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Pocan adjusting to life as a member of Congress

Gay Wis. lawmaker seeks pro-LGBT changes in House

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Mark Pocan, United States House of Representatives, Wisconsin, Democratic Party, gay news, Washington Blade
Mark Pocan, United States House of Representatives, Wisconsin, Democratic Party, gay news, Washington Blade

Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) speaks to eighth graders visiting Capitol Hill. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The Capitol Hill office of gay freshman Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) is noticeably bare as one might expect from a lawmaker who began his first term in office just a few months ago.

But on the teal walls, one item stands out: a framed picture of a 1924 campaign flier for Robert LaFollette along with a license plate advertising his bid for U.S. Senate. LaFollette, a Republican, who served in the early 20th century, formed the Wisconsin Progressive Party and is considered a leading voice of the progressive movement.

That flier and license plate are just two pieces of LaFollette memorabilia owned by Pocan, who’s an avid collector of all things related to the Wisconsin senator’s political career.

“I have over half of his known political buttons,” Pocan says. “I also have a little slide movie projector from 1924. You put it in and you have LaFollette reeler and there’s pictures. And their slogan was ‘Fearless and Incorruptible,’ which is kind of a great slogan.”

Speaking with the Washington Blade in his office, Pocan says he and his spouse of six years — Phillip Frank, with whom he operates a small printing company business in Madison — have pledged to donate their LaFollette collection to the Wisconsin Historic Society.

Any why is the Wisconsin congressman so interested in LaFollette? Pocan says the 1920s public figure resonates with him because of his work starting the progressive movement and advancing progressive causes in the state.

“In Wisconsin, we started things like unemployment compensation, so many of these national programs started in the progressive area,” Pocan says. “And he was a strong fighter. At the time, the railroads were a big monopoly, and he fought that. And he just kind of embodies what the progressive movement is about. Even here, he was recognized as a national leader for the work he did.”

In many ways, Pocan is in line with the spirit of LaFollette as a progressive leader. Representing Wisconsin’s 2nd congressional district, one of the more progressive areas in the country, Pocan serves the same constituents that lesbian Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) represented for 14 years before she won election to the upper chamber of Congress.

And as one of the seven openly lesbian, gay and bisexual members of Congress, Pocan personifies — and pursues — one of the most prominent causes that progressive groups have embraced in recent years: the advancement of LGBT equality.

But on this day, other issues are crowding the Wisconsin lawmaker’s schedule. His schedule includes his morning staff meeting, an audience with eighth grade students, a meeting with a legislative representative from the Area Health Education Centers in Wisconsin and lunch with House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). Capping it off is a “Make It in America” news confernece with other members of Congress.

Pocan is able to find time to talk to the Blade about his experience serving in Congress for just more than 100 days. As a chair of the LGBT Equality Caucus, Pocan already has priorities for what he wants to see on LGBT issues for the 113th Congress.

While passage of any such legislation would be challenging as long as Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) is the presiding officer of the U.S. House, Pocan says he sees opportunities in working across the aisle. In particular, he wants to build support for legislation known as the Domestic Partnership Benefits & Obligations Act, which would provide federal workers with health and pension benefits for their same-sex partners.

A federal employee himself, Pocan found that he was unable to obtain federal benefits for his spouse, even though they were legally married in Canada, when he began his tenure in Congress — as was the person who was informing him he’d be ineligible.

“The person who was briefing me on my benefits, she and her partner don’t have benefits,” Pocan said. “So even the benefit designee, the person who’s a professional, she can’t get benefits for her partner. So, it’s a pervasive problem for federal employees. That’s an important bill, and we’ve got bipartisan support and we’re working on that so we can introduce it with strong support from day one.”

A member of the House Committee on Oversight & Government Reform, which would have jurisdiction over the legislation, Pocan says he expects introduction of the legislation next month. Although a Supreme Court ruling against the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits federal recognition of same-sex marriage, may make the legislation unnecessary, Pocan says plans for legislation are underway because there’s no telling how the court will rule.

In the meantime, Pocan is working within the system in Congress for greater equality for he and his spouse. The couple say they’re seeking from the House Sergeant at Arms an administrative change with the help of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). While his spouse was given a congressional pin that identifies him as spouse, Frank’s ID gives him the lesser distinction of designee.

“So he’s not treated equally, even though we’re legally married six-and-a-half years,” Pocan says. “So we’ve been working on that issue, trying to get that to change. For the last three months, we’ve been pushing to try to make them realize that we are legally married. What is their measure to say he’s a designee?”

