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HISTORIC: Senate panel advances trans-inclusive ENDA

In first, committee reports out trans-inclusive LGBT anti-bias bill

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Mark Kirk, Tammy Baldwin, United States Senate, gay news, Washington Blade
United States Senate, gay news, Washington Blade, HELP Committee

Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee approved a trans-inclusive ENDA on Wednesday (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

A Senate committee made history on Wednesday by approving for the first time a trans-inclusive version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and picking up key Republican support from Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska).

Lawmakers on the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee reported out ENDA by a 15-7 vote after a short period of discussion. No amendments were offered except for a manager’s amendment, although Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said he’ll reserve three that he planned for consideration on the Senate floor.

Senate HELP Committee Chair Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) noted the historic nature of the committee’s action prior to the vote and said it’s “time, long past time” for Congress to take action against LGBT workplace discrimination.

“Qualified workers should not be turned away or have to fear losing their livelihood for reasons that have nothing to do with their qualifications, skills or performance,” Harkin said. “Let’s not mince words: such practices are un-American. They should have no place in any American workplace.”

All 12 Democrats on the committee, including lesbian Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), are co-sponsors of the bill as well as one Republican, Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.). They each voted in favor of ENDA during the final vote.

At the start of the markup, Kirk explained he has supported ENDA — both in his capacity as a U.S. House member and a U.S. senator — because gay people should “not have that cloud of potential discrimination” in the workplace.

Speaking with reporters afterwards, Kirk explained his support for ENDA derives in part from his work as an officer in the Navy Reserve.

“For me, as you guys know, I’m a military guy,” Kirk said. “We think about how blindingly idiotic it was for Adolf Hitler to discriminate against the Jews. When you think about all the Senate pieces of the Manhattan Project, we actually developed a war-winning weapon because we were protecting creativity and science, and we became a much stronger society that allowed us to prevail. The society that is more open will be stronger, in my view, probably economically and militarily.”

Tammy Baldwin, Mark Kirk, Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee, gay news, Washington Blade

Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

New support for ENDA also came from Republicans on the panel: Hatch and Murkowksi. Hatch voted “yes” by proxy and Murkowski voted “yes” in person. The Alaska senator is the third sitting Republican U.S. senator to come out in favor of marriage equality.

In a statement after the markup, Murkowski said she voted “yes” because “discrimination should never be tolerated in the workplace.”

“I am a strong believer that individuals should be judged on whether they can do the job, not their sexual orientation – and I appreciate the hundreds of Alaskans who shared their thoughts with me and my staff as we considered this bill,” Murkowski said.

While she said improvements to the bill “might be in order in the form of floor amendments,” Murkowski added she’s pleased ENDA addresses “employers’ needs to run efficiently and reduce compliance costs” by prohibiting discrimination claims based on disparate impact.

In a statement provided to the Washington Blade, Hatch explained he was able to support ENDA because of the strong religious exemption in the bill.

“I appreciate that the authors of the bill were willing to include a robust religious exemption in this bill,” Hatch said. “I voted for it because it prohibits discrimination that should not occur in the workplace, it protects the rights of religious entities, and minimizes legal burdens on employers.”

The bill now heads to full Senate for passage on the floor, where 60 votes will likely be necessary to overcome a Senate filibuster. During the markup, Harkin said he expects ENDA to come to the floor “sometime in the fall,” but not before lawmakers leave for August break.

Asked by the Washington Blade after the committee vote whether he’s confident that ENDA will find 60 votes on the Senate floor, Harkin replied, “Yeah, I think we’ll have 60 votes.”

“As you saw, we had some very key Republicans on the committee, and that will be very helpful,” Harkin said. “As I said, I think society is there, and the things that have recently happened with the Supreme Court decision and others, I think we’re ready to move on in a way that we haven’t been ready move on in the past. Keep your fingers crossed.”

But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is responsible for scheduling what comes to the floor in the Senate. His office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on when an ENDA floor vote would take place. In his Pride statement issued last month, Reid said he looks forward to bringing up ENDA “soon.”

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney issued a statement saying President Obama “welcomes” the bipartisan support ENDA received in committee and looks forward to further action.

“The President has long supported an inclusive ENDA, which would enshrine into law strong, lasting and comprehensive protections against employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity,” Carney said. “We look forward to the full Senate’s consideration of ENDA, and continue to urge the House to move forward on this bill that upholds America’s core values of fairness and equality.”

It was the first markup of ENDA in the Senate since 2002 and the first time ever a committee in either chamber of Congress approved a version of ENDA that protects not only gay, lesbian and bisexual people from workplace discrimination, but also transgender people.

Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said a trans-inclusive ENDA has been advancing all along, but committee approval of the bill with gender identity protections is “really amazing.”

“This is a life-or-death issue for trans people, and I think this shows that we’re moving, we’re going to get it done,” Keisling said. “Next, we’re going to get it passed in the Senate, and we’re going to try to figure out how to get it through the dysfunctional House of Representatives. But it’s really important and shows trans people everywhere that this is going to happen — whether it’s this year or another year — it’s going to happen. We are going to get relief from job discrimination.”

