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DNC chair discouraged support for ENDA directive: sources

Wasserman Schultz’s office calls allegation a ‘bald-faced lie’

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Debbie Wasserman Schultz, DNC, Democratic National Committee, Lesbian Leadership Council, gay news, Washington Blade
Debbie Wasserman Schultz, DNC, Democratic National Committee, Lesbian Leadership Council, gay news, Washington Blade

DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz is among those who haven’t articulated support for an ENDA executive order. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

A gay Democratic activist claims that Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) has discouraged House members from asking President Obama to take administrative action to protect LGBT workers, an assertion her office calls a “bald-faced lie.”

Paul Yandura, political director for gay philanthropist Jonathan Lewis, made the allegation when speaking with the Washington Blade from his home in West Virginia on Thursday regarding a 2013 missive that was circulated among House members by Reps. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) and Lois Capps (D-Calif.).

“I was told personally by two members that she was tamping down on public calls for the president to make good on his promise — this was last year when the issue was really getting hot,” Yandura said. “She is most likely doing the same still.”

Yandura’s allegation comes as lawmakers — led by the LGBT Equality Caucus and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) — are circulating a new missive among members of Congress calling on Obama to sign an executive order barring federal contractors from engaging in anti-LGBT workplace discrimination.

Two sources familiar with the 2013 letter told the Washington Blade that Wasserman Schultz discouraged members of Congress from signing it, but Yandura was the only source willing to go on the record. The other source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Wasserman Schultz, who represents Florida’s 23rd congressional district in the U.S. House, dissuaded Democrats from signing the letter in private conversations on the House floor.

Although these sources said Wasserman Schultz may be engaging in the same tactic for the letter currently being circulated, no one has made the same claim to the Blade about the upcoming letter. As the Blade reported this week, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) has already pledged to sign it.

Yandura said he wouldn’t disclose the names of the House members who told him Wasserman Schultz was discouraging support for the 2013 letter because he didn’t want to “rat them out.”

“I’m sure she’ll come with something that sounds like a good excuse, but it’s about time,” Yandura said. “It’s time that she not only signs it, but tells people that they should publicly, and that it’s OK and that there’s no pressure not to sign it.”

Mara Sloan, a Wasserman Schultz spokesperson, disputed the allegations made by Yandura, saying any assertion that she discouraged members from signing the letter “is a bald-faced lie.”

“The congresswoman believes the most effective way to ensure equal rights for LGBT Americans in the workplace is through passing comprehensive non-discrimination legislation,” Sloan said. “The congresswoman regularly speaks to the administration about issues important to the LGBT community, and will continue to be a fierce advocate for full equality.”

Sloan didn’t immediately respond to a follow-up email about whether that response means Wasserman Schultz won’t sign the group letter currently being circulated among House members calling for the LGBT executive order. The response is along the lines of responses to requests for comment about the order by the White House, which consistently redirects attention to the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.

Despite her record of support for the LGBT community, Wasserman Schultz has never explicitly called on Obama to sign an executive order barring LGBT discrimination among federal contractors. Asked about the issue in January by The Huffington Post, Wasserman Schultz said she supports the idea of Obama using his executive authority in “as broad a way as he can to ensure that we can move this country forward.”

Yandura said he thinks Wasserman Schultz refuses to express support for the executive order and has discouraged House members from speaking out in favor of it for political reasons.

“I think she doesn’t want to embarrass the president, and still doesn’t want to embarrass the president, because it is an embarrassment that he still hasn’t done it,” Yandura said. “We’re now coming down to the end of the second term, and if they don’t get moving on it, it’ll never even get implemented.”

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has refused to bring ENDA to the floor for a vote; the Senate passed a version last year.

Yandura said he heard from House members about Wasserman Schultz because he was part of the effort to gather signatures for the 2013 letter. It ultimately was signed by 110 House Democrats. A separate letter to the same effect was signed by 37 Senate Democrats.