Another LGBT issue that concerns Pocan is LGBT youth homelessness. That issue hits close to home; Pocan says an LGBT constituency group in Wisconsin informed him that about 400 people in Milwaukee who are homeless are LGBT youth.

Pocan says he intends to highlight an upcoming report from the Department of Housing & Urban Development to bring greater awareness to the issue of LGBT youth homelessness and has brought up the issue with the LGBT Equality Caucus.

“We realized the HUD report is coming this year, so now we’re partnering with some national groups on this, and we’re actually going to have something where we invite other national groups to Congress to talk about that,” Pocan says. “So, we’re just kind of getting that structure together to realize how we can have that magnified voice.”

The Wisconsin lawmaker comes to Congress after having served for 14 years as a member of the Wisconsin State Assembly, and, for a time, as the State Assembly Budget Committee chair, which under his jurisdiction passed a domestic partnership laws for gay couples in the state and allowed state universities to provide benefits for employees with same-sex partners. It was the first state to do so even with a draconian state constitutional amendment on the books barring same-sex marriage and marriage-like unions.

For Pocan, the most glaring difference between serving as a state lawmaker and a member of Congress is the partisanship that pervades Congress. Pocan was particularly disappointed that during freshmen training for new members of Congress, Democrats and Republicans were separated with the exception of one dinner and one reception.

“They kind of taught you bad behavior from day one,” Pocan said, “I’ve always worked on a finance committee for six of my years. I was co-chair there for two years, where I spent eight hours a day, three days a week for three or four months every other year putting a budget together with the other party and actually working on stuff.”

But Pocan has taken it upon himself to get acquainted with fellow lawmakers on the other side. One surprising person with whom he’s formed a friendship: Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), an anti-gay lawmaker who was among the chief voices calling for congressional action against the marriage equality law in D.C.

Part of their friendship is the result of Jordan attending University of Wisconsin, Madison, where he wrestled, and having kids who also attend that school.

“I signed on to his bill to keep wrestling in the Olympics because he cares about wrestling,” Pocan says. “I’m trying to build those relationships because we’ve talked about not only getting together while he’s in Madison, but he also wants to get on this one conservative radio show. I said I can get you on there, she hates me.”

Pocan can’t stay in his office speaking with the Blade long before he’s headed to his next engagement: speaking to eighth-graders from the Eagle School for Gifted Students who are on a field trip visiting Capitol Hill.

For 30 minutes, Pocan talks to the students about his job as a member of Congress and fields questions about the legislative process. Among the questions are continued funding for the U.S. Post Office and environmental issues, but he also receives a question from a student on what he can do to bring marriage equality to Wisconsin.

Pocan responds by saying the effort will be difficult because Wisconsin “put hate” in the constitution by amending it to ban same-sex marriage, but notes the progress made when domestic partnerships were enacted into law.

“It’s not full equality, but at least we were able to do something in Wisconsin,” Pocan says. “So we’ve got some minor protections in place, but I think the big thing we’re all watching is the Supreme Court case that was just heard a couple weeks ago to see what decision they make.”

The Wisconsin lawmaker urged the student to take heart because the country is moving ahead of leaders and pointed to recent polls showing a majority of the American public — and 80 percent of America’s youth — back marriage rights for gay couples.

“This is really I think a civil rights issue of our generation, and I’m hoping we’ll have good resolution with the courts, but more importantly, the public is there, we just have to get our leaders to actually lead,” Pocan said.

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Texas

Texas GOP Governor Greg Abbott signs anti-Trans youth sports bill

“Despite the powerful testimony of trans kids & adults- the emails to the Governor to veto this harmful piece of legislation it is now law”

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Texas Republican Governor Greg Abbott (Blade file screenshot)

AUSTIN – Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law Monday H.B. 25, an anti-Transgender youth sports bill banning Trans K-12 student-athletes from playing on sports teams consistent with their gender identity. 

H.B. 25 is the 9th statewide bill signed into law this year banning transgender youth from participating in school sports and the 10th in the country. This bill also comes during a year when Texas lawmakers have proposed nearly 70 anti-LGBTQ bills, including more than 40 bills that specifically target transgender and nonbinary youth — far more than any other state.

“We are devastated at the passage of this bill. Despite the powerful testimony of trans kids and adults, families and advocates, and the many emails and calls our community placed to the Governor’s office to veto this harmful piece of legislation it is now law,” Ricardo Martinez, CEO of Equality Texas, said.

