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Sodomy laws remain on books in 17 states, including Md. and Va.

Trans women, gay men prosecuted under ‘loophole’ in Supreme Court ruling

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Paul Smith, gay news, Washington Blade
Paul Smith, gay news, Washington Blade

Some gay rights attorneys, including Paul Smith, who successfully argued the Lawrence case before the Supreme Court, have expressed concern that prosecutors and lower court judges are misinterpreting language in the Lawrence decision. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Laws that make it a crime for consenting adults to engage in sodomy remain on the books in 17 states and continue to be enforced in several of those states 10 years after the U.S. Supreme Court declared such laws unconstitutional.

Last week, the Montana Legislature gave final approval of a bill to repeal that state’s sodomy law. (A spokesperson for the state’s Democratic governor, Steve Bullock, said Bullock was scheduled to sign the bill on Thursday, which would lower the number of states with sodomy laws from 18 to 17.)

According to LGBT activists and gay rights attorneys, most of the cases in which police and prosecutors enforce sodomy or “crime against nature” statutes involve marginalized groups such as transgender sex workers or gay men arrested by undercover police officers for engaging in or soliciting sex in parks or other public places.

But the author of a comprehensive report on the continued enforcement of state sodomy laws released in 2011 by the national LGBT advocacy group Equality Matters said many of the cases involve arrests of men who merely seek to invite another willing male partner to their home for a sexual encounter where prostitution is not involved.

Equality Matters researcher Carlos Maza, author of the report “State Sodomy Laws Continue to Target LGBT Americans,” told the Blade that although sodomy laws apply to straights as well as LGBT people in all but four of the states that have them, LGBT people are targeted far more often than straights.

“LGBT people in Michigan continue to be charged with crimes for public speech, in which they let another person know they are interested in private, unpaid sex with another adult,” the report quotes Michigan gay rights attorney Rudy Serra as saying in the Michigan publication Pride Source.

“Bag-A-Fag (undercover decoy cop) operations, where police officers pretend to be gay men cruising for unpaid, consensual sex continue in Michigan,” the report quotes Serra as saying. “LGBT people are still at risk of spending 15 years in state prison for acts that are perfectly legal in most other states.”

Serra told the Blade in an interview that someone convicted under Michigan’s sodomy law, called the Abominable and Detestable Crime Against Nature statute, and a separate “Gross Indecency” law, also must register with the state as sex offenders.

He said despite the fact that the Lawrence v. Texas decision renders these laws unconstitutional, the Michigan State Bar, which every lawyer is required to join, has retained written instructions about how juries should deliberate over cases in which a person is charged and brought to trial under the sodomy and Gross Indecency laws.

Gary Buseck, legal director of the New England-based litigation group Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, said he is not aware of any cases in which the Massachusetts sodomy law has been enforced against people for private, consensual, non-commercial sex since the 2003 Lawrence decision.

But he said the Massachusetts law continues to be used, although rarely, by police against gays in cases of “public” sex.

“We have always understood that in straight ‘lovers’ lanes,’ the police traditionally just shoo couples away and that’s that,” he told the Blade. “With gay men there has traditionally been the ebb and flow of sting efforts or entrapment efforts or enhanced enforcement efforts at what become identified as gay cruising areas.”

Buseck added, “Occasionally, men will still be charged with a felony sodomy [in Massachusetts]. But we have not been aware in recent years of any district attorneys who will go forward with such a case.”

In at least one case in North Carolina in 2008, police arrested two gay men under that state’s sodomy statute for allegedly engaging in consenting sex in the privacy of one of their homes. The case outraged gay activists in the state, who noted it was similar to the Lawrence v. Texas case in which the Supreme Court supposedly overturned state sodomy laws.

A prosecutor eventually dropped the charges against the men after determining that the arrest by officers of the Raleigh Police Department violated the Lawrence v. Texas ruling.

The Raleigh News and Observer and other news media outlets reported that police got involved in the case after the men became involved in an incident of domestic violence and one of them called police.

In the course of a police investigation, one of the men said the other sexually assaulted him, according to media accounts. But a police official told media outlets the incident appeared to be “a case of a consensual act that may have gotten out of hand.”  Instead of charging one of the men with sexual assault, police charged both men with violating the sodomy statute.

