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TSA changes airport security for gay couples

Spouses separated before American Airlines flights to U.S.

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César Zapata, Hunter Carter, gay news, Washington Blade
César Zapata, Hunter Carter, gay news, Washington Blade

From left, César Zapata and Hunter Carter said American Airlines personnel at the Medellín, Colombia, airport separated them on Jan. 18 as they checked into their flight to Miami. (Photo courtesy of César Zapata)

The Washington Blade has learned the Transportation Security Administration will allow same-sex couples to undergo pre-flight security screenings together in response to two recent incidents with American Airlines personnel at a Colombian airport.

Hunter Carter, a prominent same-sex marriage advocate in Latin America who said American Airlines personnel at the airport in the Colombian city of Medellín separated him and his husband, César Zapata, as they tried to check into their Miami-bound flight on Jan. 18, received an e-mail from Alec Bramlett, senior litigation attorney for the airline, on Wednesday afternoon.

“TSA has communicated to our Corporate Security folks that they are working on a technical change to its directive, and that pending that change, we can immediately begin screening same-sex spouses together,” wrote Bramlett in the e-mail the Blade obtained from Carter. “We are working on communicating this change in procedures to our stations ASAP.”

A TSA spokesperson confirmed to the Blade on Thursday the agency is “working to make clear any confusion in language included in the Aircraft Operator Standard Security Program (ASOP) document” that dictates security screenings.

“TSA policy is for every attempt to be made to accommodate all families traveling together,” said the spokesperson.

Carter welcomed the announcement.

“It used to be that discrimination against same-sex couples who are LGBT people wasn’t newsworthy, but that has changed,” he told the Blade on Wednesday. “Today a major corporation and a government agency swiftly changed a legacy policy that was discriminatory and humiliating. Now when César and I fly we know we will not be flying as second-class passengers but on equal terms with all other married couples as is our legal right.”

Carter and Zapata are the second same-sex couple in less than two months to allege American Airlines personnel at the Medellín airport separated them as they tried to check into their U.S.-bound flight.

Ana Elisa Leiderman said an American Airlines ticket agent separated her from her wife, Verónica Botero, and their two small children as they tried to check into their Miami-bound flight on Dec. 13. A third gay couple — Tomás Georgi and Mark Cline — told the Blade late on Wednesday they experienced a similar experience on Dec. 1 as they tried to check into their American Airlines flight from Buenos Aires, Argentina, to New York.

“I was told to get back to the end of the line when I protested,” said Georgi. “As a native of Argentina, I was fully able to discern the distain and anti-gay sentiment with which I was treated.”

Georgi told the Blade another gate agent whom he asked to allow him to board his flight with his partner “dismissed” him “callously.”

“Not until I insisted again and drew the attention of the 100 or so fellow passengers was I permitted to join my partner who was waiting for me on the jet way after being physically separated from me and searched,” said Georgi. “The staff, which had originally prohibited me from joining my partner, hurled snide remarks at me as I walked past them to join him.”

An American Airlines spokesperson told the Blade on Jan. 10 the company regrets “the circumstances” that Leiderman “faced with her spouse and family” while traveling from Colombia to the U.S. The spokesperson added airport personnel in Medellín “followed existing security screening rules mandated by the” TSA.

Georgi provided the Blade an e-mail he received from Stefania Meyer of American Airlines on Dec. 16 that noted, among other things, the company has received a 100 percent score on the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index for nine consecutive years. The letter also said the men would each receive a $96 refund for seat upgrades they purchased for their flight from Argentina.

“Our customers should always experience polite and efficient service from our employees, regardless of the circumstances,” wrote Meyer. “Your comments regarding the lack of professionalism on the part of our gate staff is of significant concern to us. Please accept our apologies for the poor agent demeanor and other problems you and Mr. Cline encountered that day.”

The letter made no mention of TSA security screening policy. Georgi said American Airlines Director of Customer Relations Tim Rhodes “dismissed my complaints as the fault of TSA and took no responsibility” for the alleged incident during a telephone call he said he received from him on Jan. 6.

