA and we’re evaluating them and seeing where we have consensus.”

There may be other ways in which the bill is being reconsidered but no sources specifically identified any such changes to the Blade.

One possible change may be the way ENDA applies to small businesses. Under previous versions of the bill, the law would only apply to employers with 15 or more employees. Companies with fewer employees would be free to discriminate under federal law even if ENDA were passed.

LGBT advocacy groups that work on ENDA responded to the Blade’s inquiries on whether changes would be made to the bill by confirming the review process is underway.

Fred Sainz, vice president of communications for the Human Rights Campaign, said all pro-LGBT legislation is reviewed prior to reintroduction at the start of a new Congress.

“Every Congress, legislation is reviewed with an eye toward making any needed changes or improvements,” Sainz said. “The goal is always to better the lives of LGBT people. This process is underway with every piece of legislation.”

Ian Thompson, legislative representative for the American Civil Liberties Union, also acknowledged the review process and said he welcomes changes that would provide stronger protections for LGBT people.

“Prior to reintroduction in any Congress, legislation should always be reviewed in light of political and legal developments that may necessitate changes,” Thompson said. “I am firmly of the belief that this should always be done with an eye toward securing the strongest possible protections for LGBT people.”

Tico Almeida, president of Freedom to Work, declined to comment.

Lesbian Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) told SiriusXM Out Q’s Michelangelo Signorile in an interview this week that stakeholders are working the bill by “getting it in final form.”

“Right now the author of the legislation is engaged in negotiations to put finishing touches on the version of the bill that will be introduced, perhaps right after the break for Easter and Passover,” Baldwin said.

It’s not yet clear whether the final language for ENDA  in the House version of the bill sponsored by Polis and the Senate bill that Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) has previously sponsored would be identical. Polis suggested the two versions of the bill may be different when asked if his introduction of ENDA would be concurrent with Merkley’s introduction of the bill.

“No decision made in terms of that,” Polis said. “Those are also [decisions] to be made in terms of do you do it on the same day, and do you do different versions or the same version. There are always all those decisions to be made around timing of bills.”

Jamal Raad, a Merkley spokesperson, said a bipartisan group of lawmakers is at work on ENDA prior to its reintroduction, identifying Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), who’s been an original co-sponsor in the past.

“We are currently working with Senator Kirk’s team and stakeholders, and hope to reintroduce soon,” Raad said.

Asked if any changes would be made to ENDA, Raad replied, “We are reviewing the language with cosponsors and stakeholders, but no decision has been made.”

Stakeholders affirmed that they’re committed to ensuring the bill includes protections based on gender identity and expression. Polis maintained he wants an inclusive bill.

“I’m firmly committed to ensuring this is an inclusive bill and will address the issue of discrimination in the transgender community,” Polis said.

Asked to clarify whether the gender identity protections would be modified in any way, Polis said a listening process is underway without identifying any change in particular.

“We are in the process of listening to folks in the equality community — both the transgender community as well as the gay community,” Polis said. “We’ve gotten a lot of good input into improving the bill. We’re trying to see where we can forge consensus, and again, no decisions have been made about the final language.”

In 2007, former Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) invoked the ire of many in the LGBT community when he advanced a version of ENDA without the gender identity protections, saying the votes weren’t present to pass a transgender-inclusive bill. Frank later came to believe ENDA must be passed with gender identity protections.

 

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VA to start process of covering gender reassignment surgery for trans veterans

Coverage was rejected even during Obama years

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The Department of Veterans Affairs has become the latest federal government health program to affirm it would begin covering gender reassignment surgery — an option for transgender veterans that was even rejected during the Obama administration.

Randal Noller, a VA spokesperson, said in response to an email inquiry from the Blade the department this summer “will initiate steps to modify rules published in the Code of Federal Regulations (also known as the CFR), to expand VA’s care to transgender Veterans and include gender-affirming surgery.”

“Gender-affirming procedures have been proven effective at mitigating serious health conditions, including suicidality, substance abuse, and dysphoria,” Noller said. “Updating this policy would allow VA to provide transgender and gender diverse Veterans with coordinated, medically necessary, transition-related surgical procedures.”

