Rachel Tiven, executive director of Immigration Equality, announced on Tuesday that she will depart the organization effective Dec. 31 after eight years there. The resignation comes just more than one month after the Supreme Court ruling striking down the Defense of Marriage Act.
During an interview with the Washington Blade on Tuesday, Tiven said her decision to leave was independent of the Supreme Court’s ruling and something she had planned for some time.
“I felt for a long time that we were going to win this year for LGBT families and that would add to our past wins on lifting the HIV travel ban and our success at building LGBT asylum as a field,” Tiven said. “Honestly, if we had lost, I think the organization would have deserved new leadership who could bring a new vision for how to win.”
Tiven said the board of directors is launching a search to find the next executive director who has a vision for where Immigration Equality will head next, which she predicted would include expanded asylum work and ending unfair practices against LGBT immigrants in detention.
“I wanted to announce a nice, long time in advance so the board would have time to search and I’m sure they’re going to find someone great,” Tiven said. “It’s bittersweet because I really love my work, but I think it’s important to give the organization an opportunity to really think about new leadership and new vision.”
Following her departure, Tiven’s immediate plans are personal. She plans to travel to Israel with family for a seven-month sabbatical so her kids can “have a different experience” for a while.
But in the months remaining with Immigration Equality, Tiven said she intends to focus on the work her organization has previously pursued. That includes additional interest in LGBT asylum seekers in Russia coming to the United States amid controversy over the country’s anti-gay propaganda law, especially because these applications generally face additional complications.
“We project our total inquiries from Russia to essentially double this year over last year,” Tiven said. “Interestingly, one of things that we’re seeing is that cases for LGBT asylum seekers from Russia are ‘referred’ — which is an immigration asylum law word that means not granted in the first instance, but rather referred for what is effectively an appeal in immigration court — much more often than cases in other countries. So, in a nutshell, it’s harder for Russians to win asylum in the U.S.”
Other priorities are helping to ensure Congress passes comprehensive immigration reform legislation and overseeing implementation in the post-DOMA world to ensure married bi-national same-sex couples, who were previously barred from applying for I-130 marriage-based green cards, have access to them.
“We hear every day from couples who are grappling with lots of different kinds of snafus,” Tiven said. “It’s challenging for people to navigate what is a very, very, very complicated system. There are couples who have been waiting for years, some of them for decades for their green card and they can’t get them soon enough.”
In the past year, one of Immigration Equality’s most prominent efforts was the pursuit of the inclusion of language along the lines of the Uniting American Families Act as part of comprehensive immigration reform. In May, Democrats working on the bill in the Senate Judiciary Committee refused to include the provision after Republicans voiced opposition, leaving the Supreme Court as the agency to take action on behalf of gay bi-national couples by striking down the Defense of Marriage Act.
After that vote, Tiven said the decision not to include gay couples as part of the larger bill is still a memory tinged with sadness.
“The Senate vote was a real low point in the immigration debate in the Senate Judiciary Committee, which was otherwise a pretty inspiring show of support for future Americans and for the families who want to be full participants in our society,” Tiven said. “It really showed that as far as we’ve come, in a year in which we saw lots of progress, there is still a nasty anti-gay strand that is alive and well in American politics.”
Asked whether the court ruling against DOMA makes the Senate committee’s decision not to include gay couples in the immigration bill any more forgivable, Tiven replied succinctly, “No.”
Andrew Lane, a prominent New York-based gay donor, said he’s “entirely unsurprised” that Tiven is leaving Immigration Equality and said it’s predicated on the Senate’s failure to include gay couples as part of immigration reform.
“Her stewardship of IE, and her fundraising for the organization, were premised on permanent partners,” Lane said. “So when the Senate Judiciary Committee threw us under the bus, that landed on her shores — a profound failure. My involvement in queer immigration politics is limited, but I’m very clear about the degree to which IE marginalized itself in the most important reform conversations. And then Windsor happened, which rendered the controversy — and IE’s non-asylum work — moot.”
But members of Immigration Equality’s board said upon news of Tiven’s departure they’re happy with her work. In a statement, Joseph Landau, the organization’s board chair, credited her “wisdom, leadership and expertise” as the reason for Immigration Equality’s “unparalleled track record.”