At the time, Yandura said he didn’t speak to the media about what he heard, but urged other groups working on the letter — Freedom to Work and most likely GetEQUAL — to address the situation with Wasserman Schultz. Freedom to Work didn’t immediately respond to a request to comment.

Heather Cronk, managing director for GetEQUAL, said she couldn’t corroborate allegations that Wasserman Schultz was actively discouraging House members from signing the letter.

“I actually can’t corroborate that,” Cronk said. “I’ve heard that she wasn’t a fan of the Executive Order, but I don’t have any evidence that she actively worked against it.”

Fred Sainz, vice president of communications for the Human Rights Campaign, said he hasn’t heard anything about Wasserman Schultz discouraging members from the signing the letter, even though his group was active in gathering signatures.

Yandura said he didn’t contact HRC about about Wasserman Schultz “probably because I don’t see them as good accountability enforcers for the president or Dems.”

The offices of Capps and Pallone, who were responsible for gathering signatures for the House letter, didn’t immediately respond with information about whether they had heard anything about Wasserman Schultz discouraging support for it.

Yandura has a history of making inflammatory statements against the DNC for not undertaking sufficient efforts on behalf on LGBT rights. In 2004, he landed his partner Donald Hitchcock, then the DNC’s LGBT liaison, in hot water by publicly asserting that the Democratic Party wasn’t doing enough to combat the multitude of anti-gay marriage amendments on the ballot that year.

Yandura’s boss has contributed to LGBT organizations such as Freedom to Work and GetEQUAL. Last year, Lewis announced that he would no longer donate to the Democratic Party after Senate Democrats excluded same-sex bi-national couples from immigration reform legislation (which was later remedied by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision against the Defense of Marriage Act) and President Obama’s decision to continue to withhold an executive order barring LGBT discrimination.

Invoking the assertion from LGBT advocates that the executive order is a 2008 campaign promise from then-candidate Obama, Yandura said the best way to convince Obama to pen his name to the directive is increased pressure.

“I think that if the pressure could get built again, we might be able to shame him into doing it,” Yandura said. “We’ve waited for him to do the right thing. Now, I don’t know what it will take other than what it took to get him to do other things — and that is causing a shitstorm, getting up in his face and demanding it get done.”

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State Department expresses concern over anti-LGBTQ bill in Uganda

Measure would further criminalize consensual same-sex sexual acts

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A State Department spokesperson on Wednesday expressed concern over the passage of a bill in Uganda that would further criminalize consensual same-sex sexual acts.

Ugandan lawmakers on Monday passed the Sexual Offenses Bill 2019, which contains a provision, known as Clause 11, that would explicitly ban “penetration of another person’s anus with that other person’s sexual organ or with any object” and “sexual acts between persons of the same gender.”

“We’re certainly concerned about the legislation in Uganda,” said State Department deputy spokesperson Jalina Porter in response to the Washington Blade’s question about the bill during a briefing with reporters.

Consensual same-sex sexual acts are already criminalized in Uganda.

President Yoweri Museveni in 2014 signed the Anti-Homosexuality Act, which imposed a life sentence upon anyone found guilty of repeated same-sex sexual acts. The law was known as the “Kill the Gays” bill because it previously contained a death penalty provision.

The U.S. cut aid to Uganda and imposed a travel ban against officials who carried out human rights abuses. Uganda’s Constitutional Court later struck down the Anti-Homosexuality Act on a technicality.

Sexual Minorities Uganda in a statement said the Sexual Offenses Bill 2019 criminalization provision “will enhance the already homophobic environment in Uganda and consequently lead the way for further violation of the rights of sexual and gender minorities, including violations such as ‘corrective rape’ and other acts of violence.” The Ugandan LGBTQ advocacy group has also called for Museveni to veto the measure over the clause.

