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Gay couples lobby Congress on immigration reform

‘We live in a very uncertain and scary place’

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Immigration Equality, United States Senate, gay news, Washington Blade
Shirley Tan, Jay Mercado, gay news, Washington Blade, immigration equality

Shirley Tan, Jay Mercado and children Jorienne and Jashley Mercado. (Washington Blade photo by Blake Bergen)

For Shirley Tan and Jay Mercado, the debate on comprehensive immigration reform in Congress is a make-or-break moment that will determine whether their family can remain together in the United States.

The California couple, among the estimated 36,000 bi-national same-sex couples living in the United States, paid a visit to Capitol Hill on Wednesday along with other couples for a lobby day bearing a singular message: include the Uniting American Families Act as part of larger immigration reform.

Tan, a 47-year-old Philippines native who was denied asylum in 2009 and has since been threatened with deportation, said the inclusion of UAFA would be incredibly meaningful for her San Francisco-based family — as well as for other bi-national couples.

“My partner Jay, for 27 years, is faced with the problem of whether she has to quit her job and take everybody back to the Philippines,” Tan said. “She has an ailing mother who is on dialysis treatment right now, and I’m the one taking care of her, so don’t know if we have to put her in the home, and what about the kids? The Philippines is a foreign country to them.”

About 50 gay, bi-national couples from 26 states came to Capitol Hill on Wednesday as part of a lobby day effort organized by the LGBT group Immigration Equality.

Rachel Tiven, executive director of Immigration Equality, called the lobbying by the couples “really a huge asset” in ensuring protections for same-sex couples are included as part of immigration reform.

“These families today are here to look their members of Congress [in the eye], especially look their senators in the eye, one more time and tell them how much this matters to LGBT families,” Tiven said. “Everyone here knows that they’re representing not only themselves, not only their state, but they’re representing all the LGBT immigrants around the country, and around the world, that are waiting for change.”

Bi-national same-sex couples, where one individual is a foreign national and another is a U.S. citizen, are threatened with separation under current immigration code once the foreign national in the relationship falls out of legal status.

Straight Americans can sponsor their partners for residency in the United States, but that option isn’t available to gay Americans because of the Defense of Marriage Act and because they can’t marry in many places within the country. UAFA would enable gay Americans to sponsor their foreign partners for residency.

The moment for these bi-national same-sex couples will come soon. LGBT advocates are expecting an amendment along the lines of UAFA, which would enable gay Americans to sponsor their partners for residency in the United States, to come up when the Senate Judiciary Committee votes on the comprehensive immigration reform bill that was produced by the “Gang of Eight.”

On Wednesday, the couples met with a variety of lawmakers from across the country. On the agenda for Tan and Mercada was a meeting with staffers for Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). A member of the committee, Feinstein has yet to make a public statement on whether she’ll support UAFA as part of immigration reform.

Mercado, 52, said the meeting went well, but the staffer for the California senator wouldn’t make promises about how she’d vote if a UAFA amendment came before the committee.

“She doesn’t know the exact answer from the senator, but she’s positive that she will be doing the right thing,” Tan said. “They saw a lot of the families that are affected, and most of the families that are affected by, the most bi-national couples, are in California. They say it’s about 10,000 couples in California alone.”

Feinstein’s office is staying quiet about whether she will support UAFA. Asked by the Washington Blade whether she’ll vote in favor of the legislation as an amendment to comprehensive immigration reform, Brian Weiss, a Feinstein spokesperson, said on Wednesday, “Sen. Feinstein is taking a look at the legislation. No announcement at this time.”

The California senator’s silence on UAFA is striking because the former San Francisco mayor is known for being a strong supporter for LGBT rights. She’s been the lead sponsor of legislation aimed at repealing the Defense of Marriage Act. Feinstein has also introduced a “private bill” limited to Tan and Mercado to keep them together in the United States.

The couple also met with Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), another UAFA co-sponsor, who gave her personal assurances that she’d vote in favor of a UAFA amendment as part of immigration reform once the legislation comes over to the House.

Tan and Mercado have made their case on Capitol Hill before. In 2009, Tan testified before the Senate on the importance of passing UAFA. Her testimony at the time, in which she recalled her arrest in 2009 when immigration officials took her from her home, was considered moving. It inspired tears from her children, to whom Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said their mother was a brave woman.

Jorienne and Jashley Mercado — now 16 — accompanied their parents for the lobby day on Capitol Hill to help make the case for UAFA and had an audience with Leahy himself, the sponsor of UAFA in the Senate, four years after that hearing.