The News and Observer reported at the time that the man who claimed he was sexually assaulted said he was grateful that the sodomy charge was dropped but said he had been humiliated over being accused of a crime listed as a Class 1 felony — sodomy — punishable by up to two years in prison.

“The reality is the process of being arrested for these laws is extremely damaging to the people who get caught up in the system,” Maza told the Blade. “And the only real solution is to have those laws taken off the books.”

Added Maza, “Unfortunately a lot of people don’t have the motivation to get that done when things like marriage and employment discrimination are being discussed in state legislatures.”

Maza and gay rights attorneys familiar with Maryland said they were not aware of Maryland’s sodomy law being enforced since the late 1990s. [See separate Blade story on Maryland’s sodomy law.]

The Virginia sodomy law, which also remains on the books, has been enforced against gays and straights charged with offenses related to public sex or sex with minors, attorneys familiar with the Virginia Crimes Against Nature law have said. A federal appeals court ruled last month that the Virginia statute was “facially” or completely unconstitutional and could no longer be enforced under any circumstances.

The Equality Matters report notes, however, that police and prosecutors in some states, including Michigan and Texas, have continued to enforce sodomy laws despite the fact that state courts have joined the U.S. Supreme Court in invalidating those laws.

“Even in states where these statutes are never enforced, anti-LGBT animosity is fanned by government recognition that LGBT people are viewed as criminals in the eyes of the law,” Maza states in the Equality Matters report. “This animosity helps create the conditions for anti-LGBT hate crimes as well as disproportionate rates of suicide among non-heterosexual youth,” the report says.

Lawrence loophole?

Some gay rights attorneys, including Washington, D.C. attorney Paul Smith, who successfully argued the Lawrence case before the Supreme Court, have expressed concern that prosecutors and lower court judges are misinterpreting language in the Lawrence decision.

According to these attorneys, certain prosecutors and judges are claiming a passage in the Lawrence decision penned by Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion in the case, provides a broad loophole that gives them authority to continue enforcing their state sodomy laws in cases involving public sex, sex with minors, or prostitution-related sex.

The passage in question states, “The present case does not involve minors. It does not involve persons who might be injured or coerced or who are situated in relationships where consent might not easily be refused. It does not involve public conduct or prostitution. It does not involve whether the government must give formal recognition to any relationship that homosexual persons seek to enter. The case does involve two adults who, with full and mutual consent from each other, engaged in sexual practices common to a homosexual lifestyle.”

Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who defended Virginia’s sodomy law against a court challenge this year, has cited the so-called loophole in his arguments urging the Fourth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Richmond to uphold the statute. The court instead declared the law unconstitutional based on the Lawrence decision and refused Cuccinelli’s request that the full 15-judge court reconsider the decision handed down by a three-judge panel.

Cuccinelli has yet to disclose whether he plans to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to consider the case as a final appeal.

Gay rights attorneys say that Kennedy’s passage appearing to limit the scope of the Lawrence decision to non-commercial, consenting sex among adults in private appears reasonable on its face. Smith, for example, told the Blade he and the other attorneys who helped him prepare the Lawrence case before the high court did not call for a ruling that went beyond invalidating state sodomy laws for private, consenting, non-commercial sex between adults.

But gay rights attorneys say they do not think Justice Kennedy and the justices who ruled with him intended that gays be singled out for harsher treatment than straights for identical infractions through the enforcement of state sodomy laws.

In the Equality Matters report, Maza points out that prosecutors in some states, especially Louisiana, have used sodomy laws to push for harsher penalties against LGBT suspects using sodomy laws than they would for heterosexual suspects accused of engaging in the exact same behavior, such as prostitution or public sex.

In Louisiana, the report says, people accused of engaging in prostitution could be charged either under the state’s anti-prostitution law or under the solicitation provision of the Louisiana “Crime Against Nature” law, which criminalizes oral and anal sex.

The Crime Against Nature statute carries a longer prison term than the prostitution law, the report says, and unlike the prostitution statute, people convicted under the Crime Against Nature law must register as sex offenders, even if the sex is between consenting adults.

Activists say some of Louisiana’s transgender women and young gay men who have been rejected by their families for being gay or transgender engage in prostitution as a means of survival. Activists say members of these two groups have been among those most frequently charged under the Crime Against Nature law in Louisiana.