Noller added the change “would enable a safe, coordinated continuum of care that is Veteran-centric and consistent with VA values of equity and respect for all veterans.” The entire process for implementation, Noller said, can take about two years and includes a period of public comment. 

VA Secretary Denis McDonough first announced the policy change in a speech in Orlando marking the five-year anniversary of the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub.

Once implemented, the VA would join other federal health care systems in offering coverage for gender reassignment surgery, which previously has included Medicare, Medicaid (other some states, like Iowa, are dubiously claiming exemptions), the Federal Employee Health Benefits programs and the U.S. military health care system as a result of the Biden administration reversing the transgender military ban.

The idea of the VA offering coverage for gender reassignment surgery was first raised during the Obama administration. However, in the lame duck session after former President Trump was elected, the then-Secretary of Veterans Affairs scrapped the idea, citing concerns about appropriate funding.

According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, the estimated number of U.S. veterans who are transgender is more than 134,000, and more than 15,000 transgender people are serving in the military today.

Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, hailed the change in a statement on Saturday as “another step in the Biden administration’s effort to fight discrimination against transgender people, including our transgender veterans.”

“Every veteran deserves to have access to the health care that they need, and the VA is working to make sure that includes transgender veterans as well,” Keisling said.

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HIV research sped development of COVID vaccine

Top NIH official says success in coronavirus will boost AIDS work

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‘In many ways, the work for the past 25 years that we’ve done in HIV vaccines sped the development of coronavirus vaccines,’ Carl W. Dieffenbach, Ph.D.

Since 1996, Carl W. Dieffenbach, who holds a Ph.D. in biophysics from John Hopkins University, has served as director of the Division of AIDS at the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, which is an arm of the U.S. National Institutes of Health or NIH.

In a June 10 interview with the Washington Blade, Dieffenbach gave an update on the extensive, ongoing research into the development of an HIV/AIDS vaccine that he has helped to coordinate for many years, including current human trials for a prospective AIDS vaccine taking place in the U.S., South America, and Africa.

One thing he feels passionate about is a development not widely reported in the media reports about the successful development of the COVID-19 vaccine. According to Dieffenbach, the extensive research into an AIDS vaccine in recent and past years, while not yet successful in yielding an effective AIDS vaccine, helped lay the groundwork for the rapid development of the different versions of a COVID vaccine.

“Because my division runs the largest clinical trials program in the word, we jumped in with both feet to help with coronavirus disease for both vaccines and drugs and things like that,” he said. “And the platforms that were used – the way they are making the coronavirus vaccines – the RNA vaccines with Moderna – were first piloted by NIH and Moderna to try to make an HIV vaccine,” Dieffenbach says.

“So, in many ways, the work for the past 25 years that we’ve done in HIV vaccines sped the development of coronavirus vaccines,” he told the Blade. “And now it’s time to take what we’ve learned from coronavirus and take it back to HIV and start afresh or continue with what we have and build upon from what we have learned.”

Dieffenbach says one reason the development of a COVID vaccine came about before an AIDS vaccine, despite more than 20 years of AIDS vaccine research, is that the HIV virus is far more complex than the coronavirus, especially its ability to infect and remain embedded in the infected person for life. 

“Back in 2007 we had the first hint that an AIDS vaccine might be possible with a study called RV144,” Dieffenbach says. “We spent 10 years trying to replicate that, and we just completed that study – a study called HVTN702. And it showed no efficacy,” he said, meaning it did not work.

“So that was a big disappointment to us,” he says “But in the meantime, we had pushed forward with the J&J [Johnson and Johnson pharmaceutical company] vaccine and are pretty far along. We’ll see what happens. We should know in the next several months whether the N26 version of an AIDS vaccine, and HIV vaccine works or not,” he says. “We’re very close to an answer.”

