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Obama tells Russian activists he’s ‘very proud’ of their work

President meets with LGBT leaders in St. Petersburg

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Barack Obama, Democratic National Convention, gay news, Washington Blade, Democratic Party
President Obama speaks for the Democratic National Convention

President Barack Obama said the work of Russian activists is ‘critically important’ in maintaining an open society. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key).

President Obama said the work of Russian activists is “critically important” to maintaing an open society during a roundtable he held with civil society leaders in St. Petersburg.

Obama met with leaders of two Russian LGBT groups — Igor Kochetkov, director of the LGBT Network, and Olga Lenkova, spokesperson for Coming Out — as part of a discussion he had with a total of nine activists, according to the White House pool report from the New York Times’ Peter Baker. The meeting took place as part of Obama’s visit to St. Petersburg for the G-20 summit.

The work of these activists, Obama said, is “critically important” because they help maintain a free society, according to a transcript of his remarks from the White House.

“So the kinds of activities that are represented here are critically important to Russia’s development, and I’m very proud of their work,” Obama said.

Obama makes the remarks as Russia has been under scrutiny because of anti-gay violence in the country and passage of a controversial law that bans pro-gay propaganda to minors.

Additionally, Obama drew on his own history as a community activist, saying his engagement at the grassroots level is what helped him win the White House.

“I’m now in government, but I got my start as a community organizer, somebody who was working in what would be called an NGO in the international community,” Obama said. “And the work I was doing was helping poor communities have a voice in what was happening in their lives. And I got elected as president by engaging people at a grassroots level.”

Obama didn’t make a direct reference to the anti-gay propaganda law in the remarks provided by the White House, but talked about importance of freedom to the press and assembly.

“I think it is important for us to remember that in every country — here in Russia, in the United States, around the globe — that part of good government is making sure that we’re creating a space for civil society to function effectively: freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, making sure that people can join together and make common cause around the issues that they care deeply about,” Obama said.

Obama was seated at tables set up in a horseshoe shape with National Security Adviser Susan Rice to his right, U.S. Ambassador to Russia Mike McFaul to his left and the nine Russian activists on either side of them, according to the pool report. The president arrived for the meeting at the Crown Plaza at 7:23 p.m. and wrapped up the discussion slightly more than an hour later at 8:45 p.m.

None of the civil society groups listed in the pool report — including the LGBT Network and Coming Out — immediately responded to the Washington Blade’s request for comment on the meeting.

Based on the pool report and information provided by the White House, it’s not immediately clear whether the anti-gay propaganda law came up in a direct way during the meeting. U.S. LGBT activists who work on international issues said they were hoping Obama would continue to express his opposition to the law while in St. Petersburg — a position he’s already articulated.

Innokenty “Kes” Grekov, an associate who covers Russia for the international group Human Rights First, didn’t take part in the meeting, but said activists brought up the anti-gay law among other issues. Grekov said the activists, in turn, were mostly asked to address the backslide of the situation in Russia.

In a statement, Grekov praised Obama, saying “engaging civil society has been a hallmark of this administration.” Still, Grekov added there’s more work to be done.

“Today’s meeting was a terrific first step,” Grekov said. “Now, as President Obama returns home from this trip, he should double down on U.S. efforts to address the concerns of civil society and LGBT activists, and continue to raise these issues in the administration’s bilateral engagement with Russia.”

Andre Banks, executive director of All Out, commended Obama for meeting with human rights activists, but said initiatives against human rights abuses in Russia are happening across the globe.

“On Tuesday at least 33 events in 21 countries were planned to urge world leaders to speak out against Putin’s human rights crackdown,” Banks said. “In addition to Obama’s meeting with leaders from the community, David Cameron met with Putin and brought up Putin’s human rights crackdown. We hope other world leaders will step up and speak out.”

Concern about the anti-gay atmosphere continues as, according to the Associated Press, Russian lawmaker Alexei Zhuravlev has published a bill that would deny gay parents custody of their children in Russia. Other grounds for denying custody include alcoholism, drug use and abuse.