The Center for Constitutional Rights, which has provided legal assistance to people charged under Louisiana’s crime against nature law, has criticized law enforcement officials for seeking to enforce the law up until last year, when a state court ruled it could no longer be enforced based on the Lawrence decision.

“[T]he only reason our clients are registered sex offenders is that they were convicted under the provisions of a 200-year-old statute that condemns non-procreative sex acts and sex acts traditionally associated with homosexuality, solely on grounds of moral disapproval,” the group said in a statement.

The Equality Matters report says one of the most dramatic examples of how a state sodomy law can inflict a harsher penalty on LGBT people surfaced in Kansas in 2004. In a case known as State v. Limon, a Kansas state appellate court cited the so-called Lawrence loophole or “exemption” for minors in a ruling upholding a trial court conviction of an 18-year-old male charged with engaging in consensual oral sex with a 14-year-old boy. Both had been living in the same residential school facility for mentally challenged youth.

If the 14-year-old had been a girl rather than a boy, the 18-year-old would have been charged under a Kansas “Romeo & Juliet” law. That law calls for a young adult charged with having sex with a minor whose age is within four years of the young adult to receive a far more lenient sentence under the state’s statutory rape law if the sex is consensual. The 18-year-old, who was charged and convicted under the Kansas criminal sodomy law, was sentenced to 17 years in prison.

His conviction was later overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court on grounds that the Kansas sodomy law was unconstitutional based on the Lawrence decision.

“The reality is that, in many states, enforcement occurs sporadically, typically at the discretion of particular police officers,” said Maza in discussing the rationale for enforcing sodomy laws.

“Even though the laws are clearly unconstitutional, their existence in the legal code gives officers the cover they need to arrest and prosecute gay people,” he said. “Sometimes officers simply choose to ignore Lawrence altogether in an attempt to enforce state sodomy laws as if the decision never occurred.”

Although the majority of sodomy cases are eventually dismissed, Maza said, the fact that people are still charged under the laws, and few people until recently were aware of this taking place, demonstrates that LGBT organizations should take a far more aggressive approach in addressing the issue.

“Only fully repealing these measures ensures that LGBT Americans will be protected from arbitrary and discriminatory legal treatment,” Maza said.

Following is a list of the states that had sodomy laws on the books as of early this week.

Montana’s governor was expected to sign a bill this week to repeal that state’s sodomy law, making Montana the first state to repeal its sodomy statute through legislation in many years.

An asterisk indicates the state sodomy law only applies to gay sex.

  • Alabama
  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • Idaho
  • Kansas*
  • Louisiana
  • Maryland
  • Massachusetts
  • Michigan
  • Minnesota
  • Mississippi
  • Montana*
  • North Carolina
  • Oklahoma*
  • South Carolina
  • Texas*
  • Utah
  • Virginia
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U.S. Supreme Court

Supreme Court hears oral arguments in 303 Creative case

Dangerous implications for LGBTQ consumers

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U.S. Supreme Court (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday heard oral arguments in 303 Creative v. Elenis, a case that could carry broad implications for whether and in which circumstances states may enforce certain nondiscrimination rules against purveyors of goods and services.

The case was brought by website designer Lorie Smith, who sought to include a disclaimer that her company 303 Creative would not develop wedding announcement websites for LGBTQ couples, but discovered that such a notice would violate Colorado’s anti-discrimination laws, which include sexual orientation as a protected class.

Her lawsuit against the state of Colorado, argued by counsel from the anti-LGBTQ group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), reaches the Supreme Court following the ruling against Smith from the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, which created a circuit split with decisions from the 8th Circuit and Arizona Supreme Court. A ruling is expected to come in June.

The fact pattern in 303 Creative closely mirrors the 2018 case Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, where the Supreme Court declined to rule on the broader legal questions because it found the Commission exhibited hostility toward the religious views of the bakery that refused to design a custom wedding cake for a same-sex couple.

The high court has since moved substantially to the right, with a 6-3 conservative supermajority. Colorado is one of 20 states that enforces laws prohibiting businesses from discrimination based on sexual orientation, and a ruling that would allow for broadly construed exemptions to be carved out for firms based on their First Amendment protections would carry implications well beyond the context of same-sex marriage.