“What I cannot get over is the reaction of the head of customer service,” Georgi told the Blade. “He explained to me that it is difficult to read peoples’ intentions. However, I speak Spanish fluently, I was born in [Buenos Aires,] I could read the intentions of the American Airlines staff very clearly, especially when I was told to go to the back of the line.”

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National

Same-sex couples vulnerable to adverse effects of climate change

Williams Institute report based on Census, federal agencies

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Beach erosion in Fire Island Pines, N.Y. (Photo courtesy of Savannah Farrell / Actum)

A new report by the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law finds that same-sex couples are at greater risk of experiencing the adverse effects of climate change compared to different-sex couples.

LGBTQ people in same-sex couple households disproportionately live in coastal areas and cities and areas with poorer infrastructure and less access to resources, making them more vulnerable to climate hazards.

Using U.S. Census data and climate risk assessment data from NASA and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, researchers conducted a geographic analysis to assess the climate risk impacting same-sex couples. NASA’s risk assessment focuses on changes to meteorological patterns, infrastructure and built environment, and the presence of at-risk populations. FEMA’s assessment focuses on changes in the occurrence of severe weather events, accounting for at-risk populations, the availability of services, and access to resources.

Results show counties with a higher proportion of same-sex couples are, on average, at increased risk from environmental, infrastructure, and social vulnerabilities due to climate change.

“Given the disparate impact of climate change on LGBTQ populations, climate change policies, including disaster preparedness, response, and recovery plans, must address the specific needs and vulnerabilities facing LGBTQ people,” said study co-author Ari Shaw, senior fellow and director of international programs at the Williams Institute. “Policies should focus on mitigating discriminatory housing and urban development practices, making shelters safe spaces for LGBT people, and ensuring that relief aid reaches displaced LGBTQ individuals and families.”

“Factors underlying the geographic vulnerability are crucial to understanding why same-sex couples are threatened by climate change and whether the findings in our study apply to the broader LGBTQ population,” said study co-author Lindsay Mahowald, research data analyst at the Williams Institute. “More research is needed to examine how disparities in housing, employment, and health care among LGBT people compound the geographic vulnerabilities to climate change.”

Read the report

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Federal Government

Lambda Legal praises Biden-Harris administration’s finalized Title IX regulations

New rules to take effect Aug. 1

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U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona (Screen capture: AP/YouTube)

The Biden-Harris administration’s revised Title IX policy “protects LGBTQ+ students from discrimination and other abuse,” Lambda Legal said in a statement praising the U.S. Department of Education’s issuance of the final rule on Friday.

Slated to take effect on Aug. 1, the new regulations constitute an expansion of the 1972 Title IX civil rights law, which prohibits sex-based discrimination in education programs that receive federal funding.

Pursuant to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in the landmark 2020 Bostock v. Clayton County case, the department’s revised policy clarifies that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity constitutes sex-based discrimination as defined under the law.

“These regulations make it crystal clear that everyone can access schools that are safe, welcoming and that respect their rights,” Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said during a call with reporters on Thursday.

While the new rule does not provide guidance on whether schools must allow transgender students to play on sports teams corresponding with their gender identity to comply with Title IX, the question is addressed in a separate rule proposed by the agency in April.

The administration’s new policy also reverses some Trump-era Title IX rules governing how schools must respond to reports of sexual harassment and sexual assault, which were widely seen as imbalanced in favor of the accused.

Jennifer Klein, the director of the White House Gender Policy Council, said during Thursday’s call that the department sought to strike a balance with respect to these issues, “reaffirming our longstanding commitment to fundamental fairness.”

“We applaud the Biden administration’s action to rescind the legally unsound, cruel, and dangerous sexual harassment and assault rule of the previous administration,” Lambda Legal Nonbinary and Transgender Rights Project Director Sasha Buchert said in the group’s statement on Friday.

“Today’s rule instead appropriately underscores that Title IX’s civil rights protections clearly cover LGBTQ+ students, as well as survivors and pregnant and parenting students across race and gender identity,” she said. “Schools must be places where students can learn and thrive free of harassment, discrimination, and other abuse.”