Notably, Russian gay activist Nikolai Alexeyev wasn’t listed as among those attending the meeting. He stirred controversy earlier this week after making a series of Facebook posts accusing the “American Jewish mafia” of blocking him from taking part in a phone conference with Human Rights First on Russia’s anti-gay law.

Obama also held a 20-minute meeting with Russian President Vladmir Putin while in St. Petersburg. Obama had previously cancelled a formal bilateral summit that was supposed to take place between him and Putin as part of the G-20 summit. At the time, an administration official told the Blade part of the reason for canceling was the anti-LGBT atmosphere in the country.

During a news conference earlier in St. Petersburg, Obama said the potential military operations in Syria was the primary topic of conversation between the two leaders. Obama didn’t say whether the anti-gay propaganda law came up.

“But what I did say is that we both agree that the underlying conflict [in Syria] can only be resolved through a political transition as envisioned by the Geneva I and Geneva II process,” Obama said. “And so we need to move forward together. Even if the U.S. and Russia and other countries disagree on this specific issue of how to respond to chemical weapons use, it remains important for us to work together to try to urge all parties in the conflict to try to resolve it.”

Other White House officials had their own meetings in St. Petersburg that were relevant to Russia LGBT issues.

National Security Council spokesperson Caitlin Hayden said in a statement Rice affirmed U.S. support for the Olympics with Russian Presidential Foreign Policy Adviser Ushakov amid calls by some, including U.S. actor Harvey Fierstein for a boycott of the 2014 Olympics in Russia over the anti-gay law.

“NSA Rice reaffirmed U.S. support for the upcoming Sochi Olympics, underscoring the importance of ensuring a secure event, in the spirit of the Olympic Charter,” Hayden said. “While acknowledging impediments in the bilateral relationship, NSA Rice welcomed a regular exchange of views and cooperation on areas of mutual interest.”

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Colorado

Five transgender, nonbinary ICE detainees allege mistreatment at Colo. detention center

Advocacy groups filed complaint with federal officials on April 9

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(Photo courtesy of GEO Group)

Five transgender and nonbinary people who are in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody at a privately-run detention center in Colorado say they continue to suffer mistreatment.

The Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network, the National Immigration Project and the American Immigration Council on April 9 filed a complaint with the Department of Homeland Security’s Offices for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, Immigration Detention Ombudsman and Inspector General and ICE’s Office of Professional Responsibility on behalf of the detainees at the Aurora Contract Detention Facility near Denver.

Charlotte, one of the five complainants, says she spends up to 23 hours a day in her room. 

She says in the complaint that a psychiatrist has prescribed her medications for anxiety and depression, but “is in the dark about her actual diagnoses because they were not explained to her.” Myriah and Elsa allege they do not have regular access to hormones and other related health care.

Omar, who identifies as trans and nonbinary, in the complaint alleges they would “start hormone replacement therapy if they could be assured that they would not be placed in solitary confinement.” Other detainees in the complaint allege staff have also threatened to place them in isolation.

“They have been told repeatedly that, if they started therapy, they would be placed in ‘protective custody’ (solitary confinement) because the Aurora facility has no nonbinary or men’s transgender housing unit,” reads the complaint. “This is so, despite other trans men having been detained in Aurora in the past, so Omar is very likely receiving misinformation that is preventing them from accessing the treatment they require.”

Omar further alleges staffers told them upon their arrival that “they had to have a ‘boy part’ (meaning a penis) to be assigned to” the housing unit in which other trans people live. Other complainants say staff have also subjected them to degrading comments and other mistreatment because of their gender identity. 

“Victoria, Charlotte and Myriah are all apprehensive about a specific female guard who is assigned to the housing unit for transgender women at Aurora,” reads the complaint. “Victoria has experienced this guard peering at her through the glass on the door of her form. Charlotte, Myriah and the other women in her dorm experienced the same guard making fun of them after they complained that she had confiscated all of their personal hygiene products, like their toothbrushes and toothpaste, and replaced them with menstrual pads and tampons, which she knows they do not need.”