“Most immediately, our focus is our community and integrating concepts of healing justice to provide advocates who have already been harmed by this bill with spaces to refill their cup and unpack the acute trauma caused by these legislative sessions. Our organizations will also begin to shift focus to electing pro-equality lawmakers who understand our issues and prioritize representing the vast majority of Texans who firmly believe that discrimination against trans and LGB+ people is wrong,” he added.

Earlier this month, the Texas state government was criticized for removing web pages with resources for LGBTQ youth, including information about The Trevor Project’s crisis services. The Trevor Project the world’s largest suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for LGBTQ+ young people.

“Transgender and nonbinary youth are already at higher risk for poor mental health and suicide because of bullying, discrimination, and rejection. This misguided legislation will only make matters worse,” Amit Paley, CEO and Executive Director of The Trevor Project said in a statement released Monday afternoon.

To every trans Texan who may be feeling hurt and attacked by this legislation and months of ugly political debate — please know that you are valid, and you are deserving of equal opportunity, dignity and respect. The Trevor Project is here for you 24/7 if you ever need support, and we will continue fighting alongside a broad coalition of advocates to challenge this law,” Paley said.

********************

Additional resources:

Research consistently demonstrates that transgender and nonbinary youth face unique mental health challenges and an elevated risk for bullying and suicide risk compared to their peers.  

  • The Trevor Project’s 2021 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health found that more than half (52%) of transgender and nonbinary youth seriously considered suicide in the past year, and 1 in 5 attempted suicide. 94% of LGBTQ youth reported that recent politics negatively impacted their mental health. 
  • A newly published research brief on “Bullying and Suicide Risk among LGBTQ Youth,” found that 61% of transgender and nonbinary (TGNB) students reported being bullied either in-person or electronically in the past year, compared to 45% of cisgender LGBQ students. TGNB students who were bullied in the past year reported more than twice the rate of attempting suicide in the past year compared to those who were not. And TGNB students who said their school was LGBTQ-affirming reported significantly lower rates of being bullied (55%) compared to those in schools that weren’t LGBTQ-affirming (65%).
  • A 2020 peer-reviewed study found that transgender and nonbinary youth who report experiencing discrimination based on their gender identity had more than double the odds of attempting suicide in the past year compared to those who did not experience discrimination based on their gender identity.
  • Trevor’s research has also found that a majority of LGBTQ young people (68%) had never participated in sports for a school or community league or club — with many citing fear of bullying and discrimination as a key factor for not participating.

If you or someone you know needs help or support, The Trevor Project’s trained crisis counselors are available 24/7 at 1-866-488-7386, via chat at TheTrevorProject.org/Help, or by texting START to 678678.

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National

Ohio high school cancels play with Gay character after Pastor complains

The School’s fall production of “She Kills Monsters” was scheduled to open in less than one month until the play was canceled

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Hillsboro High School (Screenshot via Cincinnati ABC affiliate WCPO-TV)

HILLSBORO, Oh. — A Southwest Ohio high school’s play was abruptly canceled after Jeff Lyle, a local pastor from Good News Gathering, complained of a gay character. 

Hillsboro High School’s fall production of “She Kills Monsters” was scheduled to open in less than one month, until students learned the play would be canceled last week, reports Cincinnati’s ABC affiliate WCPO

The story follows a high school senior as she learns about her late sister’s life. It is implied throughout the play that her sister is gay, according to the news station.

The play’s cancellation comes a week after Lyle, a long-time voice of the anti-LGBTQ+ religious-right in Ohio, and a group of parents confronted the production’s directors at a meeting, according to Cincinnati CBS affiliate Local 12. Lyle denies pressuring school officials, but tells WCPO he supports the decision.

“From a Biblical worldview this play is inappropriate for a number of reasons, e.g. sexual innuendo, implied sexual activity between unmarried persons, repeated use of foul language including taking the Lord’s name in vain,” Lyle said. 

Some families say they believe Lyle did influence the school’s decision. 

“I think that’s wrong,” Jon Polstra, a father of one of the actors, told WCPO. “All they would have had to do if they objected to something in the play was not go to the play.”

In a statement to Local 12, Hillsboro City Schools Superintendent Tim Davis said the play was canceled because it “was not appropriate for our K-12 audience.”

The Lexington Herald Leader reports that the school planned to perform a version intended for audiences as young as 11 years old. 

Students were “devastated” and “blindsided” by the news, according to WCPO. 

