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Victory Fund urged lawmaker to remain in closet: report 

Critic claims gay group wanted Sims, not Fleck, to be first out Pa. official

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Mike Fleck, Republican Party, Pennsylvania, gay news, Washington Blade
Mike Fleck, Republican Party, Pennsylvania, gay news, Washington Blade

Rep. Mike Fleck came out last year but said the Victory Fund advised him to stay in the closet, even after winning re-election. (Photo public domain)

A gay Republican member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives created a stir last week when he told the Philadelphia Gay News in an interview that the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund urged him to delay coming out until after the November 2012 election and possibly later.

Denis Dison, the Victory Fund’s senior vice president for programs, disputed claims by critics that the group pushed for Rep. Mike Fleck’s delay in coming out because it wanted another candidate it endorsed to become the state’s first openly gay state lawmaker.

Fleck, who won election in 2006 in the state’s rural, conservative 81st District, told PGN he was ready to come out as gay in the spring of 2012. At the time he had secured the Republican Party nomination for re-election and learned that no Democrat planned to run against him in the November general election.

“I was running unopposed so I didn’t see what the fallout would be,” PGN quoted him as saying. “But Victory Fund frowned upon that and said, ‘No, no, you’ve got a lot of people in tough races, your colleagues, and this isn’t an issue in their race. You can’t come out and put them like a deer in headlights, have them asked things like, ‘Your best friend just came out, where are you on equality legislation?’”

PGN reported that Fleck said when the election came and went the Victory Fund continued to urge him to delay coming out. But this time he ignored the advice and arranged for his hometown newspaper, the Huntington Daily News, to do a story reporting his coming out in its Dec. 1, 2012 edition.

The story of his coming out was picked up by other media outlets in the U.S. and even abroad and quickly went viral.

Fleck’s comments to PGN prompted lesbian commentator Faith Elmes to write a column for the Pennsylvania blog Keystone Student Voice questioning the Victory Fund’s motives in reportedly urging Fleck to postpone coming out. Elmes accused the Victory Fund of pushing for Fleck to stay in the closet long enough so that gay activist and attorney Brian Sims, a Democrat, would emerge as the state’s first openly gay member of the Pennsylvania House in his bid for a seat in a liberal, Democratic district that includes part of Philadelphia.

The Victory Fund endorsed Sims’ election bid and promoted him to potential campaign donors as being poised to become the first openly gay member of the state legislature. Sims defeated a pro-gay incumbent in the Democratic primary and ran unopposed in the November 2012 general election in what observers say is a safe Democratic district.

Elmes noted that Sims served on the Victory Fund’s campaign board that decides which candidates the group should endorse in its role as the nation’s leading advocate for the election of openly LGBT candidates for public office.

“If Mr. Sims secured the full title of ‘first openly gay legislator in PA,’ the organization would have amplified media presence after ‘their guy’ won,” Elmes wrote. “The Victory Fund could claim credit for prevailing in what they call on their website a ‘Horizon State’ [in which no out LGBT person held elective office to the state legislature].”

Sims, who takes strong exception to Elmes’ assertions, said he resigned from the Victory Fund’s board before he announced his candidacy for the 182nd House district, as is required under Victory Fund rules for all board members seeking to run for public office.

Dison, citing strict confidentiality rules in the Victory Fund’s role in advising closeted elected officials on how best to come out, declined to comment on what the group said to Fleck during the time he deliberated over whether to come out.

However, in a written statement to the Blade, he disputed claims that the Victory Fund’s endorsement of Sims played any role in its advice to Fleck.

“What’s important to us isn’t who was the first, but that the LGBT community finally gained not one but two authentic voices in the state legislature in the same year,” Dison said in his statement. “Our work assisting closeted officials who want to come out is aimed at increasing the likelihood they can remain public servants,” he said.

“That was our only consideration when we advised Rep. Mike Fleck last year,” said Dison. “Other theories are false.”

Some media outlets reported that Fleck became the state’s first openly gay state representative by way of coming out in the Dec. 1, 2012 newspaper story. These reports note that Sims didn’t take office until Jan. 1, when he took the oath of office at the state capital in Harrisburg.

But others, including Sims, point to the state constitution, which declares that the legislative session officially begins on the first day of December following the November election.

“For all of the things that are sort of gray and up in the air – this is not,” Sims told the Blade in a phone interview on Tuesday. “Article 2, Section 2 of our state constitution is two lines, and it’s very clear. My term began on the first day of December. My ceremonial swearing in was just that, a ceremonial swearing in on Jan. 1.”

Assuming Sims’ interpretation of the state constitution is correct, he and Fleck became “openly gay” lawmakers on the same day.

Fleck couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.