“She said something to them like, ‘If you were real women, you would need these things,'” reads the complaint. “The same guard told them that they had to ask her for their personal hygiene products when they wanted to use them, stripping them of their most basic agency.”

Victoria, who has been in ICE custody for more than two years, also says she does not have regular access to hormones. Victoria further claims poor food, lack of access to exercise and stress and anxiety because of her prolonged detention has caused has made her health deteriorate.

The GEO Group, a Florida-based company, operates the Aurora Contract Detention Facility.

Advocates for years have complained about the conditions for trans and nonbinary people in ICE custody and have demanded the agency release all of them.

Roxsana Hernández, a trans Honduran woman with HIV, on May 25, 2018, died in ICE custody in New Mexico. Her family in 2020 sued the federal government and the five private companies who were responsible for her care.

Johana “Joa” Medina Leon, a trans Salvadoran woman, on June 1, 2019, passed away at a Texas hospital four days after her release from ICE custody. Kelly González Aguilar, a trans Honduran woman, had been in ICE custody for more than two years until her release from the Aurora Contract Detention Center on July 14, 2020.

ICE spokesperson Steve Kotecki on Friday told the Blade there were 10 “self-identified transgender detainees” at the Aurora Contract Detention Center on April 11. The facility’s “transgendered units” can accommodate up to 87 trans detainees. 

A 2015 memorandum then-ICE Executive Associate Director of Enforcement and Removal Operations Thomas Homan signed requires personnel to allow trans detainees to identify themselves based on their gender identity on data forms. The directive, among other things, also contains guidelines for a “respectful, safe and secure environment” for trans detainees and requires detention facilities to provide them with access to hormone therapy and other trans-specific health care.

“U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is committed to ensuring that all those in its custody reside in safe, secure and humane environments,” said Kotecki. “ICE regularly reviews each case involving self-identified transgender noncitizens and determines on a case-by-case basis whether detention is warranted.”

The complaint, however, states this memo does not go far enough to protect trans and nonbinary detainees.

“ICE’s 2015 guidance has some significant flaws,” it reads. “It fails to provide meaningful remedies for policy violations. It does not acknowledge the challenges that nonbinary people face when imprisoned by ICE and the lack of such guidance explains why the needs of nonbinary people are largely misunderstood and unmet.”

“Further, the language used to describe people who are TNB is not inclusive and does not reflect terminology adopted by the community it is meant to describe,” adds the complaint. “Although this list is not exhaustive, it addresses some of the primary concerns voiced by the complaints.”

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Politics

First lady warns Trump is ‘dangerous to the LGBTQ community’ at HRC event

Jill Biden spoke in Arlington, Va., on Friday

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Human Rights Campaign President Kelley Robinson introduces the First Lady Dr. Jill Biden at the Human Rights Campaign's Equality in Action event on Friday, April 12, 2024 in Arlington, Va. (Kevin Wolf/AP Images for Human Rights Campaign)

Delivering a keynote address at the Human Rights Campaign’s Equality in Action event Friday, First lady Jill Biden warned former President Donald Trump is “a bully” who is “dangerous to the LGBTQ community.”

Her appearance at the three-day volunteer and board gathering at the Sheraton Pentagon City in Arlington, Va., comes as part of the Biden-Harris reelection campaign’s “Out for Biden” program, which aims to “mobilize LGBTQ+ voters, communities, and leaders across the country.”

“Today, this community is under attack,” Biden said. “Rights are being stripped away. freedoms are eroding. More and more state laws are being passed targeting this community. Just last month, we had to fend off more than 50 anti-gay amendments that Republicans tried to force into the government funding bill.”

“These were extreme measures aimed directly at this community — measures that would have limited health care and weakened protections for same sex couples,” she said. “And they served only one purpose to spread hate and fear.”

