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The story behind the Harvey Milk stamp

Postal service to release commemorative stamp in May

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Harvey Milk stamp, gay news, Washington Blade
Harvey Milk stamp, gay news, Washington Blade

The Harvey Milk commemorative stamp is set to be released this spring.

While no specific date has been announced for the official release of the United States Postal Service’s first-ever Harvey Milk stamp, the Washington Blade has confirmed that the release date will be in May—not as late as June, as has been reported by several media outlets and as the postal service’s own Web site still indicates is possible.

“It will be May, not June,” said Susan McGowan, director of USPS Office of Stamps and Corporate Licensing. “And we hope people will turn out to experience a very special release ceremony.”

The stamp’s coming out party promises to be a big affair for the postal service—one that’s been nearly a decade in the making.

“Let’s just say it’s going to be a great celebration,” McGowan told the Blade.

Today, Harvey Milk may seem like a shoe-in as a candidate to be honored with the issuance of a U.S. postage stamp bearing his likeness.

But according to organizers of the National Harvey Milk Stamp Campaign, there was fervent opposition from some of the country’s most fundamentalist religious groups, as well as from some members of the Citizens Stamp Approval Committee (CSAC), which votes to approve about 25 stamp requests out of about 1,000 requests each year.

“I know for a fact that some of the stamp committee members were absolutely opposed to the idea of a Harvey Milk stamp or a stamp honoring any homosexual leader,” said San Diego City Commissioner Nicole Murray Ramirez, head of the International Imperial Court System, which led the national campaign to win approval for the stamp.

“That was early on, of course. I think as the process moved on and they saw how much support we had not only from Democrats, but from top Republicans, support grew.”

Although she couldn’t say whether the Citizens Stamp Approval Committee’s vote for the Harvey Milk stamp was divided or unanimous, USPS’s McGowan was adamant that there is no story of impassioned opposition to the stamp on the committee.

“I think you’re trying to find controversy where there wasn’t any,” she said. “It’s quite possible the vote was unanimous; we don’t keep those details because all that is needed is a simple majority for approval.”

What matters, says McGowan, is that the committee did approve the Harvey Milk stamp, and that it will be released in May.

Ramirez said the process for winning approval for the Harvey Milk stamp was arduous. But he added that he and his colleagues on the stamp campaign, including Stuart Milk — Harvey Milk’s nephew who is also a gay civil rights advocate — GLAAD, the Human Rights Campaign, the Harvey Milk Foundation, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, numerous senators and members of Congress, mayors and others, were gratified that it succeeded.

“I don’t think it was as hard as it would have been 20 years ago,” Ramirez said. “In the end, I think we were treated fairly and we got approval for the stamp faster than a lot of other stamp campaigns.”

Still, some organizations such as Save California, a right-wing religious group, plan to protest the postal service’s decision to commemorate Harvey Milk, whom they call a “sexual predator.”

Nevertheless, Ramirez said national symbols, such as commemorative stamps, speak louder and resound for longer than any words of hate or bigotry espoused by angry ultra-conservatives.

“The fact that we now have the image of one of our greatest GLBT leaders on a beautifully designed United States postage stamp says more than anything else about how far we have come as a country fighting against the hatred that we still face as gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people,” said Ramirez.

Ramirez knows about that history through his own experience. He helped lead historic marches for LGBT rights in the early 1970s in downtown San Diego and other California locales to protest police abuse of gay people.

“Young people don’t know how bad it was,” Ramirez said. “You could get beat up or worse by the police, just for being in a gay bar. This stamp honoring Harvey Milk shows that by fighting for our rights and never giving up, we can change the way the majority of people behave toward minorities, whether it’s racial minorities or GLBT people.”

According to McGowan, the postal service received thousands of letters of support for the Milk stamp.

“It was overwhelming,” she said. “We get about 30,000 letters of support for stamp proposals every year, but that’s for all of the thousand or so annual stamp proposals combined. The amount of public support for this stamp was really amazing.”

The stamp campaign began with a simple letter, dated Oct. 20, 2009, signed by Ramirez in his capacity then as chair of the City of San Diego’s Human Relations Commission, asking the Citizens Stamp Approval Committee to consider and approve the design and issuance of a U.S. postage stamp commemorating and bearing an image of San Francisco City and County Supervisor Harvey Milk.

