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IOC president meets with Russian LGBT athletes, activist

Concerns over Russia’s gay rights record discussed

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Athlete Ally, All Out, IOC, International Olympic Committee, Russia, Sochi, gay news, Washington Blade

Athlete Ally, All Out, IOC, International Olympic Committee, Russia, Sochi, gay news, Washington Blade

Members of All Out and Athlete Ally on August 7 presented a petition with more than 300,000 signatures to the International Olympic Committee that urges it to pressure Russia to end its gay crackdown. (Photo courtesy of All Out)

International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach on Nov. 30 met Russian LGBT athletes and advocates amid continued criticism over the Kremlin’s gay rights record ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympics.

Elvina Yuvakaeva and Konstantin Yablotskiy of the Russian LGBT Sports Federation and Anastasia Smirnova of the Russian LGBT Network met with Bach in Paris where he was attending the 100th anniversary of the International Fencing Federation. Emy Ritt and Marc Naimark of the Federation of Gay Games; IOC Director of Communications Mark Adams and Bach’s incoming chief-of-staff, Jochen Faerber, also attended the meeting that lasted more than an hour.

Yuvakaeva, Yablotskiy and Smirnova discussed their desire to have a so-called Pride House for LGBT athletes and their supporters during the games that are scheduled to begin in Sochi, Russia, on Feb. 7. They also raised concerns over the implementation of a vaguely worded law that bans gay propaganda to minors during the Olympics.

The IOC flew the three to Paris for the meeting.

“We expressed our desire for a safe space for LGBT people at the Sochi Games,” Yablotskiy said in a press release the Federation of Gay Games sent to the Washington Blade after the meeting. “At the Vancouver and London Olympics, Pride Houses were organized by the LGBT sports community, but in Sochi, our government has banned such initiatives. We still hope that the IOC will be able to intervene to demonstrate its commitment to sport for all and to the values of the Olympic Charter.”

Smirnova specifically criticized Russia’s gay propaganda law in a letter written on behalf of Russian LGBT rights activists that she gave to Bach.

“We believe that this legislation and the environment infringe and debase the Olympic values,” she wrote. “The IOC is in the unique position of both power and responsibility to ensure that the Winter Olympics 2014 do not embrace discrimination and violence against LGBT persons.”

The letter called upon the IOC to “publicly express support for those in the Olympic movement who speak up for basic human rights of LGBT persons.” It also urged the Olympic body to not only condemn Russia’s anti-LGBT laws, but to create a Pride House in Sochi.

“We are aware of and are gravely concerned with the fact that the IOC does not acknowledge the urgency and necessity of this action, reiterating and endorsing vague assurances by the Russian government of non-discrimination at the Sochi games,” the letter reads. “While we appreciate your assurance that the IOC is committed to non-discrimination, we believe that everyone in the Olympic Movement should have a clear and well-informed understanding of the legal implications that exist in Russia in relation to the basic rights of LGBT individuals.”

Bach in September stressed before the lighting of the Olympic flame in Greece that Olympic values include “respect without any form of discrimination.”

He took part in an Oct. 28 press conference in Sochi during which Russian President Vladimir Putin said gays and lesbians will not suffer discrimination during the games. Other Kremlin officials had previously said authorities plan to enforce the propaganda law during the Olympics.

Smirnova said Bach declined to meet with Russian LGBT rights advocates while in Sochi.

“It’s good to hear that equality advocates are continuing the fight for non-discrimination at the Olympics,” U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) told the Blade after Bach met with Yuvakaeva, Yablotskiy and Smirnova. “I hope that, by this continuing and relentless lobbying efforts by so many, the [IOC] will realize that this issue cannot and will not be swept under the rug. We can all continue to do more to alert officials that the concerns of the LGBT community must be addressed.”

Naimark told the Blade on Monday during an interview from Paris that the IOC has not responded to a campaign the Federation of Gay Games launched in 2010 in support of amending the Olympic charter to ban anti-gay discrimination.