Washington Blade: Where do things stand in the development of an HIV/AIDS vaccine in light of Dr. Fauci’s statement a few weeks ago that the development of a COVID-19 vaccine could provide a boost to developing an AIDS vaccine?

Carl Dieffenbach: Sure. So, maybe I can start by introducing myself to you as a way of putting this into a context.

So, I’m the director of the Division of AIDS, which is the largest funder of HIV research in the world. And I report directly to Dr. Fauci. So, I’m responsible for all AIDS, all the time. And that is my passion and purpose in life. Part of that is working toward a safe, effective, and durable HIV vaccine, which has been one of the two most challenging questions left in science today. The other is a cure. They are connected in some ways.

So, with that as background, when coronavirus disease came along – because my division runs the largest clinical trials program in the world – we jumped in with both feet to help with coronavirus disease for both vaccines and drugs and things like that. And the platforms that were used – the way they are making the coronavirus vaccines – the RNA vaccines with Moderna were first piloted by NIH and Moderna to try to make an HIV vaccine. So, we’ve being working on that platform with Moderna for several years.

The leadership at Pfizer used to be part of a group at Penn, where we were also working with them. The J&J vaccine – we currently have in two Phase III clinical trials for HIV, one in sub-Saharan Africa, specifically in young women and the other one in the Americas in men who have sex with men and transgender individuals. Both of those Phase IIIs are moving along. The women’s study is fully enrolled. The men’s study was hit hard by COVID, but we worked through and will be fully enrolled by September.

One other vaccine just to talk about is the Oxford vaccine, the AstraZeneca vaccine. That is also using a platform at Oxford University, which has been used for HIV. So, in many ways, the work for the past 25 years that we’ve done in HIV vaccines sped the development of coronavirus vaccines. And now it’s time to take what we’ve learned from coronavirus and take it back to HIV and start afresh or continue with what we have and build upon from where we have learned.

Blade: That’s very interesting. But can we assume, then, from the clinical trials that have taken place for an HIV vaccine that they did not succeed in providing the immunity needed for an effective vaccine? 

Dieffenbach: So, that’s exactly the problem we have. Back in 2007 we had the first hint that an AIDS vaccine might be possible with a study called RV144. We spent 10 years trying to replicate that, and we just completed that study – a study called HVTN702. And it showed no efficacy. So, that was a big disappointment to us. But in the meantime, we had pushed forward with the J&J vaccine and are pretty far along. We’ll see what happens. We should know in the next several months whether the N26 version of an AIDS vaccine, and HIV vaccine works or not. We’re very close to an answer.

Blade: So, the human trials are ongoing.

Dieffenbach: Oh, again – the study in young women in sub-Sahara Africa is fully enrolled. The men’s study will be fully enrolled in September. So, we have fought through the coronavirus epidemic to maintain, to nurse these trials along to make sure with the $100 million or so we’ve invested, that we didn’t want them to go down the drain literally because we lost too many people for follow-up. So, this was a herculean effort that has gone on all the time trying to do the vaccine studies for coronavirus disease, which we were also incredibly successful in.

Blade: Can we assume all of the people participating in the studies were HIV negative?

Dieffenbach: Yes, they’re HIV negative. They are people who are at risk. And also, in South America, for example, the major countries we’re in are Peru and Brazil. And they’ve had a strong research culture with us, going back more than a decade. For example, both of those countries played big roles in our studies of pre-exposure prophylaxis. A study called I-PREX that demonstrated that in men who have sex with men that [a PrEP drug] works well to prevent HIV acquisition in seronegative men who have sex with men.

So, we’ve been there. This is a really good setup for the countries, for the citizens that are in those countries that want to avail themselves to the research that has benefited everybody.

 Blade: Among those who are participating in these ongoing AIDS vaccine trials, can we assume they cannot be taking the PrEP anti-retroviral drugs that have been shown to be highly effective in preventing HIV infection?

Dieffenbach: So, what we’ve done is we – everything is by conversation. So, when somebody who is interested in the study comes in, we talk to them. What is your chief interest in being in this study? And a lot of people want to be in the study because then they can access PrEP. They want to make it easier to get a hold of pre-exposure prophylaxis. They feel that is the best way that they can protect themselves.

