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Russian activists have mixed reactions to Obama meeting

U.S. ‘cannot approach relations through prism of human rights alone’

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

Russian activists have mixed reactions to their meeting with President Obama.(Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key).

Russian activists who attended a meeting last week with President Obama in St. Petersburg came away with mixed feelings about the event, with one claiming Obama told them he couldn’t make human rights the lone priority in U.S.-Russia relations.

Both LGBT activists who attended the meeting with Obama on Friday spoke to the Washington Blade and said they were pleased the meeting took place, but disagreed with some of what Obama said. They were among nine civil society representatives who took part in a roundtable discussion with Obama as part of his visit to Russia for the G-20 summit.

Igor Kochetkov, director of the LGBT Network in Russia, spoke with the Blade in a phone interview through a translator from Human Rights First and said Obama told activists he had to prioritize issues other than human rights.

“Obama said that his agenda is quite extensive and he cannot approach U.S.-Russia relations through the prism of human rights alone,” Kochetkov said. “He said there’s economic partnerships, military/strategic cooperation, and in order to achieve consensus on those subject areas, he has to compromise and find a balance in discussions about human rights.”

Kochetkov said he disagrees with Obama on this view of human rights issues.

“I think this approach does not have a future because in Russia, racist and homophobic attitudes are proportional to the growth of anti-Americanism and anti-Western attitudes,” Kochetkov said. “And the West won’t be able to get what it wants in the economic or military realm while being silenced on human rights.”

Still, Kochetkov said he wouldn’t characterize himself as disappointed in Obama’s remarks and noted he was “pleased” the meeting took place.

“I think it’s very important that Obama invited human rights activists, including specifically LGBT activists from Russia,” Kochetkov said. “It was a serious signal to the global community, a signal that it’s impossible to discuss human rights in today’s world without a conversation about the status of gay rights. Not everyone, especially in Russia, understands that.”

Olga Lenkova, communications director for the St. Petersburg-based LGBT group Coming Out, told the Washington Blade via email she was also satisfied with the experience.

“We did not have any particular expectations from the meeting, other than hoping for a good exchange of ideas, which has in fact taken place,” Lenkova said.

Lenkova said the focus of the meeting was on human rights in general, and the “complicated situation” for civil society leaders in Russia in addition to global challenges such as the “relative ineffectiveness” of the United Nations and global warming.

“President Obama tried to respond to all questions raised despite our obvious disagreements on Syria for example,” Lenkova said. “He mostly talked about the U.S., highlighting that there are many challenges and problems, the ones we mentioned — death penalty, Guantanamo, surveillance, etc. — and others that can’t be easily overcome by a president, but where the active civil society plays the key role.”

According to Lenkova, Obama concluded the session by saying, “Any state has to guard itself from protecting itself instead of its citizens. You’ve challenged me to do more and I will. And sometimes I will succeed and sometimes not.”

Which LGBT issues came up during the meeting? Kochetkov said he urged Obama to be more open and vocal in his criticism of what’s happening in Russia. He also urged Obama to build international awareness of LGBT issues.

“I also asked President Obama to consider ways of monitoring hate crime incidents through the international community,” Kochetkov said. “Hate crimes motivated by sexual orientation or gender identity bias are not totally investigated or investigated at all sometimes, so we need an international mechanism to look into those cases as well.”

Amid growing international attention, the activists said they also raised concerns with Obama about a controversial anti-gay law that prohibits pro-gay propaganda to minors in Russia.

Dmitri Makarov, a member of the Russia-based International Youth Human Rights Movement who was a non-LGBT participant at the meeting, told the Blade via email the anti-gay law took up a significant part of the discussion.

“The Russian anti-gay laws were brought up and were a significant part of the discussion,” Makarov said. “There was a press briefing also at the end of the meeting by LGBT Network.”

Kochetkov said he raised the anti-propaganda law with Obama, but the president declined to comment on it.

“He made no comment, but he was there to listen to the situation in Russia,” Kochetkov said.