“Sexual Minorities Uganda calls on the president of the Republic of Uganda to consider not assenting to the bill because of the problematic Clause 11 that now classifies sexual and gender minorities as sexual offenders,” said SMUG in its statement. “Rather, we call on the president to reminisce on the effects the now repealed Anti-Homosexuality Act had on the human rights discourse for sexual and gender minorities.”

OutRight Action International Executive Director Jessica Stern also condemned the bill.

“Same-sex relations are already criminalized in Uganda’s Penal Code,” said Stern in a press release. “The inclusion of same-sex relations in this bill paints LGBTQ people as sexual offenders, and can only serve one purpose — to fuel already rampant LGBTQ-phobia, discrimination and violence. It is deplorable. The colonial legacy of criminalizing same-sex relations must end.”

The Biden administration in February issued a memorandum that committed the U.S. to promoting LGBTQ rights abroad.

“The United States certainly stands up and defends the human rights of our LGBTQI+ persons all around the world and we also stand firmly in opposing violence and discrimination against all LGBTQI persons and will also urge governments to criminalize their status or conduct,” said Porter during Wednesday’s briefing.

“We will continue to condemn any violence or discrimination of vulnerable populations including our LGBTQI+ people, whether they’re in Uganda or anywhere in the world,” added Porter.

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Anticipation builds amid delay: Will Biden name LGBTQ ambassadors?

United States has never had lesbian woman, trans person as envoy

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Biden administration, gay news, Washington Blade

More than 100 days into his presidency, President Biden has yet to name picks for a multitude of ambassadorial positions in a delay unusual for a presidency at this stage, raising questions about whether he’ll miss an opportunity to exhibit America’s LGBTQ community overseas through the appointment of the first-ever lesbian and transgender person as ambassadors.

Many of these ambassadorial vacancies, which complement the diplomatic corps of the U.S. government to serve as a representation of American diversity overseas, are in key positions. Nearly 90 ambassadorial positions, including sought-after posts in Israel, the United Kingdom, Mexico, Italy and China, remain vacant according to an April article in USA Today.

The delay in ambassadorial appointments appears to come from pressure on Biden to refrain from the traditional practice of naming donors who bundled for his presidential campaign to the prestigious posts as opposed to foreign policy experts. Biden declined during his campaign to commit to refusing to reward donors with ambassadorial appointments, but the issue has taken hold in progressive circles.

On the other hand, many donors and bundlers for Biden’s presidential campaign were LGBTQ people, who would reasonably expect an ambassadorial appointment as a reward for helping get Biden to the White House.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, under questioning from the Washington Blade on Tuesday on whether Biden is missing an opportunity to name lesbian and transgender ambassadors in historic firsts, urged patience.

“Given we haven’t named many ambassadors quite yet — and we hope to soon; stay tuned — certainly the president looks to ensuring that the people representing him, not just in the United States, but around the world, represent the diversity of the country, and that certainly includes people who are LGBTQ, members of the transgender community,” Psaki said.

Asked to clarify her definition of “soon” in this context — whether it means days, weeks, or months — Psaki declined to provide a more definite timeline.

“I think it depends on when the president makes some decisions,” Psaki said. “And he’ll continue to consider a range of options for a lot of the positions that are out there and still remain vacant.”

At the same time, Psaki made a point to commend the work of Foreign Service officers at the State Department with whom Biden has sought to restore trust after years of scorn from former President Trump.

“I will say, having served at the State Department for a couple of years, there are incredible career service employees who are serving in these embassies around the world who are representing the United States and our values.” Psaki said. “That continues to be the case, but, of course, we’re eager to have ambassadors in place and confirmed to represent the president and the vice president and the United States.”

The appointment of members of the LGBTQ community to ambassadorships has a significant place in the movement’s history. In 1998, Jim Hormel became the first openly gay person to serve as U.S. ambassador after being named U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg. But the victory came after a struggle when anti-gay senators, including the late Jesse Helms, refused to confirm Hormel explicitly because he’s gay. President Clint0n ended up appointing Hormel as an ambassador through a recess appointment, which averted the need for Senate confirmation.