“To go from that to a face-to-face meeting with the president of the IOC is a huge step,” said Naimark as he discussed the Nov. 30 meeting. “Thomas Bach is to be praised.”

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Congress

Lawmakers champion drug policy reforms at National Cannabis Policy Summit

Congressional leaders pledged their support for decriminalization

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U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), second from left (Washington Blade photo by Christopher Kane)

Speaking at the 2024 National Cannabis Policy Summit on Wednesday, congressional leaders pledged their support for proposals to remedy the harms of America’s War on Drugs while protecting cannabis users and cannabis businesses that are operating under a fast-evolving patchwork of local, state, and federal laws.

Overwhelmingly, the lawmakers who attended the conference at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in D.C. or delivered their remarks virtually were optimistic about the chances of passing legislative solutions in the near-term, perhaps even in this Congress.

Participants included U.S. Sens. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), along with U.S. Reps. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), and Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), who co-chairs the Congressional Cannabis Caucus and was honored at the event with the Supernova Women Cannabis Champion Lifetime Achievement Award. Republicans included an aide for U.S. Rep. David Joyce (R-Ohio) who was featured in an afternoon panel discussion about the cannabis policy landscape on Capitol Hill.

Each of the members have long championed cannabis-related policy reforms, from Merkley’s SAFER Banking Act that would allow cannabis businesses to access financial services (thereby affording them the critically important protections provided by banks) to Lee’s work throughout her career to ameliorate the harms suffered by, particularly, Black and Brown communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the criminalization of marijuana and the consequences of systemic racism in law enforcement and the criminal justice system.

The lawmakers agreed America is now at an inflection point. Democratic and Republican leaders are coming together to support major drug policy reforms around cannabis, they said. And now that 40 states and D.C. have legalized the drug for recreational or medical use, or both, the congress members stressed that the time is now for action at the federal level.

Last summer, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued a formal request to re-categorize marijuana as a Schedule III substance under the rules and regulations of the Controlled Substances Act, which kicked off an ongoing review by the Biden-Harris administration. Since the law’s enactment in 1971, cannabis has been listed as a Schedule I substance and, therefore, has been subject to the most stringent restrictions on and criminal penalties for its cultivation, possession, sale, and distribution.

Merkley acknowledged that re-scheduling would remedy the Nixon administration’s “bizarre” decision to house marijuana under the same scheduling designation as far more harmful and addictive drugs like heroin — and noted that the move would also effectively legalize biomedical research involving cannabis. However, the senator said, while re-scheduling “may be a step in the right direction, it’s not de-scheduling” and therefore would not make real inroads toward redressing the harms wrought by decades of criminalization.  

Likewise, as she accepted her award, Lee specified that she and her colleagues are “working night and day on the legalization, not re-scheduling.” And her comments were echoed by Warren, who proclaimed in a prerecorded video address that “de-scheduling and legalizing cannabis is an issue of justice.”

Congressional Republicans have blocked legislation to legalize marijuana, the Massachusetts senator said, “and that is why the scheduling is so important,” as it might constitute a “tool that we can use to get this done without Republican obstruction.”

Warren, Merkley, and Schumer were among the 12 Senate Democrats who issued a letter in January to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration requesting transparency into its re-scheduling process while also, more importantly, demanding that the agency fully de-schedule cannabis, which would mean the drug is no longer covered by the Controlled Substances Act.

However, in a possible signal of political headwinds against these efforts, their Republican colleagues led by U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) responded with a letter to DEA Administrator Anne Milgram “highlighting concerns over HHS’s recommendation to reschedule marijuana from a Schedule I to Schedule III-controlled substance.” The GOP signatories, all of whom serve on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also sought to “underscore the Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) duty under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) to ensure compliance with the United States’ treaty obligations under the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs.”