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Michigan

Mich. Democrats spar over LGBTQ-inclusive hate crimes law

Lawmakers disagree on just what kind of statute to pass

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Members of the Michigan House Democrats gather to celebrate Pride month in 2023 in the Capitol building. (Photo courtesy of Michigan House Democrats)

Michigan could soon become the latest state to pass an LGBTQ-inclusive hate crime law, but the state’s Democratic lawmakers disagree on just what kind of law they should pass.

Currently, Michigan’s Ethnic Intimidation Act only offers limited protections to victims of crime motivated by their “race, color, religion, gender, or national origin.” Bills proposed by Democratic lawmakers expand the list to include “actual or perceived race, color, religion, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, ethnicity, physical or mental disability, age, national origin, or association or affiliation with any such individuals.” 

Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel have both advocated for a hate crime law, but house and senate Democrats have each passed different hate crimes packages, and Nessel has blasted both as being too weak.

Under the house proposal that passed last year (House Bill 4474), a first offense would be punishable with a $2,000 fine, up to two years in prison, or both. Penalties double for a second offense, and if a gun or other dangerous weapons is involved, the maximum penalty is six years in prison and a fine of $7,500. 

But that proposal stalled when it reached the senate, after far-right news outlets and Fox News reported misinformation that the bill only protected LGBTQ people and would make misgendering a trans person a crime. State Rep. Noah Arbit, the bill’s sponsor, was also made the subject of a recall effort, which ultimately failed.

Arbit submitted a new version of the bill (House Bill 5288) that added sections clarifying that misgendering a person, “intentionally or unintentionally” is not a hate crime, although the latest version (House Bill 5400) of the bill omits this language.

That bill has since stalled in a house committee, in part because the Democrats lost their house majority last November, when two Democratic representatives resigned after being elected mayors. The Democrats regained their house majority last night by winning two special elections.

Meanwhile, the senate passed a different package of hate crime bills sponsored by state Sen. Sylvia Santana (Senate Bill 600) in March that includes much lighter sentences, as well as a clause ensuring that misgendering a person is not a hate crime. 

Under the senate bill, if the first offense is only a threat, it would be a misdemeanor punishable by one year in prison and up to $1,000 fine. A subsequent offense or first violent hate crime, including stalking, would be a felony that attracts double the punishment.

Multiple calls and emails from the Washington Blade to both Arbit and Santana requesting comment on the bills for this story went unanswered.

The attorney general’s office sent a statement to the Blade supporting stronger hate crime legislation.

“As a career prosecutor, [Nessel] has seen firsthand how the state’s weak Ethnic Intimidation Act (not updated since the late 1980’s) does not allow for meaningful law enforcement and court intervention before threats become violent and deadly, nor does it consider significant bases for bias.  It is our hope that the legislature will pass robust, much-needed updates to this statute,” the statement says.

But Nessel, who has herself been the victim of racially motivated threats, has also blasted all of the bills presented by Democrats as not going far enough.

“Two years is nothing … Why not just give them a parking ticket?” Nessel told Bridge Michigan.

Nessel blames a bizarre alliance far-right and far-left forces that have doomed tougher laws.

“You have this confluence of forces on the far right … this insistence that the First Amendment protects this language, or that the Second Amendment protects the ability to possess firearms under almost any and all circumstances,” Nessel said. “But then you also have the far left that argues basically no one should go to jail or prison for any offense ever.”

The legislature did manage to pass an “institutional desecration” law last year that penalizes hate-motivated vandalism to churches, schools, museums, and community centers, and is LGBTQ-inclusive.

According to data from the U.S. Department of Justice, reported hate crime incidents have been skyrocketing, with attacks motivated by sexual orientation surging by 70 percent from 2020 to 2022, the last year for which data is available. 

Twenty-two states, D.C., Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands have passed LGBTQ-inclusive hate crime laws. Another 11 states have hate crime laws that include protections for “sexual orientation” but not “gender identity.”

Michigan Democrats have advanced several key LGBTQ rights priorities since they took unified control of the legislature in 2023. A long-stalled comprehensive anti-discrimination law was passed last year, as did a conversion therapy ban. Last month the legislature updated family law to make surrogacy easier for all couples, including same-sex couples. 

A bill to ban the “gay panic” defense has passed the state house and was due for a Senate committee hearing on Wednesday.

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