“The board couldn’t be more proud of her success, which led to a series of historic victories for LGBT immigrants,” Landau said. “In addition, her ability to grow the organization’s budget to meet our expanding profile, hire incredible staff members, and manage two offices doing ground-breaking legal aid and policy work has made Immigration Equality one of the most respected organizations in the movement.”
Prerna Lal, another Immigration Equality board member and lesbian DREAM activist, told the Washington Blade news of Tiven’s departure was a “great loss” for the organization.
“Rachel has been at the forefront of so many great efforts of LGBT immigration and our asylum work as well as bi-national couples work,” Lal said. “That means she’s really been a tour de force in the immigration rights world as well as the LGBT world. It’s a loss for the organization, I feel like. I don’t know who’ll fill her shoes, but we’ll try very hard to do it.”
Federal judge blocks White House from ending Title 42
Advocacy groups say policy further endangered LGBTQ asylum seekers
A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rule that closed the Southern border to most asylum seekers and migrants because of the pandemic was to have ended Monday, but it remains in place after a federal judge blocked the Biden administration’s plans to end it.
The White House last month announced it would terminate Title 42, a policy the previous administration implemented in March 2020.
U.S. District Judge Robert Summerhays in Louisiana on May 20 issued a ruling that prevented the Biden administration from terminating the Trump-era policy. White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre in a statement announced the Justice Department will appeal the decision, while adding the administration “will continue to enforce the CDC’s 2020 Title 42 public health authority pending the appeal.”
“This means that migrants who attempt to enter the United States unlawfully will be subject to expulsion under Title 42, as well as immigration consequences such as removal under Title 8 (of the U.S. Code),” said Jean-Pierre.
Advocacy groups and members of Congress with whom the Washington Blade has spoken since Title 42 took effect say it continues to place LGBTQ asylum seekers and other vulnerable groups who seek refuge in the U.S. at even more risk.
Oluchi Omeoga, co-director of the Black LGBTQIA+ Migrant Project, last month described Title 42 as a “racist and harmful policy.” ORAM (Organization of Refuge, Asylum and Migration) Executive Director Steve Roth said Title 42 “put asylum seekers in harm’s way in border towns and prevented them from seeking safety in the United States.”
Title 42 was to have ended less than a month after five members of Congress from California visited two LGBTQ shelters for asylum seekers in the Mexican border city of Tijuana.
The Council for Global Equality, which organized the trip, in a tweet after Summerhays issued his ruling described Title 42 as a “catastrophe.”
“The Biden administration cannot breathe a sign of relief until it’s a matter of the past,” said the Council for Global Equality on Saturday. “We remain committed to end Title 42.”
— The Council for Global Equality (@Global_Equality) May 20, 2022
U.S. Army considers allowing LGBTQ troops to transfer from hostile states
Proposed guidance remains in draft form
A draft policy is circulating among top officials of the U.S. Army that would allow soldiers to be able to request a transfer if they feel state or local laws discriminate against them based on gender, sex, religion, race or pregnancy.
Steve Beynon writing for Military.com reported last week the guidance, which would update a vague service policy to add specific language on discrimination, is far from final and would need approval from Army Secretary Christine Wormuth. But if enacted, it could be one of the most progressive policies for the Army amid a growing wave of local anti-LGBTQ and restrictive contraception laws in conservative-leaning states, where the Army has a majority of its bases and major commands.
“Some states are becoming untenable to live in; there’s a rise in hate crimes and rise in LGBT discrimination,” Lindsay Church, executive director of Minority Veterans of America, an advocacy group, told Military.com. “In order to serve this country, people need to be able to do their job and know their families are safe. All of these states get billions for bases but barely tolerate a lot of the service members.”
This policy tweak to the existing Army regulations pertaining to compassionate reassignment would clarify the current standard rules, which are oft times fairly vague.
A source in the Army told Beynon the new guidance has not yet been fully worked out through the policy planning process or briefed to senior leaders including the Army secretary or the office of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
“The Army does not comment on leaked, draft documents,” Angel Tomko, a service spokesperson, told Military.com in an emailed statement. “AR 600-100 and 600-200 establish the criteria for which soldiers may request for a compassionate reassignment. The chain of command is responsible for ensuring soldiers and families’ needs are supported and maintain a high quality of life.”