Presidents regardless of party have achieved historic firsts with the appointment of openly gay men as ambassadors. Michael Guest in the George W. Bush administration was confirmed as U.S. ambassador to Romania, making him the first openly gay person to obtain Senate confirmation for an ambassadorship. Former President Obama over the course of two terms appointed a record seven openly gay men as ambassadors, including John Berry as U.S. ambassador to Australia and Daniel Baer as U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security & Cooperation in Europe.

Richard Grenell, named by President Trump as U.S. ambassador to Germany, currently has the distinction of being the openly gay person with the most prestigious ambassadorial appointment. Consistent with his reputation as a firebrand on social media, Grenell hit Germany hard as ambassador to compel the G-5 country to meet its military spending obligations as a NATO partner. Grenell has something to show for his efforts: The country began to spend closer to 2 percent of its GDP on defense.

And yet for all these appointments, no president has ever named an open lesbian or trans woman for a position as U.S. ambassador, an oversight that stands out after the rapid progress on LGBTQ rights in recent years. At a time when transgender rights are in focus amid anti-trans attacks in state legislatures, the appointment of an openly transgender ambassador would also send a signal of solidarity with the transgender community.

There’s no indication Biden won’t appoint an LGBTQ person for a position as U.S. ambassador, which could be an easy achievement from him with the LGBTQ community, but the delay raises questions on whether or not they will happen, in addition to keeping the diplomatic corps from being fully staffed and functional.

Moreover, the position of LGBTQ international liaison at the State Department, a position Biden campaigned on filling after Trump let the position remain vacant, remains unfilled. During the Obama years, Randy Berry served in that role and travelled internationally to work with LGBTQ groups overseas and demonstrate U.S. solidarity with them.

It’s unclear why the international LGBTQ liaison position continues to remain vacant within the Biden administration. A State Department spokesperson referred the Blade on Wednesday back to the White House on potential LGBTQ ambassadorial appointments or the international LGBTQ liaison role.

To be sure, Biden has made several key LGBTQ appointments in the limited time in his presidency. Among them are Pete Buttigieg as transportation secretary, making him the first-ever openly gay person to win Senate confirmation for a Cabinet-level role, and Rachel Levine as assistant secretary of health, which made her the first openly transgender person to win Senate confirmation for any presidential appointment.

In the past few weeks alone, Biden has signaled he’d name openly lesbian and transgender people to high-ranking civilian positions at the Defense Department. Brenda Sue Fulton, a lesbian activist who fought to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the transgender military ban, got the nod as assistant secretary of defense for manpower and reserve affairs, while Shawn Skelly, a transgender national security expert who served in the Air Force for 20 years as a Naval Flight Officer, obtained the nod to become assistant secretary of defense for readiness. Meanwhile, Gina Ortiz Jones, a lesbian Iraq war veteran who twice ran to represent Texas’ 23rd congressional district, was nominated to become Air Force under secretary.

Even the State Department itself has a person from the LGBTQ community serving as its public face. Ned Price, who conducts daily briefings with the media as State Department spokesperson, is the first openly gay person to serve in that prominent position.

The LGBTQ Victory Institute, which at the start of the Biden administration had signaled the appointment of a lesbian, transgender person and LGBTQ person of color as U.S. ambassadors were among its goals, expressed confidence Biden would name these appointments in due time.

“President Biden will roll out his picks for ambassadorships over the next few months and it presents an incredible opportunity to choose diverse and groundbreaking LGBTQ nominees,” said Ruben Gonzales, executive director of the LGBTQ Victory Institute. “As President Biden has already made history with the number of LGBTQ women and transgender people he has nominated for Senate-confirmed positions, we predict this commitment to LGBTQ diversity will continue when ambassadors are nominated. The impact of our first LGBTQ women ambassadors, first LGBTQ ambassadors of color and first trans ambassadors would be enormous – an impact not lost on the Biden administration.”