“We thanked him for supporting our families and being a champion for our families, that he’s helping out all of us,” Jashley said. “He said, ‘I’m glad that I’m helping you guys because you guys are really an inspiration.'”

Jorienne said passage of UAFA as part of immigration reform would offer his family assurances that his mother would be able to stay in the country without fear of deportation.

“It would mean a tremendous amount to our family because our mom is such an integral part of our family,” Jorienne said. “If we don’t have her here with us, then we’re not a family.”

Despite words from supporters like Leahy, it’s not clear UAFA will ultimately be included in immigration reform. The Associated Press reported earlier this week that Democrats are “treading carefully” because they’re wary of adding another issue to immigration reform that has already been attacked by conservatives like Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.).

Still, Tiven maintained inclusion of same-sex couples in the larger vehicle would motivate the LGBT community to act.

“The LGBT community is a tremendous asset to pushing comprehensive immigration reform forward to the finish line,” Tiven said. “The LGBT community has proven over and over again — at the state level, at the federal level — we know how to get things done. We know how to pass legislation and we are bringing our power to LGBT-inclusive immigration reform.”

‘We still live in a very uncertain and scary place’

Also among the couples on Capitol Hill was Sam Conlon and Gary Wanderlingh, who reside in New Fairfield, Conn. Wanderlingh is seeking the opportunity to sponsor Conlon, a British national, for residency in the United States. Married in Connecticut in 2011, the couple has twice filed spousal petitions that were both denied on March 29.

While relocating to the United Kingdom is an option for the couple, Wanderlingh, 43, said he doesn’t want to leave New Fairfield because he’s taught in the same school district for 18 years. He’d lose his pension and would have to renew his teacher certification if he moved overseas.

“The most compelling thing is my elderly mother, where unfortunately my father passed away on what would have been our wedding day, our scheduled wedding day,” Wanderlingh said. “I made a promise to him that I would take care of mom, though now I’m being faced with the choice of breaking the promise that I made to Sam to be together for the rest of our lives.”

Upon their visit to Capitol Hill, the couple visited the office of Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who’s already a UAFA co-sponsor. Conlon said they also spoke with staffers for Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.), and while they were supportive, received no commitments. Neither Murphy’s office nor Larson responded to the Blade’s request for comment on UAFA.

Conlon, 36, said he’s glad there’s an opportunity to have immigration reform passed that would help his family.

“We’re glad to see that there is a buzz around this,” Conlon said. “It’s very encouraging to see the winds changing in our direction in the last few months. But there’s never any guarantees, until it’s passed, until we know we have rights, we still live in a very uncertain and scary place.”

There could be another option for bi-national same-sex couples who are married. If the U.S. Supreme Court issues a ruling that strikes down Section 3 of DOMA, gay Americans could begin sponsoring their same-sex spouses for residency within the country. However, it’s not certain the court will strike down DOMA and other issues could arise in which UAFA would be needed.

Ben Story, Brandon Perlberg, gay news, Washington Blade, immigration equality

Ben Story and Brandon Perlberg (Washington Blade photo by Blake Bergen)

Brandon Perlberg, 35, and Benn Storey, 31, who are living in exile in London after Perlberg, a U.S. citizen, had lived in New York City for 15 years and Storey, a British national, lived there for seven years. Although they aren’t married, they’re engaged and planning a London wedding.

Perlberg, an attorney, explained he chose to live in exile with Storey, who couldn’t remain in the United States after his work visa expired and he couldn’t get a green card through his employer.

“Because I can’t sponsor him for a green card, it became clear that Benn was going to have to move to the U.K., and that meant that I had to make a decision over whether I was to live my life in the country, or move to England with the person that I love,” Perlberg said. “I chose the latter. We moved to the U.K. in 2012. UAFA is the bridge; UAFA is the instrument that gives us the ability to return to the United States.”

The couple met with staffers for lawmakers from New York — Reps. Hakeen Jeffries (D) and Carolyn Maloney (D) — and had plans to meet with staffers for Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who co-sponsor UAFA.

“When you meet with a staffer, they can’t give you a firm position,” Perlberg said. “But I think that the meetings were generally positive. People seemed to understand our position, and as well, they seem to get that it’s not just about the couple, it’s about the couple’s family, it’s about the couple’s employers, it’s about the people that the couple relates to.”

Not every individual lobbied members of Congress with their significant other. Michael Upton, a gay 49-year-old South Hero, Vt., resident, came to Capitol Hill by himself because his partner of more than five years, a Brazilian national, is unable to come into the United States.