Monday’s oral arguments focused on preexisting and hypothetical cases that were presented by counsel from both parties as well as by the justices, examples whose scope and fact patterns reinforced the breadth of the legal issues at play in 303 Creative.  

Colorado Solicitor General Eric Olson and U.S. Principal Deputy Solicitor General Brian Fletcher pointed to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Rumsfeld v. Forum for Academic and Institutional Rights, 2006, which found that the federal government may withhold funding from universities that, based on their objections to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” refuse to grant military recruiters access to their resources.

ADF CEO, President and General Counsel Kristen Waggoner cited the Supreme Court’s decision in Hurley v. Irish American Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Group of Boston, 1995, which upheld the right of private organizations to exclude participation by certain groups without interference by the state, even if that intervention by the government was for the purpose of preventing discrimination.

Much of the discussion during Monday’s oral arguments centered on what kinds of goods and services may be considered public accommodations and which constitute artistic speech or expression by the business provider. Also at issue were questions such as whether their refusal to accommodate certain events – i.e., same-sex weddings – are tantamount to refusing goods and services to members of a protected class of people under the state’s non-discrimination laws.

LGBTQ rights groups fear the implications of a ruling in favor of 303 Creative  

ADF is designated an anti-LGBTQ extremist group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. An amicus brief was filed in support of the government by the corporate law firm White & Case along with a coalition of LGBTQ rights groups and legal advocacy groups: the National LGBTQ Task Force, GLAD, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, Lambda Legal, and the Human Rights Campaign.

“Just two weeks after a shooter killed 5 people, injured 18, and traumatized so many others at Club Q in Colorado Springs, the United States Supreme Court prepares to hear oral arguments in an anti-LGBTQ public accommodations discrimination case from Colorado,” wrote the National LGBTQ Task Force in a statement addressing Monday’s oral arguments.

Liz Seaton, the group’s policy director, highlighted the importance of public accommodations laws and condemned efforts by the opposition to legalize discrimination and segregation in the marketplace. “The brief’s most important argument lifts up the powerful amicus briefs of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law,” Seaton said. “Those two briefs by venerable civil rights organizations provide a detailed history of public accommodations discrimination against Black and Brown people in this country.”

HRC’s statement on Monday touched on similar themes:

“Granting the unprecedented ‘free speech exemption’ sought by petitioners in 303 Creative v. Elenis would be a dangerous change to long standing constitutional and civil rights law. It would inevitably lead to increased discrimination not only related to LGBTQ+ people or weddings, but also for other vulnerable populations including women, people with disabilities, and people of minority faiths. It’s crucial that justices of the Supreme Court reject discrimination and affirm the equal dignity of every American.”

Likewise, the Congressional LGBTQ+ Equality Caucus released a statement exploring the broad implications that could result from the Court’s ruling on 303 Creative:

“…the Supreme Court could issue a broad ruling that not only implicates nondiscrimination laws’ applications to graphic designers but to a wide range of businesses providing goods and services that have an artistic component. A broad ruling for the graphic designer could not only provide a constitutional basis for discriminating against same-sex couples, but also for discriminating against all marginalized people currently protected by public accommodations nondiscrimination laws.”

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Congress

Jim Kolbe dies at 80

Former Ariz. congressman first openly gay Republican House member

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Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.) speaks at a press conference on Feb. 28, 2013 for the filing of an amicus brief supporting the overturning of the Defense of Marriage Act. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Former Republican Congressman James (Jim) Thomas Kolbe, who represented Southern Arizona in Congress for 22 years, died Saturday of a stroke at the age of 80 his husband Hector Alfonso confirmed to Arizona media outlets.

“He belongs to so many people,” his husband said through tears on Saturday. “He gave his life for this city. He loved Tucson, he loved Arizona.”

Republican Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey ordered flags at all state buildings be lowered to half-staff until sunset Sunday in honor of the former congressman. In a series of tweets the Arizona governor lauded Kolbe’s record of public service.

Kolbe was the first openly serving gay Republican in the U.S. House of Representatives having served from 1985 to 2007.  During his 22-year tenure he served as chair of the Subcommittee on Foreign Operations, Export Financing and Related Programs of the House Appropriations Committee.

Former congressman Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.) (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

In 1996, Kolbe held a press conference and outed himself after his vote for the Defense of Marriage Act. This, according to political journalist Jake Tapper, was owed to the fact that Kolbe was under the impression he was about to be outed by a gay publication.

