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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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Federal Government

Department of Education to investigate Nex Benedict’s Okla. school district

Nonbinary student died last month after students assaulted them

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Nex Benedict (Family photo)

On Friday the U.S. Department of Education informed Human Rights Campaign President Kelley Robinson that the department will open an investigation in response to HRC’s letter regarding Owasso Public Schools and its failure to respond appropriately to sex-based harassment that may have contributed to the death of Nex Benedict, a 16-year-old nonbinary teenager of Choctaw heritage. 

This investigation was triggered by a formal complaint made last week by Robinson, who wrote to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona and asked his department to use the enforcement mechanisms at its disposal to prevent similar tragedies from taking place in the future and to help hold accountable those responsible for Benedict’s death.

The letter from the Department of Education reads: “the U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights (OCR), is opening for investigation the above-referenced complaint that you filed against the Owasso Public Schools (the District.) Your complaint alleges that the District discriminated against students by failing to respond appropriately to sex-based harassment, of which it had notice, at Owasso High School during the 2023-2024 school year,” said Robinson.

“Nex’s family, community and the broader 2SLGBTQI+ (two-spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex+) community in Oklahoma are still awaiting answers following their tragic loss. We appreciate the Department of Education responding to our complaint and opening an investigation — we need them to act urgently so there can be justice for Nex, and so that all students at Owasso High School and every school in Oklahoma can be safe from bullying, harassment and discrimination,” Robinson added.

According to the letter, OCR is opening the following issues for investigation:

  • Whether the District failed to appropriately respond to alleged harassment of students in a manner consistent with the requirements of Title IX.
  • Whether the District failed to appropriately respond to alleged harassment of students in a manner consistent with the requirements of Section 504 and Title II.

HRC sent a second letter to the Department asking it to promptly begin an investigation into the Oklahoma State Department of Education, as well as the current State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Ryan Walters. In addition:

  • Robinson wrote to Attorney General Merrick Garland asking the Department of Justice to begin an investigation into Nex’s death.
  • Robinson wrote to Dr. Margaret Coates, superintendent of the Owasso School District in Oklahoma, calling for the superintendent to take advantage of HRC’s Welcoming Schools program — the most comprehensive bias-based bullying prevention program in the nation to provide LGBTQ and gender inclusive training and resources — and offering to bring experts to the district immediately.

The full text of the letter from the Department of Education in response to HRC can be found here.

The full text of the initial letter from Robinson to Cardona can be found here.

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District of Columbia

Judy and Dennis Shepard discuss Nex Benedict, anti-LGBTQ laws at DC event

Nonbinary Okla. high school student died last month after fight

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Dennis and Judy Shephard speak at the Raben Group’s D.C. offices on Feb. 29, 2024. (Washington Blade photo by Amber Laenen)

Judy and Dennis Shepard on Thursday reflected on Nex Benedict’s death and the proliferation of anti-LGBTQ laws across the country during a discussion the Raben Group hosted at their D.C. office.

The discussion, which MSNBC host Jonathan Capehart moderated, took place less than a month after Benedict died.

Benedict, who was nonbinary, passed away on Feb. 8 after students at their high school in Owasso, Okla., assaulted them in a bathroom. 

Vice President Kamala Harris, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, House Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Republican Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt are among those who have publicly responded to Benedict’s death, which took place after they endured months of bullying. More than 300 advocacy groups have demanded Oklahoma Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters’ removal and called for a federal investigation into the Oklahoma Department of Education’s “actions and policies” that have facilitated a “culture where rampant harassment of 2SLGBTQI+ students has been allowed to go unchecked.”

“Parents are doing whatever they can to protect and encourage and support kids, and you have these what I call evil, evil people around the country pushing these laws,” said Dennis Shepard.

He noted lawmakers around the country are pushing anti-LGBTQ laws and other efforts that include the elimination of diversity, equity and inclusion programs. Dennis Shepard also highlighted an effort to defund gender studies programs at the University of Wyoming.

“[It is] the old white male, Christian geezers who want to go back to the days of the 50s when they had that superior arrogant attitude,” he said. “They’re losing it and they don’t want to, so they’re passing everything they can.”

“What happened to Nex is a result of that,” added Dennis Shepard. “They feel like Henderson and McKinney felt when they took Matt out on the prairie.”

Matthew Shepard died on Oct. 12, 1998, after Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney brutally beat him and left him tied to a fence in Laramie, Wyo. Then-President Barack Obama in 2009 signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which added sexual orientation and gender identity to the federal hate crimes law.

“If you’re considered different, you’re in fear of your life right now because you don’t fit in and it’s got to stop,” said Dennis Shepard.

Judy Shepard echoed her husband, noting this moment is “the last gasp of the fight against the community.” 

“In my heart, I know this is a moment in time, and it’s going to pass. But also in that time, all these young people, everyone in the community is afraid, but young people are being terrorized,” she said. “It just shouldn’t be happening.”

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U.S. Federal Courts

N.Y. AG joins multi-state brief in Colo. anti-trans discrimination case

Letitia James and 18 other attorneys general support plaintiff

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trans health care, gay news, Washington Blade
New York Attorney General Letitia James (Photo public domain)

New York Attorney General Letitia James on Wednesday joined a brief by 18 other Democratic state attorneys general urging the Colorado Supreme Court to uphold a lower court ruling against Masterpiece Cakeshop for anti-trans discrimination.

A customer, Autumn Scardina, sued the business over claims that it refused to provide her a cake upon learning that it was for a celebration of her transition. The case is not the first in which owner Jack Smith has faced claims of anti-LGBTQ discrimination.

In 2012, Masterpiece Cakeshop refused to fulfill an order for a wedding cake for a same-sex couple, which led to the 2018 U.S. Supreme Court case Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission — and a narrow ruling that did not address core legal questions weighing the constitutionality of First Amendment claims vis-a-vis the government’s enforcement of LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination laws.

“Denying service to someone simply because of who they are is illegal discrimination, plain and simple,” James said in a press release. “Allowing this kind of behavior would undermine our nation’s fundamental values of freedom and equality and set a dangerous precedent.”

She added, “I am proud to stand with my fellow attorneys general against this blatant transphobic discrimination.”

The Colorado Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Scardina, noting that Smith objected to fulfilling her cake order only after learning about her intended use for it “and that Phillips did not believe the cake itself expressed any inherent message.”

The fact pattern in both cases against Masterpiece Cakeshop resembles that of another case that originated in Colorado and was ultimately decided by the Supreme Court last year, 303 Creative LLC v. Elenis.

This time, the justices did not sidestep the question of whether the state’s anti-discrimination law can be enforced against a business owner, Lorie Smith, a website designer who claimed religious protections for her refusal to provide services to a same-sex couple for their nuptials.

The court’s conservative supermajority ruled in favor of Smith, which was widely seen as a blow to LGBTQ rights.

Joining James in her brief are the attorneys general of Connecticut, Delaware, Hawai’i, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington and D.C.

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