The Crystal City-based RAND Corporation had published a study on sexual orientation, gender identity and health among active duty servicemembers in 2015 that listed approximate six percent of LGBTQ troops are gay or bisexual and one percent are trans or nonbinary.
A senior analyst for RAND told the Washington Blade on background those numbers are likely much lower than in actuality as 2015 was less than four years after the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ and prior to when the Trump administration enacted the trans servicemember ban in 2017, which has had a chilling effect on open service.
The Biden administration repealed the Trump ban.
Another factor is that the current 18-24 year old troops colloquially referred to as “Gen Z” are much more inclined to embrace an LGBTQ identity and that would cause the numbers to be higher than reported.
Also factored in is uncertainty in the tweaking of policy in light of the recent leak of the draft U.S. Supreme Court decision that would effectively repeal Roe v. Wade.
According to Military.com it’s unclear whether the Army’s inclusion of pregnancy on the list would protect reproductive care for soldiers if Roe v. Wade is overturned. That language could be intended to protect pregnant service members or their families from employment or other discrimination, but could also be a means for some to argue for transfers based on broader reproductive rights.
One advocacy group pointed out that the current wave of anti-LGBTQ legislation will negatively impact the moral of service members:
“What we’re seeing across the board is a small group of elected officials who are trying to politicize and weaponize LGBTQ identities in despicable ways. They’re not only doing that to our youth, but the collateral damage is hurting our service members,” Jacob Thomas, communications director for Common Defense, a progressive advocacy organization, told Military.com. “[Troops] can’t be forced to live in places where they aren’t seen as fully human.”
How a pro-transgender memo sneaked through the Trump administration
2020 memo an outlier amid otherwise hostile policy
By the time the Trump administration ended, it had solidified a reputation for being hostile to transgender people — barring them from military service and reversing regulations aimed at ensuring non-discrimination protections regardless of gender identity — but one minor policy decision managed to sneak through affirming the acceptance of employees going through gender transition.
Top officials at the Defense Intelligence Agency, a company support agency for the U.S. government, outlined in a memo dated June 15, 2020 the process for employees and supervisors to “navigate transitioning while employed at the DIA.” The document, which was not previously made available to the public, was obtained earlier this month by the Washington Blade through an appeal of a request under the Freedom of Information Act.
“Transitioning in the workplace is a personal decision,” the memo says. “DIA encourages transitioning employees to openly communicate during the transitioning process; discuss plans for workplace transition with their supervisor or manager; and, as appropriate, include any steps that will prompt workplace changes (e.g., transitioning employees may begin using a different name or pronoun).”
Because the fundamental nature of a memo outlining steps to help employees in the workplace transition is contrary to the overwhelming anti-transgender outlook of the Trump administration, the DIA memo appears to have been an internal effort shielded from the White House at the time as opposed to a government-wide initiative.
The DIA guidance for transgender employees runs contrary to other sweeping Trump administration policies that sought to enable discrimination against transgender people, including the military policy former President Trump issued via Twitter in 2017 outright banning them from service “in any capacity.”
Other anti-trans actions include the Department of Health & Human Services rescinding an Obama-era regulation that barred health care providers and insurers from discriminating against transgender patients, including the denial of transition-related care, which was orchestrated by then-director of Office of Civil Rights Roger Severino and came just days before the DIA memo.
Both the military ban and the health care rollback have since been reversed under the Biden administration.
Another Trump-era policy at a comparable scope to the DIA memo to employees, however, was the U.S. Office of Personal Management deleting on a page on its website outlining the guidance for accommodating federal workers going through the transition process. The DIA memo, which facilitates those transitions within that one agency, contradicts the message sent by the deletion of the OPM resource.
Although two sources familiar with the document told the Washington Blade it was timed for Pride month (which would be consistent with the June publication date), it would also be consistent with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Bostock v. Clayton County, which determined anti-LGBTQ discrimination is a form of illegal sex discrimination. After all, the Bostock decision came out on the same day as the date on the DIA memo.