Transgender inclusion in ENDA has been a sensitive issue in the LGBT community. In 2007, gay former Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) removed ENDA’s gender identity provisions before holding a House vote on the bill because he said the votes were lacking to pass the legislation with those protections on the House floor. The decision led to an outcry and ENDA advanced no further even though Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress.

Tico Almeida, president of Freedom to Work, praised the Senate committee approval of ENDA, calling the vote “fantastic.”

“It was a big, bipartisan win, and we’re going this ride momentum to 60 votes by September,” Almeida said. “We think we can get to 60 votes in the Senate in September — possibly October if it takes that long. We could actually get between 60 and 65 votes in the end in the Senate, and that huge momentum will allow us to do some real campaigning with members of the House.”

Despite the support ENDA’s religious exemption has received from Republicans like Hatch, there are differing opinions on the language within the LGBT community.

Unlike existing employment discrimination law under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, ENDA’s religious exemption provides leeway for religious organizations, like churches or religious schools, to discriminate against LGBT employees.

Some ENDA supporters, like the Center for American Progress, say ENDA’s religious exemption is politically necessary for the bill to pass Congress, while others, like the American Civil Liberties Union, say it allows for continued LGBT workplace discrimination. No action was taken on the religious exemption during the markup.

Ian Thompson, legislative representative for the ACLU, said after the markup he’s pleased with the progress on ENDA, but added the growing support for LGBT rights demonstrates the bill’s religious exemption may no longer be necessary.

“Today’s vote clearly demonstrates that the tide has turned on LGBT rights,” Thompson said. “What was true five, 10, and 20 years ago is no longer the case. To that end, I think it is becoming increasingly clear that there is no reason to adopt an exemption that would needlessly dilute ENDA’s critical protections.”

Before final passage, the committee approved by unanimous consent a manager’s amendment that made technical changes to ENDA.

Some changes were made at the behest of GOP supporters who wanted clarification on certain issues. Among them is ensuring under ENDA disparate impact claims are not allowed; a plaintiff cannot recover for the same offense under both Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and ENDA; and an employer can amend an existing poster notifying employees of the non-discrimination policy, rather than creating a separate poster.

The manager’s amendment also updates ENDA in the wake of Supreme Court rulings on employment non-discrimination law. Following the Supreme Court’s decision in the 2009 case of Gross v. FBL Financial, the bill now includes language to ensure that the burden of proof in mixed motive cases is the same under ENDA as it is under Title VII.

Almeida, who had called for an update to ENDA in the wake of the Gross ruling, commended Harkin and his counsel for “fixing the loopholes and technical mistakes” that existed in the original version of ENDA.

“Some were on the left, and some were on the right,” Almeida said. “By making these corrections, Chairman has shown respect for Republicans on the committee and created a smarter, better Employment Non-Discrimination Act.”

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White House mum on whether Biden raised LGBTQ rights with Putin

Geneva summit took place amid ongoing Chechnya crackdown

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President Biden on June 16, 2021, met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva.

The White House on Wednesday did not say whether President Biden raised Russia’s LGBTQ rights record during his summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“I told President Putin my agenda is not against Russia or anyone else; it’s for the American people: fighting COVID-19; rebuilding our economy; reestablishing our relationships around the world with our allies and friends; and protecting our people,” Biden told reporters during a press conference that took place after the summit, which took place in Geneva, ended. “That’s my responsibility as president. 
 
“I also told him that no president of the United States could keep faith with the American people if they did not speak out to defend our democratic values, to stand up for the universal rights and fundamental freedoms that all men and women have, in our view,” added Biden. “That’s just part of the DNA of our country.” 

Biden said he told Putin that “human rights is going to always be on the table, I told him.” 

“It’s not about just going after Russia when they violate human rights; it’s about who we are,” said Biden. “How could I be the president of the United States of America and not speak out against the violation of human rights?”

Biden also told reporters the U.S. will continue to “raise our concerns about cases like Alexey Navalny,” a Russian opposition leader who remains in jail.

Navalny last August spent weeks in a coma after he was poisoned with Novichok in the Siberian city of Tomsk. Navalny underwent treatment in Germany before he returned to Russia in January.   

“I made it clear to President Putin that we’ll continue to raise issues of fundamental human rights because that’s what we are, that’s who we are,” Biden told the reporters. “The idea is: ‘We hold these truths self-evident that all men and women … ‘ We haven’t lived up to it completely, but we’ve always widened the arc of commitment and included more and more people.”

Putin in 2013 sparked global outrage when he signed a law that bans the promotion of so-called gay propaganda to minors. Putin in April signed a series of constitutional amendments that, among other things, formally defines marriage as between a man and a woman in Russia.

Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, who is a close Putin ally, and the Kremlin continue to downplay the anti-LGBTQ crackdown in Chechnya.

The State Department in February expressed concern over the fate of two Chechen brothers who were arrested in Russia and returned to their homeland, even though they had fled its anti-LGBTQ crackdown.