Addressing a gathering of Log Cabin Republicans and other gay Republicans in 1997, he said he didn’t want to be a poster child for the gay movement.

“Being gay was not — and is not today — my defining persona,” Kolbe said during his first speech as an openly gay GOP lawmaker. He also sat on the national advisory board of the Log Cabin Republicans.

In 2013, however, Kolbe was a signatory to an amicus brief in support of overturning California’s Proposition 8.

In a private ceremony in 2013, after being together for eight years, Kolbe and Alfonso were married.

Alfonso, a Panamanian native who came to the U.S. on a Fulbright scholarship to pursue studies in special education, had been a teacher for two decades. The couple’s nuptials were held at a private event at the Cosmos Club on Massachusetts Avenue.

“Two decades ago, I could not have imagined such an event as this would be possible,” Kolbe told the Washington Blade in an interview in May 2013. “A decade ago I could not imagine that I would find someone I could be so compatible with that I would want to spend the rest of my life with that person. So, this is a very joyous day for both of us.”

The couple had to endure a year-long separation when Alfonso returned to Panama while immigration issues were being sorted out, although he was granted U.S. residency, also known as a green card.

Kolbe also battled his friend and fellow Republican, U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who opposed the repeal of the Clinton-era “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, which barred military service by gay and lesbian Americans. He repeatedly co-sponsored a bill to scrap the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy at odds with others in his party over the issue.

After he left Congress he continued to be active in Republican politics in 2012 endorsing former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in his race for the presidency against then incumbent President Barack Obama.

In an interview with the Blade at the time, Kolbe responded to the anti-gay language in the draft version of the Republican Party platform. In addition to endorsing a Federal Marriage Amendment, the platform criticized the Obama administration for dropping defense of DOMA in court and judges for “re-defining marriage” in favor of gay couples.

Kolbe predicted the 2012 Republican platform will be the last one to include such language.

“That’ll be the last time that will be in the Republican Party platform,” Kolbe said. “It won’t be there four years from now. It’s got its last gasp. I don’t believe it’ll be there four years from now; I wish it weren’t there now, but I don’t believe it will be four years from now.”

The issue over the rights of same-sex couples to marry ended with Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U.S. 644, the landmark civil rights case in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the fundamental right to marry is guaranteed to same-sex couples by both the Due Process Clause and the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution.

Just this week prior to his death, the Respect for Marriage Act passed the Senate by a vote of 61-36.

That legislation requires the federal government to recognize a marriage between two individuals if the marriage was valid in the state where it was performed and guarantee that valid marriages between two individuals are given full faith and credit, regardless of the couple’s sex, race, ethnicity or national origin. It is expected to pass the House again this week after which it heads to President Joe Biden for his signature.

Early in his career, Kolbe in 1976 ran for a seat in the Arizona Senate in the Tucson-Pima County district and defeated a one-term Democrat. In mid-1982, he resigned from the state Senate to run in the newly created Arizona’s 5th U.S. congressional district, but lost to Democrat Jim McNulty.

He ran again in 1984 winning the seat that he went to hold for over two decades.

According to his biography Kolbe was born in Evanston, Ill., a suburb of Chicago, but when he was five, his family moved to a ranch in rural Santa Cruz County, Arizona. It was there he attended Patagonia Elementary School and Patagonia Union High School, but graduated from the U.S. Capitol Page School in 1960 after serving for three years as a Senate Page for Arizona Republican U.S. Sen. Barry Goldwater.

He matriculated first at Northwestern University and then at Stanford University earning a master’s degree in economics. During the Vietnam era from 1965 to 1969, he served in the U.S. Navy, including a tour in Vietnam as a member of the Navy’s “Swift Boat” force. 

After military service Kolbe served as a special assistant to Republican Illinois Gov. Richard B. Ogilvie. He then moved back to Arizona settling in Tucson where he worked in business.

Accolades for the former congressman included many from Arizona political and business fields of endeavor.

“Pima County and southern Arizona could always count on Jim Kolbe,” Pima County Board of Supervisors Chair Sharon Bronson said in a statement.

Matt Gress, who was recently elected to the Arizona Legislature, called Kolbe a political pioneer.