So, in that situation, what we do is we take those people and link them to PrEP services where they can easily get PrEP in their community. So, first it’s taking care of those people. Then there are people who really have no interest in PrEP. And we actually counsel them every time they come in for a study. Are you sure you don’t want to access PrEP? And those are the people we then say, if you’re not interested in PrEP, what do you think about participating in a vaccine trial?

Because they’re the ones who have the most freedom of thought. They don’t have an opinion about the vaccine or about PrEP. So, those are the people we’ve been focusing on and enrolling. So, we’ve been very careful to make sure that if people wanted PrEP they not only have access, but they didn’t feel like somehow having to trade something in order to get it. The freedom to join a study should be a free choice. And it shouldn’t be a coercive thing to get PrEP. So, we just took that off the table and said if you’re truly interested in PrEP we can get you PrEP and make sure that was available. 

Blade: So, in that case, if they choose PrEP they would not be in the vaccine trial?

Dieffenbach: You know, it’s interesting that you ask it in that way. Because you have relationships with your community, many of the investigators have reported that people will say, you know I tried PrEP and it wasn’t for me. It made me gaseous. It upset my stomach. I wasn’t myself. I tried it. I couldn’t make it work for me. I want to stop PrEP. Am I still eligible for the [vaccine] study? And the answer is of course. Many people are very happy on PrEP and they come in for visits occasionally and say this is working for me and just have the relationship with the doctors there, so it works. So, again, it’s about maintaining contact with your communities.

Blade: Can you tell a little about what happens next after people become part of an HIV vaccine trial. Do you have to keep in touch with these people, and do they have to get an HIV test periodically?

Dieffenbach: Exactly. So, the vaccine consists of a series of injections. It’s a mixture of vector systems that delivers a series of encoded HIV genes that are specifically designed to induce very broad immunity. There’s a whole computer-based process to design those components of the vaccine to make sure that it has sequence similarities with all the different versions of HIV circulating in the globe. And then at the end there is a protein boost. And we carry this out.

So, about every three to four months people come in. They get a shot. They fill out questionnaires. They give a blood sample. And they’re tested for HIV and are given a boost or a placebo. And they stay in touch with the clinic. They come in and out of the clinic. And the retention is quite high in these situations because people really like having the attention of the clinic available to them. It’s part of the community.

Blade: So, they go to a clinic for all of this?

Dieffenbach: It’s a research clinic. It’s not like a state-run health clinic. It’s a research clinic. Clinic is just a term for where people are seen.

Blade: Are any of these AIDS vaccine trials that are going on taking place in the United States?

Dieffenbach: Yes. So, the study is called Mosaico. And it’s HVTN706. And we have sites throughout the United States as well as South America. But that study is limited to men who have sex with men – the one in the United States.

Blade: Is it broader than just men who have sex with men in other countries?

Dieffenbach: No, so we decided to really focus on specific at-risk populations. So, in the Americas we chose to focus on men who have sex with men and transgender individuals. And sub-Saharan Africa we focused on young women because that is the target of the study population. So, 705 is all women in sub-Saharan Africa. And in the Americas in North and South America it is all men who have sex with men and transgender individuals.

Blade: Can we assume that the researchers that are doing these studies have a sensitivity of LGBTQ people? Is there still an issue where people worry about being outed as being gay or transgender?

Dieffenbach: So, many of the sites that we work with have been part of our system for over 20 years. And so, they are trusted members of the LGBTQ community within their cities and states. And ‘states’ is a literal term where it’s a state in Colombia or Peru or Brazil. And so, it is part of the fabric of the gay community in these places. Just like in San Francisco the San Francisco health clinic and the DCF clinics are part and parcel of everything the community does there.

And so, the lead physician in San Francisco is Susan Buchbinder. She has been a leader in health in this population for over 25 years or actually closer to 30 years at this point. We’re all getting old. Do you know that? So, we have been at this a very long time. And really have tried to build structures that are durable and therefore are reliable to the community. And that’s where we go back to the same groups time after time.