Lenkova said the measure did come up during the discussion, but LGBT rights weren’t the main topic of the meeting.

“Regarding LGBT issues he said that he had already been quite explicit about what he thinks about discrimination against LGBT people,” Lenkova said. “He also referred to the changes that took place in the U.S. in this regard within the last 10 to 15 years, when he was saying that though problems in the U.S. are still many, the system is capable of change.”

Some LGBT activists said prior to the meeting they hoped Obama would take his opposition to the anti-gay law directly to the Russian government and media during his trip to St. Petersburg.

A video report on Saturday from European television station Euronews claimed gay activists left the meeting with Obama feeling “disappointed.” It based that conclusion on an interview with Kochetkov, who talked through a translator.

Kochetkov responded to the report by reiterating he wasn’t disappointed in the meeting, but said he disagrees with Obama on some issues.

“It’s more nuanced,” Kochetkov said. “I’m not disappointed. I said that I disagree with President Obama on certain things.”

Nonetheless, International Youth Human Rights Movement’s Makarov said he thinks the report is “quite accurate” — or at least “as much as a one-minute report focusing on just one aspect can be accurate.”

“I would have liked to hear a more decisive stance, but I do understand the argument that there are other issues that the president has to care about,” Makarov said. “Yet, as a human rights defender I would push for human rights to be prioritized in relations with Russia in particular.”

The White House didn’t respond to a request for comment on the report or reactions from the activists.

According to a transcript of remarks provided by the White House after the event, Obama talked about freedom of the press and assembly with activists.

“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.

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Task Force targets five battleground states in ‘Queer the Vote’

LGBTQ rights organization raises over $15,000 at D.C. event

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LGBTQ Task Force Executive Director Kierra Johnson (left) speaks to a crowd of supporters at Metrobar on Friday, May 13. (Blade photo by Michael Key)

Nearly 50 people attended the National LGBTQ Task Force’s Reunited and Resilient fundraiser at Metrobar on Friday, May 13.

Task Force board member Peter Chandler announced at the first in-person D.C. gathering of the organization since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, “we all are thirsty and hungry for community right now.”

Following remarks by Task Force Executive Director Kierra Johnson and Deputy Executive Director Mayra Hidalgo Salazar, the organization raised more than $15,000 in pledges of donations from guests.

“I think a lot of us are seeing this bill pop up,” Salazar said, referring to Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law. “And some of us can feel hopelessness, but I’m really thrilled to share with you that the Task Force is super determined to make sure that we are driving the political power of the LGBT movement through our ‘Queer the Vote’ work in Florida.”

Johnson elaborated on the Task Force’s “Queer the Vote” initiative. “As we look to the 2022 midterms, the Task Force is moving our resources into civic engagement across five states: North Carolina, Texas, Florida, Ohio and Michigan,” said Johnson.

“That’s not by accident: that’s intentional,” continued Johnson. “These are battleground states. These are states where we are seeing not only attacks on LGBTQ issues, we’re seeing attacks on abortion, we’re seeing attacks on voting rights, we’re seeing attacks on immigrants. We’re seeing multi-front attacks on our people, and that’s exactly where the Task Force wants to be: at those intersections of social justice issues and LGBTQ liberation.”

“The states that we are going to — we could change the impact on elections. In some places the margin is one percent; it is a one percent margin of whether we win or lose. And the majority of states in this country are 10% LGBTQ voters. That plus BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and people of color] voters, we have the power to impact elections and make real change.”

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Military college student sues armed forces over HIV+ ban policy

“It is unacceptable that the U.S. military continues to perpetuate harmful stigma against people living with HIV”

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U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont with Vermont National Guard troops (USNG Public Affairs/Vermont)

Lawyers for Civil Rights (LCR) filed a federal civil rights lawsuit Thursday in the U.S. District Court for the District of Vermont against U.S. military officials and the Vermont National Guard, challenging the antiquated, irrational, and discriminatory policies that bar individuals living with HIV from their professional aspirations of enlisting in or commissioning to the military. 