“It’s awful,” Upton said. “We’ve never been able to be together. He’s never met my family. My dad actually recently passed away. We petitioned for humanitarian parole so he could be there in Vermont, so we would have to choose. It was denied. I was in Brazil when my father died, so I couldn’t be with my family.”

Because the two live apart in different countries, Upton said he had to give up his job at the Veteran’s Administration caring for troops coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan to become a federal contractor so he could he have more flexibility to travel to see his partner.

Upton said he met on Capitol Hill with Leahy, and said the senator told him he’d do everything he could to ensure immigration reform is amended to include UAFA. Upton said he also met with staffers for gay Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) and Rep. Bill Owens (D-N.Y.), who also expressed support.

For Upton, passage of UAFA as part of immigration reform is the last hope for him and his partner to stay together in the United States. While he’s hopeful, he also realizes there’s no guarantee.

“This is the difference between whether or not we can continue,” said Upton as his eyes welled with tears. “I’m hopeful, but I’ve been hopeful about a number of opportunities for John to come and they’ve fallen flat. My state has the champion for this issue, and I think he’s completely committed, and he’s one of the most powerful men in the Senate, so if anybody can do it, he can.”

Immigration Equality, United States Senate, gay news, Washington Blade

Bi-national same-sex couples lobby Congress to include UAFA as part of immigration reform. (Washington Blade photo by Blake Bergen)

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly attributed quotes to Sam Conlon and Gary Wanderlingh. Additionally, the article incorrectly suggested UAFA could be an alternative for gay Americans to sponsor their foreign partners for residency in the United States after DOMA is struck down if their relationship isn’t a legal marriage. However, UAFA won’t be operative for these couples after DOMA is gone because Section 2, Part D of UAFA states the law doesn’t apply to couples who are able to enter into “a marriage cognizable under the Act,” which would be all bi-national couples in a post-DOMA world. The Blade regrets the errors.

Lavi Soloway, a gay immigration attorney and co-founder of The DOMA Project, explained further the situation for bi-national couples in a post-DOMA world.

“After Section 3 of DOMA is struck down, many unmarried lesbian and gay binational couples will marry in the states or countries where marriage is legal for same-sex couples,” Soloway said. “Those couples already living in ‘marriage equality’ states will be able to marry where they live, while other couples will travel out of state to marry as gay and lesbian couples do every day in this country. Thousands of bi-national couples who are separated or exiled abroad and who are not married, may be eligible to petition for fiance visas so that the foreign partner can come to the United States to marry and to apply for a green card based on that marriage. Because immigration law is so complicated and so much is at stake in these cases, all binational couples are strongly advised not to take any action after the Supreme Court rules on DOMA without first seeking legal counsel. “

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Federal Government

Attorney details the harms of waiving anti-discrimination rules for religious universities

Incentives aligned for continuation of anti-LGBTQ discrimination

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The Lyndon Baines Johnson Building, Washington D.C., headquarters of the U.S. Department of Education (Photo Credit: GSA/U.S. Dept. of Education)

Democratic lawmakers re-introduced the Tyler Clementi Higher Education Anti-Harassment Act on Friday, which marked the 13th anniversary of the 18-year-old New Jersey college student’s death by suicide after he was targeted with homophobic harassment by his peers.

The bill, which establishes cyberbullying as a form of harassment, directing colleges and universities to share anti-harassment policies to current and prospective students and employees, was introduced by U.S. Senators Tammy Baldwin (Wis.) and Patty Murray (Wash.), along with U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan (Wis.), Chair of the Congressional Equality Caucus.

Advocacy groups including the Tyler Clementi Foundation, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and The Trevor Project have endorsed the legislation, which comes as issues concerning anti-LGBTQ harassment in institutions of higher education have earned renewed scrutiny on Capitol Hill and beyond.

Earlier this month, the Washington Blade connected with an expert to discuss these and other subjects: Paul Southwick, a Portland, Oregon-based litigation attorney who leads a legal advocacy group focused on religious institutions of higher education and their treatment of LGBTQ and other marginalized communities.

On Tuesday, he shared a statement responding to Friday’s reintroduction of the Tyler Clementi bill, stressing the need for equal enforcement of its provisions in light of efforts by conservative Christian schools to avoid oversight and legal liability for certain federal civil rights regulations:

“We are still evaluating the bill regarding how the bill would interact with the religious exemption in Title IX,” Southwick said. “We fully support the expansion of anti-harassment protections for students and corresponding requirements for educational institutions.”