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Patrick O’Connell, acclaimed AIDS activist, dies at 67

Played key role in creating red ribbon for awareness

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Activist Patrick O’Connell was instrumental in creating the red ribbon to promote AIDS awareness. (Photo courtesy of Allen Frame; courtesy Visual AIDS)

Patrick O’Connell, a founding director of the New York City-based AIDS advocacy group Visual AIDS who played a lead role in developing the internationally recognized display of an inverted, V-shaped red ribbon as a symbol of AIDS advocacy, died on March 23 at a Manhattan hospital from AIDS-related causes, according to the New York Times. He was 67.

Visual AIDS said in a statement that O’Connell held the title of founding director of the organization from 1980 to 1995.

During those years, according to the statement and others who knew him, O’Connell was involved in the group’s widely recognized and supported efforts to use art and artist’s works to advocate in support of people with HIV/AIDS and efforts to curtail the epidemic that had a devastating impact on the art world.

Thanks to a grant from the Art Matters foundation, Visual AIDS was able to retain O’Connell as its first paid staff member in 1990, the group said in its statement.

“Armed with a fax machine and an early Macintosh computer, Patrick helped Visual AIDS grow from a volunteer group to a sustainable non-profit organization,” the statement says. “A passionate spokesperson for the organization, he helped projects like Day Without Art, Night Without Light, and the Red Ribbon reach thousands of people and organizations across the world,” the group says in its statement.

“We were living in a war zone,” the statement quoted O’Connell as saying in a 2011 interview with the Long Island newspaper Newsday. “But it was like a war that was some kind of deep secret only we knew about,” O’Connell said in the interview. “Thousands were dying of AIDS. We felt we had to respond with a visible expression,” he told the newspaper.

With O’Connell’s help, Visual AIDS in 1989 organized the first annual Day Without Art in which dozens of galleries and museums in New York and other cities covered art works with black cloths to symbolize the mourning of those who died of AIDS. Among those participating were the Brooklyn Museum, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which replaced a Picasso painting with a “somber informational placard,” according to the New York Times.

In 1990 O’Connell helped Visual AIDS organize the first Night Without Light, which was held at the time of World AIDS Day. New York City’s skyscraper buildings, bridges, monuments, and Broadway theaters turned off their lights for 15 minutes to commemorate people who lost their lives to AIDS, the New York Times reported.

In the kickoff of its Red Ribbon Project in 1991, McConnell helped organize volunteers to join “ribbon bees” in which thousands of the ribbons were cut and folded for distribution around the city, the Times reports. Those who knew McConnell said he also arranged for his team of volunteers to call Broadway theaters and producers of the upcoming Tony Awards television broadcast to have participants and theater goers display the red ribbons on their clothes.

Among those displaying a red ribbon on his label at the Tony Awards broadcast was actor Jeremy Irons, who was one of the hosts. In later years, large numbers of celebrities followed the practice of wearing the red ribbon, and in 1993 the U.S. Postal Service issued a red ribbon stamp.

The Times reports that O’Connell was born and raised in Manhattan, where he attended Fordham Preparatory School and later graduated from Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., in 1973 with a bachelor’s degree in history. According to Visual AIDS, O’Connell served as director of the Hallwalls arts center in Buffalo, N.Y. from 1977 to 1978 before returning to New York City to work for a gallery called Artists Space.

The Times reports that O’Connell learned in the middle 1980s that he had contracted AIDS and began a regimen of early AIDS treatment with a cocktail of over 30 pills a day. His involvement with Visual AIDS, which began in 1989, ended on an active basis in 1995 when his health worsened, the Times reports.

As one of the last remaining survivors of his New York contemporaries who had HIV beginning in the 1980s, O’Connell continued in his strong support for AIDS-related causes through 2000s and beyond, people who knew him said.
Visual AIDS says it is gathering remembrances and photos for a tribute post for O’Connell on its website. It has invited people to share their memories of him by sending written contributions and images via email to: [email protected].

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