The Russian LGBT Network, a Russian LGBTQ rights group, said authorities in Dagestan, a semi-autonomous Russian republic that borders Chechnya, on June 10 kidnapped a bisexual woman who had sought refuge at a shelter for domestic violence survivors. Reports indicate Chechen police officers forced her into a vehicle and drove her back to Chechnya.

The National Security Council before the summit did not respond to the Washington Blade’s request for comment about whether Biden planned to raise Russia’s LGBTQ rights record with Putin. A State Department spokesperson referred the Blade to the White House for comment.

Chris Johnson contributed to this article.

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Lesbian, trans Defense nominees sail through confirmation hearings

Biden picks exemplify change after LGBTQ bans lifted

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Two nominees, one lesbian and one transgender, sailed though a breezy confirmation hearing on Wednesday for high-ranking positions at the Defense Department.

Among the five nominees questioned before the Senate Armed Services Committee were Shawn Skelly, who’s transgender and nominated to become assistant secretary of defense for readiness, and Gina Ortiz Jones, who’s a lesbian and nominated to become under secretary of the Air Force.

The LGBTQ nominees for the high-ranking posts stand out in the wake of the Biden administration enacting to reverse the transgender military ban enacted under President Trump, as well as the coming anniversary of the lifting of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

Both Jones, a former Air Force pilot, and Skelly, a 20-year veteran of the U.S. Navy, served in the U.S. military at times when they would have been discharged due to their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Jones made a reference to serving under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” as part of her opening statement for the confirmation hearing.

“My experience in the Air Force was hindered by the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy, yet I to remain undeterred because of my desire to serve our country,” Jones said. “That experience cemented my resolve to ensure anyone ready and able to serve can do so to their full potential and accordingly our country’s fullest potential.”

Annise Parker, CEO of LGBTQ Victory Institute, said in a statement the nominations of the LGBTQ individuals to high-ranking Defense roles is significant.
 
“These two trailblazing nominees demonstrated their deep military expertise and qualifications before the committee and we know their experiences as LGBTQ people will shape their leadership in these critical positions,” Parker said. “Their performance was a powerful testament to the progress our military and nation has made – just one decade after the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ – and is an important moment for LGBTQ service members who served or continue to serve in silence. Their confirmation will transform perceptions of LGBTQ people within the ranks of the U.S. military, but also among the leaders of militaries we work with around the world.”

No member of the committee objected to — or even pointed out — the sexual orientation or gender identity of the nominees. In fact, Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who had openly called for codifying the transgender military ban into law as opposed to reversing it, notably recognized Skelly’s gender identity by referring to her as “Ms. Skelly” when addressing her.

Questions, instead, comprised issues related to the U.S. military, including rooting out “extremism” in the military, competition with China, access to care at medical facilities and the U.S. military being the biggest single consumer of fossil fuels.

Skelly, in her opening statement, said she was “simultaneously humbled and inspired” over being nominated for the role as assistant secretary of defense for readiness, which includes being responsible for recruitment, career development, pay and benefits, and oversight of the state of military readiness.

“As a retired Naval flight officer, the importance of the department safety and professional military education programs, and the manner in which they support the readiness of the total force are deeply ingrained in me, and if confirmed, I will ensure they receive the priority and focus they deserve,” Skelly said.

Jones and Skelly are two of three pending LGBTQ nominees for high-ranking Defense positions. The other is Brenda “Sue” Fulton, a lesbian who had advocated for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal and was nominated to become assistant secretary of defense for manpower and readiness.

It wasn’t immediately clear why Fulton wasn’t among the nominees questioned on Wednesday even though she was nominated at the same time. The Senate Armed Services Committee didn’t respond Wednesday to the Washington Blade’s request for comment.

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House Republicans block LGBTQ small business credit measure

‘No attack is too low’

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New York Representative Ritchie Torres (Photo Credit: Office of NY Rep. Ritchie Torres)

WASHINGTON – A measure introduced by freshmen New York Representative Ritchie Torres (D15-Bronx) that would ensure that financial institutions are providing LGBTQ-owned small businesses equal access to credit was blocked by the Republican caucus this week.

TorresLGBTQ Business Equal Credit Enforcement and Investment Act, HR 1443, requiring financial institutions to collect data on credit applications by LGBTQ-owned businesses, was stopped from passing in a 248-177 vote Tuesday. The measure required a 2/3rds vote (284) to pass.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in a statement after the vote noted, “House Republicans are using Pride Month to attack LGBTQ-owned small businesses. […] Passing this uncontroversial bill to help small businesses stay afloat during a pandemic should be a no-brainer.”

“Sadly, no attack is too low for this House Republican Conference, not even attacking LGBTQ-owned small businesses during Pride Month,” Pelosi added.

The openly gay Ritchie tweeted, “The Republicans in the House voted down my legislation, HR 1443, which would protect LGBTQ-owned businesses from discrimination. A slap in the face to the LGBTQ community right in the heart of Pride Month.”

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