He added, “We also believe that such protections and requirements should extend to students at taxpayer funded, religiously affiliated educational institutions, regardless of whether those institutions claim, or receive, an assurance of religious exemption from Title IX regulations” through the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.

Baylor University’s unprecedented Title IX exemption

In response to a request from Baylor University, a conservative Baptist college located in Waco, Texas, the Education Department in July granted a first of its kind religious-based exemption from federal regulations governing harassment, a form of sex-based discrimination proscribed under Title IX.

Southwick explained that during the Obama administration, the federal government began to understand and recognize discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity as forms of sex-based discrimination covered by the statute. The Biden-Harris administration issued a directive for the Education Department to formalize the LGBTQ inclusive definitions under Title IX, with a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that is now underway at the agency.

Beginning with the Department’s 2010 “dear colleague” letter clarifying the administration’s view that discrimination against LGBTQ people constitutes sex-based discrimination under the law, Southwick said the pushback from religious schools was immediate. In the years since, many have successfully petitioned the Education Department for “exemptions so they can discriminate against queer, trans and non-binary people,” but these carveouts were limited “to things like admissions, housing, athletics.”

No one had argued that “federally funded educational institutions [should] have no regulation by the federal government as to whether they’re protecting their students from harassment,” he remarked – at least not until the Baylor case.

Addressing the unprecedented move in a letter to the Department on September 5, U.S. Reps. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), Greg Casar (D-Texas), Joaquin Castro (D-Texas), and Veronica Escobar (D-Texas) urged the agency to “clarify the narrow scope of this exemption and assure students at religious institutions that they continue to have protections against sex-based harassment.”

Southwick told the Blade other members of Congress have expressed an interest in the matter, as have some progressive nonprofit groups.

Asked for comment, a spokesperson for the Department confirmed receipt of the lawmakers’ letter and said the agency will respond to the members.

The Department’s issuance of the exemption to Baylor came despite an open investigation into the university by its Office of Civil Rights over a Title IX complaint brought in 2021 by Southwick’s organization, the Religious Exemption Accountability Project (REAP), on behalf of a queer student who claimed she was subjected to homophobic abuse from other students while university officials to whom she reported the harassment failed to intervene.

It is not yet clear whether the agency will close its investigation as a result of its decision to exempt Baylor from Title IX’s harassment rules.

Veronica Bonifacio Penales, the student behind the complaint against Baylor, is also a plaintiff in REAP’s separate class action lawsuit challenging the Education Department’s practice of waving Title IX rules for faith-based colleges and universities – which, the plaintiffs argue, facilitates anti-LGBTQ discrimination in violation of the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause.

The case, Hunter v. U.S. Department of Education, is on appeal before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.

Other religious schools are likely to follow Baylor’s lead

Southwick said the agency’s decision in the Baylor case “puts students at risk of harassment without a civil remedy against their school’s failures to properly address harassment,” adding, “Taxpayer funded educational institutions, whether religious or secular, should never be permitted to escape oversight from OCR in how they handle anti-harassment claims from LGBTQIA+ or other students protected by federal non-discrimination law.”

Buoyed by Baylor’s successful effort, requesting exemptions to Title IX rules for purposes of allowing the harassment of LGBTQ students, faculty, and staff is likely to become routine practice for many of America’s conservative institutions of higher education, Southwick said.

The nonprofit group Campus Pride maintains a list of America’s “absolute worst, most unsafe campuses for LGBTQ youth,” schools that “received and/or applied for a Title IX exemption to discriminate against LGBTQ youth, and/or demonstrated past history and track record of anti-LGBTQ actions, programs and practices.”

193 colleges and universities have met the criteria.

Many of the thousands of LGBTQ students enrolled in these institutions often have insufficient support, Southwick said, in part because “a lot of the larger civil rights organizations and queer rights organizations are very occupied, and rightly so, with pushing back against anti-trans legislation in the public sphere.”

Regardless, even in America’s most conservative schools like Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina, Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, and Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan, Southwick noted that pro-equality students, faculty, and staff have pushed for change.

He added that while there are, no doubt, young people who harbor anti-LGBTQ views, “they often become much more progressive the longer they’re in school, because there’s just queer people coming out everywhere, you know, and it’s hard to hate people who are your friends.”

The powerful influence and role of financial incentives  

Southwick said meaningful reform at the institutional level is made more difficult by the reality that “financial incentives from the government and from the market are aligned to favor the continuation of discrimination.”