A defense insider familiar with the DIA memo, who spoke on condition of anonymity, was among those who said the memo went out in recognition of Pride month and said it was intended to ensure there was guidance for transition at the agency.
“We had a number of different individuals who were going through the transition process and management needed to understand what the policy as they dealt with the individuals who were going through transition,” the insider said.
The insider said production of the memo “wasn’t part of any government wide effort” and completely within DIA. The memo, the insider said, wasn’t creating any new policy for the agency, but “looking at existing policy, and then providing our manager and our workforce clear guidance.”
Asked whether there was any backlash to the memo, the insider said, “No, I would say absolutely not.” Once the guidance went out, the insider said, he “didn’t hear anything from outside the organization” about it.
In response to a follow-up question on whether the White House or Pentagon under Trump expressed any objections to the guidance, the insider denied that was the case: “No one said anything to me about it.”
Other highlights of the memo include options for diversity training to better understand transition-related issues; instructions to refer to employees by the name and pronoun of their choice; a reminder the Defense Intelligence Agency has no dress code, therefore employees are allowed to wear attire in the manner they choose; and a guarantee employees shall have access to restrooms consistent with their gender identity. Employees may transition without prior coordination, the memo says, or may do so while creating a transition plan that includes the date the transition will begin, whether time off is needed and how to discuss the situation with colleagues.
“Employees can use the restroom and other facilities that best align with their gender identity and are not restricted to use of a single-user restroom,” the memo says. “Employees are not required to undergo or provide proof of any medical procedures to use restroom facilities designed for use by a specific gender.”
Additionally, the document outlines the process for administrative record updates, including making a request for a gender marker changer through human resources, updating personnel files, and changing DIA and intelligence community badges and identification cards.
A DIA spokesperson, in response to email inquiries from the Washington Blade on the document, confirmed the memo was issued to coincide with Pride month and remains in effect to this day.
“Released jointly to the DIA civilian workforce by the DIA Chief of Staff, Equal Opportunity and Diversity Office, and Office of Human Resources, the memo titled ‘Gender Transition in the Workplace for Civilian Employees’ serves to notify DIA civilian employees of the Agency’s position on supporting Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer (LGBTQ) employees, including those taking steps to align themselves more fully with their gender identities,” the DIA spokesperson said. “The memo was released in June 2020 to coincide with Pride Month and serves as active guidance.”
In many cases, regulations and guidance would have to go through the White House Office of Management & Budget or Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, but not necessarily, especially an internal memo to supervisors and employees to reinforce policy that purportedly was already in place.
A Trump White House official said he was unaware of the document until the Blade brought it to his attention and said it would not have come to the White House because it was never published in the Federal Register. The Office of Management & Budget didn’t respond to the Blade’s request to comment on whether it ever was brought to the attention of the White House at the time of its publication in 2020.
While regulations within U.S. agencies go to the White House for review and consultations, government agencies as well as businesses often consult transgender groups for assistance in developing guidance for transitioning in the workforce, such as the National Center for Transgender Equality.
Mara Keisling, a transgender advocate who served as executive director of the advocacy group during the Trump administration, said she was completely unaware of the memo until the Blade brought it to her attention, although DIA would have been “required by law” to have such a policy for transgender workers after the Supreme Court’s decision in Bostock.
“We would have been happy to see it, but this was not the Trump administration doing something good,” Keisling said. “This was HR bureaucrats, I don’t mean bureaucrat in a bad way at all. This is HR bureaucrats following the law, and it clearly didn’t rise to the level of the White House.”
Keisling said she was unaware of any similar guidance for gender transition coming from a U.S. agency during the Trump administration. However, she disclosed her organization was able to work with federal workers to get “a couple of sneaky things done the White House didn’t know about” consistent with the DIA memo, although she didn’t elaborate.
“And super importantly, it’s the intelligence community and defense and intelligence, which Defense Intelligence Agency obviously is both,” Keisling said. “They have a little more autonomy than others anyway, so … if you told me there was something surprising from somewhere on a personnel issue, I would have guessed that it was somewhere in the intelligence report or Foreign Service community.”
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