This lawsuit is brought by John Doe, a Latinx student at a Vermont military academy, who suddenly found himself separated from the Army National Guard and removed from Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC), the pathway to commissioning with the military as an officer, when he learned that he is HIV-positive. Like many individuals living with HIV, Mr. Doe is on antiretroviral therapy that keeps him healthy and renders his viral load undetectable. Although his treating physician has confirmed that this means he has no physical limitations, the military deemed him unfit for service based on his HIV status alone.

“I am filing this lawsuit to prevent the military from arbitrarily discriminating against people living with HIV,” said Mr. John Doe. “I also hope that this lawsuit can return my dream of a military career to me.” Mr. Doe is deeply devoted to serving his country and has aspired to be a service member since the age of seven. He was raised by a single mother and born into a Latinx family with extensive military history. The military’s current discriminatory policies, however, have trampled Mr. Doe’s dreams.

“It is unacceptable that the U.S. military continues to perpetuate harmful stigma against people living with HIV,” said Sophia Hall, Deputy Litigation Director at Lawyers for Civil Rights. “By this lawsuit, we aim to end these antiquated military policies based on outdated science.”

“These military policies against people living with HIV are unconstitutional and all-around a poor business practice,” said Oren Sellstrom, Litigation Director at Lawyers for Civil Rights. “The U.S. military is eliminating a talented and diverse workforce on the basis of old science that bears no relation to current fitness.” 

Today’s lawsuit opens up a new frontier in the fight against HIV discrimination by the military, by challenging military policies that prevent individuals from embarking on a military career.  A federal judge from the Eastern District of Virginia recently ruled that asymptomatic HIV-positive service members with an undetectable viral load cannot be separated or discharged from the military merely because of their HIV-positive status. Today’s lawsuit seeks to extend that ruling to those aspiring to a military career. In addition to asking the Court to reinstate Mr. Doe, the lawsuit asks the Court to invalidate the regulations and policies that led to his separation.

Attorney Hall highlighted the civil rights implications of the lawsuit, noting that Black and Latinx individuals make up nearly 70% of HIV diagnoses, but only 30% of the U.S. population. “Military service has long been viewed by communities of color as an admirable path to education and job security,” she said. “That path should not be foreclosed based on the military’s outdated and discriminatory policies regarding HIV.”

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Biden names lesbian Hispanic immigrant to serve on federal judiciary

Ana Reyes born in Uruguary, came U.S. in 1974

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President Biden has nominated Ana Reyes to serve on federal court in D.C.

President Biden has nominated Ana Reyes, an attorney at the D.C-based law firm Williams & Connolly LLP, for a seat on federal court in D.C., making her the first Hispanic woman and the first out lesbian who would ever serve on the court, the White House announced Wednesday.

Reyes was among the five picks in the latest round of judicial nominees announced by the White House, which brings the total number of announced federal judicial nominees in the Biden Administration to 95. Reyes publicly identifies as a lesbian, a White House official said.

Reyes, who immigrated to the United States as a child, has worked as an attorney at Williams & Connolly LLP since 2001 and has been partner at the law firm since 2009, according to her White House bio. Reyes served as a law clerk for Judge Amalya Kearse on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit from 2000 to 2001, her bio says.

A Washington Post profile on Reyes in 2020 reports she was born in Uruguay and shortly after moved to Spain, before her family came to Louisville in 1979 for her father to pursue a job as a civil engineer. Much of Reyes’s work is pro bono as she represents refugee organizations and challenges anti-asylum regulations, the Post reported.

“I often wonder whether this career would have been possible if I had not had someone spend her extra time to help me learn English and not fall behind or through the cracks,” Reyes was quoted as saying in the profile. “I would very much love to say thank you, and my life very likely wouldn’t have been possible, without you.”

Reyes obtained law degree in 2000 from Harvard Law School, where she graduated magna cum laude, and obtained her master’s degree in International Public Policy from the Johns Hopkins School of International Studies, with honors, in 2014. Reyes obtained her bachelor’s degree from Transylvania University in 1996.

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