As Norton noted during her prepared remarks, elected Democrats are not necessarily always on the same page with respect to expanding access to economic opportunity facilitated by cannabis. For instance, though President Joe Biden had promised, during his State of the Union address this year, to direct his “Cabinet to review the federal classification of marijuana, and [expunge] thousands of convictions for mere possession,” Norton blamed Biden along with House Republicans for provisions in the federal budget this year that prohibit D.C. from using local tax dollars to legalize cannabis sales.

A non-voting delegate who represents the city’s 690,000 residents in the House, Norton called the president’s position “deeply disappointing,” particularly considering his record of supporting “D.C. statehood, which would allow D.C. to enact its own policies without congressional interference” and grant its residents voting representation in both chambers of Congress. She added that the majority of Washingtonians are Black and Brown while all are held responsible for “the obligations of citizenship including paying federal taxes.”

Norton said the city should also have the power to grant clemency for crimes committed in the District, including cannabis-related crimes — power that, currently, can only be exercised by the president.

Some Republican lawmakers have been at the forefront of efforts to reform harmful cannabis regulations. For instance, a participant in a mid-afternoon panel pointed to the CURE Act, a bill introduced by U.S. Reps. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) and Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) that would prohibit the federal government from denying security clearances based on applicants’ past or current use of cannabis.

While securing statehood for D.C. and de-scheduling cannabis via legislation or administrative action are perhaps, at least for now, a heavy lift, Merkley pointed to promising new developments concerning his SAFER Banking Act.

The Oregon senator first introduced the measure, then titled the SAFE Banking Act, in 2019, and he said the legislation’s evolution into its current iteration was difficult. “Regulators don’t want to be told what to do,” Merkley said, and negotiations with these officials involved “nitty-gritty arguments over every word.”

Pushback also came from one of Merkley’s Democratic colleagues. In September, Warnock, who is Georgia’s first Black U.S. senator, voted “no” on the 2023 version of the SAFER Banking Act, writing: “My fear is that if we pass this legislation, if we greenlight this new industry and the fees and the profits to be made off of it without helping those communities” most harmed by the War on Drugs “we will just make the comfortable more comfortable.”

Warnock’s statement followed his pointed remarks expressing concerns with the legislation during a Senate Banking Committee hearing.

“Let me be very clear,” he said, “I am not opposed to easing or undoing federal restrictions around cannabis. And I would support all of the provisions and reforms in this legislation if paired with broader cannabis reforms that substantively address the issue of restorative justice. This bill does not do that.”

At this point, however, the latest version of the SAFER Banking Act has advanced out of committee and earned the support of Senate leaders including Schumer and much of the Republican conference.

“This is the moment,” he said. “Let’s not let this year pass without getting this bill — the safer banking bill — through the House, through the Senate, and on the president’s desk.”

In her remarks, Lee also discussed the importance of business and industry-wide reforms like those in Merkley’s bill.

“We have to make sure that the cannabis industry is viewed by everyone, especially our federal government, as a legitimate business,” Lee said. “Legitimate, which deserves every single aspect of financial services that any legitimate business deserves and has access to.”

Like Warnock, the congresswoman also highlighted how these financial and business considerations intersect with “equity issues,” as “those who have been most impacted by this horrible War on Drugs” must “become first in line for the businesses and for the jobs and for the economic opportunity the cannabis industry provides.”

Reflecting on her experience introducing the Marijuana Justice Act in 2019, which was Congress’s first racial justice cannabis reform bill, Lee remembered how “everyone was like, ‘why are you doing this? It’s politically not cool.’” Her legislation sought to end the federal criminalization of marijuana, expunge the criminal records of those convicted of cannabis-related crimes, and reinvest in communities that have suffered disproportionately from the War on Drugs.

The congresswoman said she explained to colleagues how the bill addressed “many, many layers” of often-intersecting problems linked to federal cannabis policy, telling them: “This is a criminal justice issue, a racial justice issue, an issue of equity, a medical issue, a veterans’ issue, and an issue of economic security.”