“Once the money stops flowing, they will almost all instantly change their policies and start protecting queer students,” he said, but added that colleges and universities have little reason to change without the risk that discriminatory policies and practices will incur meaningful consequences, like the loss of government funding and accreditation.

Another challenge, Southwick said, is the tendency of institutions of higher education to often prioritize the wishes and interests of moneyed alumni networks, boards of trustees, and donors, groups that generally skew older and tend to be more conservative.

Southwick said when he and his colleagues at REAP discuss proposed pro-LGBTQ reforms with contacts at conservative religious universities, they are warned “over and over again,” that “donors will be angry.”

Following the establishment of nationwide prohibitions against segregation and other forms of racial discrimination with passage of the federal 1964 Civil Rights Act and the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which applied to public schools, and Runyon v. McCrary (1976), which covered private schools, Southwick noted that “A lot of Christian schools and college colleges continued to deny admission to black students.”

One by one, however, the so-called “segregation academies” would permanently close their doors or agree to racial integration, Southwick said – buckling under pressure from the U.S. government’s categorical denial of federal funding to these institutions, coupled with other factors like the decision of many professional associations to deny membership to their professors and academics.

Another important distinction, Southwick added: unlike Title IX, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 “does not have a religious exemption.”

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Puerto Rico

Two men charged with attacking trans Puerto Rican woman plead guilty to federal hate crimes charges

Alexa Negrón Luciano attacked with paintball gun before her murder

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(Bigstock photo)

Two men on Monday pleaded guilty to federal hate crimes charges in connection with attacking a transgender woman in Puerto Rico in 2020.

A Justice Department press release notes Jordany Laboy Garcia, Christian Rivera Otero and Anthony Lobos Ruiz “were out driving together” in Toa Baja, a municipality that is about 15 miles west of San Juan, early on Feb. 24, 2020, “when they saw” Alexa Negrón Luciano “standing under a tent near the side of the road.”

“The defendants recognized A.N.L. from social media posts concerning an incident that had occurred the day prior at a McDonald’s in Toa Baja,” reads the press release. “During that incident, A.N.L. had used a stall in the McDonald’s women’s restroom.”

“Upon recognizing A.N.L., Lobos-Ruiz used his iPhone to record a video of himself yelling, ‘la loca, la loca,’ (‘the crazy woman, the crazy woman’) as well as other disparaging and threatening comments to A.N.L. from inside the car,” it notes. “The defendants then decided to get a paintball gun to shoot A.N.L. and record another iPhone video. Within 30 minutes, they retrieved a paintball gun and returned to the location where they had last seen A.N.L., who was still at that location. Lobos-Ruiz then used his iPhone to record Laboy-Garcia shooting at A.N.L. multiple times with the paintball gun. After the assault ended, Lobos Ruiz shared the iPhone video recordings with others.”

Negrón was later killed in Toa Baja.

Laboy and Rivera pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit a hate crime and obstruction of justice. El Nuevo Día, a Puerto Rican newspaper, notes a federal judge sentenced Lobos to two years and nine months in prison after he pleaded guilty to hate crimes charges last November.

Laboy and Rivera are scheduled to be sentenced on Nov. 10.

They, along with Lobos, have not been charged with Negrón’s murder.

“To assault an innocent victim who posed no threat to the defendants for no other reason than her gender identity is reprehensible behavior that will not be tolerated,” said U.S. Attorney W. Stephen Muldrow for the District of Puerto Rico in the Justice Department’s press release. “The Justice Department will continue to vigorously defend the rights of all people, regardless of their gender identity, to be free from hate-fueled violence. Our community must stand together against acts of violence motivated by hate for any group of people — we remain steadfast in our commitment to prosecute civil rights violations and keep our communities safe and free from fear.”

Pedro Julio Serrano, spokesperson for Puerto Rico Para Todes, a Puerto Rican LGBTQ rights group, on Tuesday welcomed the guilty pleas. Serrano also urged authorities to bring those who killed Negrón to justice. 

“The time for total justice for Alexa is now,” said Serrano in a press release. “Her murder was a hate crime. Nobody doubts this. They falsely accused her, persecuted her, hunted her, insulted her with transphobic epithets, uploaded onto social media a video of them accosting her and they killed her. There are already three individuals who will serve time in federal prison for attacking her in a hate crime. That’s some justice, but not complete.” 

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Federal Government

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New PEPFAR strategy includes ‘targeted programming’ for marginalized groups

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Biden in 2021 signed a memo that committed the U.S. to promoting LGBTQ and intersex rights abroad as part of his administration’s overall foreign policy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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