In a nod to her long career as an educator, Biden said, “History teaches us that our rights and freedoms don’t disappear overnight. They disappear slowly. Subtly. Silently.”

She continued, “A book ban. A court decision. A ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law. One group of people loses their rights and then another. And another. Until one day you wake up and no longer live in a democracy … This is our chapter of history and it’s up to us how it ends.”

Biden then highlighted some of the advancements for LGBTQ rights secured under the Biden-Harris administration.

“Thanks to President Biden, marriage equality is now the law of the land,” she said. “He ended the ban on gay and bisexual men donating blood. He’s made it possible for trans Americans to serve openly and honorably in our military. And he’s standing firmly against conversion therapy.”

“Yes, there are forces outside these walls that are trying to erase these hard fought gains, trying to unwind all the progress that we’ve made,” Biden said. “They want to take our victories away, but we won’t let them. Your president will not let them — I will not let them.”

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South America

Man convicted of killing Daniel Zamudio in Chile seeks parole

Raúl López Fuentes in 2013 sentenced to 15 years in prison

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Daniel Zamudio (Photo courtesy of Jacqueline Vera)

One of the four men convicted of murdering a young gay man in the Chilean capital in 2012 is seeking parole.

Raúl López Fuentes in 2013 received a 15-year prison sentence after he was convicted of killing Daniel Zamudio.

Zamudio was a young Chilean man who became a symbol of the fight against homophobic violence in his country and around the world after López and three other young men with alleged ties to a neo-Nazi group beat him for several hours in Santiago’s San Borja Park on March 2, 2012. Zamudio succumbed to his injuries a few weeks later.

The attack sparked widespread outage in Chile and prompted a debate over homophobia in the country that highlighted the absence of an anti-discrimination law. Lawmakers in the months after Zamudio’s murder passed a law that bears Zamudio’s name.

Patricio Ahumada received a life sentence, while López and Alejandro Angulo Tapia are serving 15 years in prison. Fabían Mora Mora received a 7-year prison sentence.

López has asked the Seventh Santiago Guarantee Court to serve the last three years of his sentence on parole. Zamudio’s family and Jaime Silva, their lawyer who works with the Movement for Homosexual Integration and Liberation, oppose the request.

Movilh represented Zamudio’s family after his murder.

Zamudio’s mother, Jacqueline Vera, during an exclusive interview with the Washington Blade said López’s petition “provoked all the anguish, all the commotion of his time.” 

“It was very cruel because in fact two days before we were at Daniel’s grave, where it was 12 years since his death and the beating,” said Vera. “He really does not deserve it.”

“We have gone through very difficult moments,” she added.

The mother, who later created a foundation to eradicate discrimination in Chile, was emphatic in indicating that she and her family “do not accept the release of this guy because he is a danger to society and a danger to ourselves.” 

“At the last hearing where they were sentenced, they told us that we are going to remember them when they get out,” said Vera. “They threatened us with death. There is a video circulating on social networks where they were in front of me and they laughed and made fun of me. They told me that I remembered that I had three more children.”

Daniel Zamudio’s mother, Jacqueline Vera. (Photo courtesy of Jacqueline Vera)

Regarding the possibility that the Chilean justice system will allow López to serve the remaining three years of his sentence on parole, Vera said “with the benefits here in Chile, which is like a revolving door where murderers come and go, it can happen.” 

“In any case, I don’t pretend, I don’t accept and I don’t want (López) to get out, I don’t want (López) to get out there,” she said. “We are fighting for him not to get out there because I don’t want him to get out there. And for me it is not like that, they have to serve the sentence as it stands.”

LGBTQ Chileans have secured additional rights since the Zamudio Law took effect. These include marriage equality and protections for transgender people. Advocacy groups, however, maintain lawmakers should improve the Zamudio Law.

“We are advocating for it to be a firmer law, with more strength and more condemnation,” said Vera.

When asked by the Washington Blade about what she would like to see improved, she indicated “the law should be for all these criminals with life imprisonment.”

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