Sims said he did not know that Fleck planned to come out until a day or two before the newspaper story reporting his status as a gay man was published last December. He said he and Fleck are on good terms. Sims said a few days after Fleck came out he wrote a column in the Huffington Post welcoming Fleck.

“I was really frustrated that there were people who felt like Mike was trying to steal the spotlight or trying to race me somehow to this mythical title of first gay whatever,” Sims said. “That wasn’t the case.”

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National

Senate passes Respect for Marriage Act

Bill approved by 61-36 vote margin

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(Public domain photo)

The U.S. Senate voted 61-36 on Tuesday to officially pass the Respect for Marriage Act, a historic piece of legislation that is expected to soon become law after members in the U.S. House of Representatives sign off on a bipartisan amendment added by their Senate colleagues.

Designed as a vehicle to mitigate the fallout if the U.S. Supreme Court’s conservative supermajority guts the constitutional protections for marriage equality, the bill was narrowly construed — in part to help guarantee that it withstands potential challenges from conservative legal actors.

Nevertheless, the Respect for Marriage Act is a landmark bill that has been backed by virtually every LGBTQ advocacy organization in the country. The legislation repeals the Clinton-era Defense of Marriage Act while enshrining into law substantive protections for same-sex couples.

Regardless of whether or how the high court might decide to revisit the marriage question, the Respect for Marriage Act will protect the federally ordained rights and benefits that have long been enjoyed by married gay and lesbian couples. And should the court pave the way for conservative states like Texas to renew their bans on same-sex marriage, the law will require them to officially recognize and honor those that are performed in jurisdictions where they remain legal.

Despite earning broad bipartisan support from lawmakers in the House, which passed its version of the bill this summer with an overwhelming majority — including votes from 47 Republican members — the Respect for Marriage Act faced an uncertain future in the Senate.

Conservative members in the chamber’s Republican caucus argued the bill would jeopardize religious freedoms, concerns that a group of five bipartisan senators sought to allay with an amendment that, among other provisions, clarifies the right of religious nonprofit organizations to refuse “any services, facilities, or goods for the solemnization or celebration of a marriage.”

Writing the amendment were Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) and Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), who was considered the driving force behind the bill’s passage through the Senate.

Several Republican senators proposed additional amendments that — per a narrow procedural vote before and another shortly after the Thanksgiving break — were not put up for debate, thereby allowing the Respect for Marriage Act to clear the Senate with Tuesday’s vote.

Barely surpassing the 60-vote filibuster-proof majority with one extra “yea,” the Senate’s passage of the bill came despite the best efforts of conservative opponents who had run coordinated campaigns to erode support among GOP members.

President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris each issued statements shortly after Tuesday’s vote.

The president celebrated the “bipartisan achievement” by Congress, writing: “For millions of Americans, this legislation will safeguard the rights and protections to which LGBTQI+ and interracial couples and their children are entitled. It will also ensure that, for generations to follow, LGBTQI+ youth will grow up knowing that they, too, can lead full, happy lives and build families of their own.”

Harris wrote: “The Respect for Marriage Act ultimately stands for a simple principle: all Americans are equal and their government should treat them that way. Today, we are one step closer to achieving that ideal with pride.”

The Congressional LGBTQ+ Equality Caucus also praised the victory.

“Today, a bipartisan group of 61 Senators made clear that this country will not roll back the clock on marriage equality,” said Congressman David Cicilline (D-R.I.), chair of the Equality Caucus. “The Respect for Marriage Act is a crucial safeguard for LGBTQ+ people whose lives have been forever changed by Obergefell v. Hodges and Americans who are in interracial marriages thanks to Loving v. Virginia. On June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court declared marriage equality as the law of the land. Today, the Senate ensured those marriages will continue to be protected.”

LGBTQ groups celebrate the win

“Diverse faith traditions across the nation came together to demand respect for LGBTQ+ Americans – we staked our ground and refused to let this opportunity slip away, ” said Rev. Paul Brandeis Raushenbush, president of the Interfaith Alliance, in a statement Tuesday.

“The  LGBTQ+ community has faced ongoing deadly violence, legislative assaults and constant threats — including the deadly shooting in Colorado Springs barely one week ago,” said Kelley Robinson, president of the Human Rights Campaign, in a statement from the organization.

“Today, with the passage of the Respect for Marriage Act in the Senate — a historic moment that marks the first federal legislative win for LGBTQ+ equality in over 10 years, since the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell — the 568,000 same-sex married couples in this country can breathe a sigh of relief that their marriages will be protected from future attacks,” said Robinson, who yesterday began her tenure as the first Black queer woman to lead America’s largest LGBTQ organization.

GLAAD President Sarah Kate Ellis responded on Twitter and in a statement, writing: “As so many LGBTQ people face uncertainty and harm on the state level and extremists on the Supreme Court vow to reconsider the landmark Obergefell decision, this victory will provide comfort and security to millions of people and their families.”