Blade: Have the locations of the vaccine testing sites been released publicly?

Dieffenbach: Yes, all of that is publicly available on clinicaltrials.gov. If you go into clinicaltrials.gov and search HVTN705 or HVTN706 you will get a version of the protocol, all the times it’s been modified, where we are – the protocol. All of that is public knowledge and available to you. HVTN705 is the women’s study. HVTN706 is the men’s study.

Blade: Is there a timeframe for when these latest vaccine studies might be completed?

Dieffenbach: I think within the next several months. We will get an answer out of the women’s study and then the men’s study is probably a year away. We were slowed a little bit because of COVID. We actually had to pause enrollment for several months. But we’re back on track.

Blade: Isn’t there a parallel research effort for an HIV/AIDS cure?

Dieffenbach: Yes, we have a very large program in cure research. It is a lot earlier in the discovery process and so it’s still very ‘researchy.’ And we have a very large program called the Martin Delany Collaboratories for Cure Research. Martin Delany was an activist who really pushed NIH in so many wonderful ways to really take the need for a cure seriously. His argument was a cure is the next logical step after effective anti-retroviral therapy. You cannot stop with one pill once a day. You’ve got to keep going. And he was pretty persistent. And unfortunately, he died several years go and we just thought the best way to honor him, and his memory was to name a program after him.

Editor’s note: Next week, in the second and final installment of his interview with the Blade, Dr. Dieffenbach discusses the progress in research and studies into an HIV/AIDS cure and explains from a scientific standpoint why an HIV vaccine is taking longer to develop than a COVID vaccine.

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Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards vetoes trans youth sports bill

Discrimination is not a Louisiana value, and this bill was a solution in search of a problem that simply does not exist in Louisiana

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Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards (D) (Official state portrait)

Washington Blade: LGBTQ News, Politics,…

BATON ROUGE – Louisiana’s Democratic John Bel Edwards announced Tuesday that he has vetoed a measure that would have barred trans girls and women from participating on athletic teams or in sporting events designated for girls or women at elementary, secondary and postsecondary schools. 

The measure, Senate Bill 156 authored by Sen. Beth Mizell titled the ‘the Fairness in Women’s Sports Act,’ in the Governor’s eyes, “was a solution in search of a problem that simply does not exist in Louisiana,” Edwards said in his veto statement;

“As I have said repeatedly when asked about this bill, discrimination is not a Louisiana value, and this bill was a solution in search of a problem that simply does not exist in Louisiana. Even the author of the bill acknowledged throughout the legislative session that there wasn’t a single case where this was an issue. 

Further, it would make life more difficult for transgender children, who are some of the most vulnerable Louisianans when it comes to issues of mental health. We should be looking for more ways to unite rather than divide our citizens. And while there is no issue to be solved by this bill, it does present real problems in that it makes it more likely that NCAA and professional championships, like the 2022 Final Four, would not happen in our state. For these and for other reasons, I have vetoed the bill.”

The Baton Rouge Advocate newspaper’s State House reporter, Blake Paterson, noted that [the law] would have required athletic teams or sporting events for women at public institutions be composed only of “biological females,” or those who presumably were listed as female on their birth certificates.

The measure won Senate approval 29-6 and cleared the House 78-19. Those margins are wide enough to override a governor’s veto, though it’s unclear whether lawmakers will return to Baton Rouge to do so.


“Governor Edwards deserves enormous credit for urging Louisianans to reject the politics of division and to focus on what brings us together, including a shared concern for vulnerable children. As his veto message rightly notes, transgender youth already face huge challenges,” Shannon Minter, the Legal Director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, (NCLR) told the Blade in an email. “Banning them from school sports would not make any child’s life better or safer, but it would bring discredit and economic hardship to the state, which likely would lose NCAA and professional championships. Governor Edward’s veto message is a model of clarity and compassion. We need more leaders with his courage.”

The ACLU reacted in a tweet saying:

 

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