Two years later, with a 220-204 vote, the House successfully passed the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act, a comprehensive bill introduced by U.S. Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) and to the Senate by then-U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.). The measure included Lee’s Marijuana Justice Act.

“This bill is the product of many, many years of advocacy for federal cannabis reform and equity,” she said in a statement celebrating the bill’s passage. “Make no mistake: This is a racial justice bill. It’s about the thousands of people of color who sit in jail for marijuana offenses while others profit. It’s about finally repairing the harms of the War on Drugs on communities and families across the country.”

“We’ve come a long way,” she told the audience on Wednesday. “And now we have a long way to go.”

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Norfolk transgender resource center vandalized

Anti-trans graffiti spraypainted onto Southeastern Transgender Resource Center’s windows

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Southeastern Transgender Resource Center (Image courtesy of the Southeastern Transgender Resource Center)

The Norfolk Police Department is investigating the vandalism of a transgender resource center’s building.

Tarena Williams, founder of the Southeastern Transgender Resource Center, told WAVY that someone spraypainted anti-trans graffiti on the windows of her organization’s offices on Sunday or Monday morning. Williams told the Hampton Roads television station that seeing the messages was like “walking into hell.”

“I opened up STRC, even the Lamina House,” she told WAVY. “I opened up that to get away from those types of words. This is a place you can come to get away from that, but to see that sprayed over the window. It’s kind of like you are walking into hell. … To be honest, I was like in shock.”

Authorities are investigating the vandalism.

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Guatemalan LGBTQ activist granted asylum in US

Estuardo Cifuentes fled country in 2019

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Estuardo Cifuentes outside a port of entry in Brownsville, Texas, on March 3, 2021, shortly after he entered the U.S. (Photo courtesy of Estuardo Cifuentes)

The U.S. has granted asylum to a Guatemalan LGBTQ activist who fled his country in 2019.

Estuardo Cifuentes and his partner ran a digital marketing and advertising business in Guatemala City. 

He previously told the Washington Blade that gang members extorted from them. Cifuentes said they closed their business after they attacked them.

Cifuentes told the Blade that Guatemalan police officers attacked him in front of their home when he tried to kiss his partner. Cifuentes said the officers tried to kidnap him and one of them shot at him. He told the Blade that authorities placed him under surveillance after the incident and private cars drove past his home.

Cifuentes arrived in Matamoros, a Mexican border city that is across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, Texas, in June 2019. He asked for asylum in the U.S. based on the persecution he suffered in Guatemala because of his sexual orientation.

The Trump administration forced Cifuentes to pursue his asylum case from Mexico under its Migrant Protection Protocols program that became known as the “remain in Mexico” policy.

Cifuentes while in Matamoros ran Rainbow Bridge Asylum Seekers, a program for LGBTQ asylum seekers and migrants that the Resource Center Matamoros, a group that provides assistance to asylum seekers and migrants in the Mexican border city, helped create.

The Biden-Harris administration in January 2021 suspended enrollment in MPP. Cifuentes entered the U.S. on March 3, 2021.

“We are profoundly relieved and grateful that my husband and I have been officially recognized as asylees in the United States,” Cifuentes told the Blade on Monday in an email. “This result marks the end of a long and painful fight against the persecution that we faced in Guatemala because of our sexual orientation.”

Vice President Kamala Harris is among those who have said discrimination and violence based on sexual orientation are among the root causes of migration from Guatemala and other countries in Central America.

Cifuentes is now the client services manager for Lawyers for Good Government’s Project Corazón, a campaign that works “hard to reunite and defend the rights of families impacted by inhumane immigration policies.” He told the Blade he will continue to help LGBTQ asylum seekers and migrants.

“In this new chapter of our lives, we pledge to work hard to support others in similar situations and to contribute to the broader fight for the rights and acceptance of the LGBTQ+ migrant community,” said Cifuentes. “We are hopeful that our story will serve as a call to action to confront and end persecution based on gender identity and sexual orientation.”

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