“Today’s bipartisan vote in the Senate to pass the Respect for Marriage Act is a proud moment for our country and an affirmation that, notwithstanding our differences, we share a profound commitment to the principle of equality and justice for all,” reads a statement from National Center for Lesbian Rights Executive Director Imani Rupert-Gordon.

LGBTQ Victory Institute President Annise Parker said, “This landmark piece of legislation protects the marriages of millions of LGBTQ Americans who have not slept well for months, wondering if our marriages would be dissolved by an activist court. While the Respect for Marriage Act is undoubtedly one of the most important pro-LGBTQ laws ever passed, it does not require states to grant marriages to LGBTQ couples. Until then, our fight is not over.”

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District of Columbia

D.C. Rainbow History Project launches Trans History Initiative

$15,000 D.C. government grant funded project

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(Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

D.C.’s Rainbow History Project announced it has launched a new project called the Trans History Initiative “to better integrate the often-under-represented histories of trans people into RHP’s existing programming.”

In a statement announcing the new initiative, the LGBTQ history group says it has been awarded a $15,000 grant from D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs to fund the project.

“The Trans History Initiative will help RHP deepen its connections with the Trans community through expanded efforts to preserve the history and cultural contributions of Washington-area trans communities,” the statement says. “The Initiative was developed with RHP’s trans members, trans community pioneers and trans board members,” it says.

The statement says the grant will enable Rainbow History Project to hire one or more coordinators to “build on four exiting RHP programs: collecting oral histories; preserving archival documents; tracking timelines and historic places; and hosting public education panels.”

According to the statement, the new trans initiative is in keeping with Rainbow History Project’s long-standing mission.

“Since its founding in 2000, RHP’s mission is to collect, preserve and promote an active knowledge of the history, arts and culture of metropolitan Washington, D.C.’s diverse LGBTQ communities,” the statement says. “RHP strives to ensure that its collection, volunteer corps and programming reflect and represent the full diversity of those communities.”

The statement also points out that due to longstanding bias and discrimination faced by transgender people it has been difficult to obtain information about their lives and accomplishments.

“Unfortunately, many trans people often left behind little record of their lives — and personal histories that do exist are often scrubbed of an individual’s trans identity by society or even their own families,” said Jeffrey Donahoe, RHP’s director of oral history.

“This revisionism, both unintentional and intentional, makes it difficult for the broader community to understand and empathize with the struggles and successes of the Trans community,” Donahoe said in the statement.

“The Trans History Initiative will counter this revisionism by giving another platform for trans people to tell their stories to the broader public,” he said. “We need to ensure that trans narratives are not lost to the ravages of time but preserved as part of the historical record.”

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State Department

U.S. diplomat says negotiations to release Brittney Griner have stalled

WNBA star remains in Russian penal colony

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(Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

In remarks published Monday, Elizabeth Rood, the U.S. chargée d’affaires in Moscow, told Russia’s state-owned RIA news agency that talks to free jailed Americans Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan were continuing through the “designated channel.”

During the long ranging interview covering a variety of subjects, Rood was asked if she intended to visit the imprisoned WNBA star who is serving time in a Mordovian prison.

“Of course, we are going to do this as soon as the Russian authorities give us permission to visit Brittney Griner in the new colony where she was recently transferred,” the American diplomat responded and in answer to a follow-up question regarding Griner’s status. “As far as we understood from talking to her, she is healthy and doing as well as can be expected in her difficult circumstances.”

RIA then focused on the negotiations asking for some of the details including the possibility of convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout being included in the “exchange list” in the potential prisoner swap deal between the Russian and American authorities.

“I can say that the United States continues to discuss with the Russian authorities through special channels the issue of the release of Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan.  As we have already said, the United States has submitted a serious proposal for consideration. We finalized this proposal and offered alternatives. Unfortunately, the Russian Federation has so far received no serious response to these proposals, ” the U.S. chargée d’affaires answered.

“However, I would like to emphasize that the main concern and the first priority of the U.S. Embassy is to ensure the well-being of the American citizens who are here. And the situation is not limited to the names of those who are mentioned in the media headlines — a number of American citizens are kept in Russian prisons. We are extremely concerned about the condition of each of them, and we continue to follow their affairs very closely and support them in every possible way,” she added.

RIA then asked: “What did you mean by ‘serious response’ from Russia? Moscow has repeatedly stressed that the negotiations are being conducted through professional channels … What does the American side mean by “serious response”?

Rood answered telling RIA; “I mean, we have made a serious proposal that reflects our intention to take action to free American prisoners. We did not see a serious response from the Russian side to our proposal.”

“By ‘serious answer’ do you mean consent?” RIA asked in a follow-up question.

“I mean an answer that would help us come to an agreement,” she answered.

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