“It felt like we had just been told, ‘Screw off and your lives don’t matter,'” Christopher Cronan, a Hillsboro High student, said. “I am openly bisexual in that school and I have faced a lot of homophobia there, but I never expected them to cancel a play for a fictional character.”

Cronan’s father, Ryan, also voiced his frustration. 

“They want to say the town is just not ready, but how are you not ready? It’s 2021,” Ryan Cronan said.

Students have started a GoFundMe in hopes of putting on the production at a community theater in 2022.

“If we do raise enough money, I am going to be genuinely happy for a very long time, because that means people do care,” Cronan told WCPO.

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Utah

VIDEO: Utah deal promoted as national model for LGBTQ rights, religious liberty

Data finds state has 2nd highest support for LGBTQ rights

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(Screen capture via YouTube)

A new video from the premier LGBTQ group in Utah, challenging the idea LGBTQ rights must be at odds with religious liberty, promotes an agreement reached in the state as a potential model to achieve a long sought-after update to civil rights law at the federal level.

The video, published Friday by Equality Utah, focuses on a 2015 agreement in Utah between the supporters of LGBTQ rights and the Mormon Church to enact a compromise acceptable to both sides. The agreement by those two sides led to an LGBTQ civil rights law in the state, which has Republican control of the state legislature and the governor’s mansion.

Troy Williams, executive director of Equality Utah, says in the video dialogue is key to achieving meaningful success, whether its among the people of Utah, a state legislature or lawmakers in Congress.

“When you are working with LGBT rights in a state like Utah, and you want to advance legal equality, you can’t do it without working with Republicans, with conservative, with people of faith,” Williams says.

Williams, speaking with the Washington Blade over a Zoom call, said the main audience for the video is people on “the center right and the center left” willing to listen to other side when it comes to LGBTQ rights and religious liberty.

“People that have the courage to reach out to each other, and sit down across from each other and say, ‘Hey look, let’s hammer this out,” Williams said. “That’s who my audience is.”

Not only did Utah enact non-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people, but the state under a Republican governor administratively banned widely discredited conversion therapy for youth. When lawmakers proposed legislation that would ban transgender youth from competing in school sports, the proposal was scuttled when Gov. Spencer Cox (whom Williams called a “super Mormon”) said he’d veto it after it came to his desk.

Marina Gomberg, a former board for Equality Utah, is another voice in the video seeking dispel the narrative religious liberty and LGBTQ rights are in conflict.

“in order to protect LGBTQ people, we don have to deny religious liberty, and in order to provide protections for religious liberties, we don’t have to deny LGBTQ people,” Gomberg says. “The idea that we do is a fallacy that Utah has dismantled.”

In July, new polling demonstrated the surprisingly the Utah, despite being a conservative state, has the second highest percentage of state population in support for non-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people. The data Public Religion Research Institute from 77 percent of Utah residents support LGBTQ people, which is just behind New Hampshire at 81 percent.

Tyler Deaton, senior adviser for the pro-LGBTQ American Unity Fund, said the Utah agreement demonstrates the possibility of reaching an agreement at the federal level once “second order” issues are put into perspective.

“The first order question has to be how are we winning the culture,” Deaton said. “Do people even want to pass the bill? And if they do, you then figure out the details.”

The American Unity Fund has helped promote as a path forward for LGBTQ non-discrimination at the federal level the Fairness for For All Act, legislation seeking to reach a middle ground on LGBTQ rights and religious freedom. Polling earlier this year found 57 percent of the American public back a bipartisan solution in Congress to advance LGBTQ civil rights.

Supporters of the Equality Act, the more established vehicle for LGBTQ rights before Congress, say the Fairness for For All Act would give too many carve-out for LGBTQ rights in the name of religious freedom. The Equality Act, however, is all but dead in Congress and has shown no movement in the U.S. Senate.

Skeptics of the Utah law would point out the law doesn’t address public accommodations, one of the more challenging aspects in the fight for LGBTQ rights and one or remaining gaps in civil rights protections for LGBTQ people in the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last year in Bostock v. Clayton County. As a result, it’s perfectly legal in Utah for a business owner to discriminate against LGBTQ coming as patrons.

Williams, however, shrugged off the idea the lack of public accommodations protections in Utah make the agreement in the state makes it any less of a model, making the case the spirit behind the deal is what matters.

“I think copying and pasting Utah’s law doesn’t work for lots of reasons,” Wililams said. “What’s most important is a model of collaboration because when you are sitting around the table with each other — Democrats and Republicans, LGBTQ people and people of faith — that’s when the transformation happens. That is when the mutual respect is really forged.”

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