“Today, because of Jim Kolbe, being a member of the LGBT community and serving in elected office has become irrelevant,” he said in a statement.

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District of Columbia

HHS secretary discusses federal overdose prevention efforts at Whitman-Walker

Officials held round table with clients, ‘community stakeholders’

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U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra (Public domain photo)

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra and four other high level federal health officials held a roundtable community meeting followed by a press conference at D.C.’s Whitman-Walker Health headquarters on Friday to discuss what they said were “groundbreaking” efforts to address and end the nation’s epidemic of deaths from the overdose of opioid drugs.

A statement released by HHS says Becerra and the other officials, including Dr. Rahul Gupta, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, reached out to Whitman-Walker, which, among other things, operates one of the D.C. metro area’s preeminent substance abuse treatment programs, to commemorate the one-year anniversary HHS’s Overdoes Prevention Strategy program.

“Now, one year after the release of this strategy, our nation is in a much stronger position to treat addiction and save lives,” Becerra said. “We didn’t get here by accident. Thanks to decades of work by advocates, coupled with an unparalleled people-first strategy and unprecedented investment by the Biden-Harris administration, we have made a great deal of progress,” he said.

The officials, including Gupta, pointed out that the Overdose Prevention Strategy over the past year and an updated effort launched this month have focused on greatly expanding availability of the drug overdose antidote medication naloxone.

“Deaths caused by opioids like illicit fentanyl are preventable with naloxone, and today’s announcement means more life-saving naloxone will be in communities across the country,” Gupta said. “The latest data continue to show a hopeful trend of a decreases in overdose deaths, so we must remain focused on fully implementing President Biden’s National Drug Control Strategy that will save tens of thousands of lives by expanding care for substance use disorder, making naloxone more accessible, and dismantling drug trafficking operations,” he said. 

In addition to Gupta from the White House, Becerra was joined at the community meeting and press conference by Dr. Miriam Delphin-Rittmon, assistant secretary for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), which is an arm of HHS; Dr. Debra Houry, acting principal deputy director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Dr. Robert Califf, commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. 

Also participating in the roundtable session and press conference was U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), the nation’s first out lesbian member of the Senate. 

Becerra said he invited Baldwin to participant in the day’s events, among other things, because of her record of advocacy and support for funding of federal substance abuse and overdose prevention programs. 

“One area I’ve championed in Congress is increasing access to overdose reversal medication like naloxone,” Baldwin said. “We know that when you increase access to this safe and effective treatment that you save lives,” she said. “And I’m thrilled to see the Biden administration and especially the Food and Drug Administration taking steps to increase access to naloxone.”

Califf told the gathering one of the FDA’s recently launched efforts is to work with drug manufacturers to arrange for naloxone to become an over-the-counter drug that would further expand its availability. 

From left, HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra, Dr. Rahul Gupta, Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Dr. Robert Calif (at podium) and Dr. Miriam Delphin-Rittmon at Whitman-Walker Health in D.C. on Dec. 2, 2022. (Washington Blade photo by Lou Chibbaro, Jr.)

The roundtable discussion session, which included close to 50 participants, including Becerra and the other federal officials, was closed to the press, according to an HHS spokesperson, because among those participating were Whitman-Walker clients and others who receive services and support for what the officials called substance use disorder.

During the press conference that followed, Becerra spoke of how some of those participating in the roundtable discussion were part of Whitman-Walker’s success stories in helping people overcome substance use problems 

“We’re here because a year ago we decided to go in a different direction at the federal level,” he said at the press conference. “We decided that we’re not moving fast enough, we’re not moving close enough to where we need to be to try to help communities and those folks at Whitman-Walker who are trying to not just get folks into treatment but to save lives,” Becerra said. 

“And that was the great thing about the round table that we just had,” he said. “We heard about how people thrive,” he said, adding, “And one of the clients, Deborah, spoke about how she’s on the verge of getting her degree from college … That’s what we want to see … I want to thank the folks at Whitman-Walker for letting us come today to see how people can thrive and be part of that success.”

Whitman-Walker Health CEO Naseema Shafi told the Washington Blade after the press conference that Whitman-Walker has a long history of partnering with federal government agencies in addressing health issues, including Whitman-Walker’s role as a healthcare facility welcoming the LGBTQ community. 

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