In essence, the Harvey Milk campaign asked the postal service for the first time to specifically honor a person for being a tireless soldier in the battle for equal rights for LGBT people—and for having the courage and tenacity to become one of the nation’s first openly gay elected public officials.

Ramirez and his fellow signers of the San Diego Human Relations Commission’s letter to CSAC wrote in 2009: “The governor of the state of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, recently inducted Harvey Milk into the California Hall of Fame, saying ‘he embodies California’s innovative spirit and has made a mark on history.”

By citing California’s then Republican governor’s support for the stamp, the campaign hoped to demonstrate the principles Milk stood for crossed party lines.

“Harvey Milk is recognized nationally and globally as a pioneer of the LGBT civil rights movement for his exceptional leadership and dedication to equal rights,” the letter continued.

That same year, the film “Milk” won Sean Penn an Oscar for best actor in recognition of his critically acclaimed portrayal of the slain civil rights leader. The hit film also brought home an Oscar for writer Dustin Lance Black for best screenplay.

That was also the year that President Obama posthumously awarded Harvey Milk the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Now, five years later, a postage stamp featuring Milk’s smiling face will finally be released. The stamp will find its way into the stamp collections of philatelists throughout the world.

According to one gay stamp collector, given the fact that this is the first stamp expressly honoring an openly gay American hero, it is conceivable that the postal service may get a whole new generation of LGBT philatelists as stamp-collecting customers.

“Harvey Milk continues to inspire us all to strive for a society that provides unlimited and equal opportunities for all our citizens,” wrote Rep. Nancy Pelosi to CSAC when she was still speaker of the House of Representatives, imploring the committee to approve the stamp. “The United States Postal Service has yet to honor an LGBT American hero with a stamp, commemorating the life and efforts of Harvey Milk would be a testament to Harvey’s courage and a symbol of pride to anyone who has ever felt discrimination or cared about those who have.”

Recently, a new stamp campaign was launched for another openly gay Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient.

In January, the Blade broke the news that many of the same people and organizations that won approval for the Harvey Milk stamp have joined with Walter Naegle, Mandy Carter and the National Black Justice Coalition (which Carter cofounded), to win approval for a United States postage stamp commemorating the life and work of the late Bayard Rustin.

Along with A. Phillip Randolph, Rustin was chief organizer of the 1963 March on Washington for Freedom and Jobs, where Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his historic “I Have a Dream” speech.

“The current campaign is a new effort, but there have been letters written for more than a decade suggesting that Bayard be honored with a stamp,” said Walter Naegle, Rustin’s surviving partner. “Perhaps an increase in the number of supporters will help, but the postal service doesn’t seem to be influenced by such efforts.”

Naegle is currently engaged in an ongoing Rustin awareness campaign, focusing his efforts on a multitude of fronts. He promises to do what he can to help the Bayard Rustin National Stamp Campaign succeed.

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VA to start process of covering gender reassignment surgery for trans veterans

Coverage was rejected even during Obama years

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The Department of Veterans Affairs has become the latest federal government health program to affirm it would begin covering gender reassignment surgery — an option for transgender veterans that was even rejected during the Obama administration.

Randal Noller, a VA spokesperson, said in response to an email inquiry from the Blade the department this summer “will initiate steps to modify rules published in the Code of Federal Regulations (also known as the CFR), to expand VA’s care to transgender Veterans and include gender-affirming surgery.”

“Gender-affirming procedures have been proven effective at mitigating serious health conditions, including suicidality, substance abuse, and dysphoria,” Noller said. “Updating this policy would allow VA to provide transgender and gender diverse Veterans with coordinated, medically necessary, transition-related surgical procedures.”

Noller added the change “would enable a safe, coordinated continuum of care that is Veteran-centric and consistent with VA values of equity and respect for all veterans.” The entire process for implementation, Noller said, can take about two years and includes a period of public comment. 

VA Secretary Denis McDonough first announced the policy change in a speech in Orlando marking the five-year anniversary of the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub.

Once implemented, the VA would join other federal health care systems in offering coverage for gender reassignment surgery, which previously has included Medicare, Medicaid (other some states, like Iowa, are dubiously claiming exemptions), the Federal Employee Health Benefits programs and the U.S. military health care system as a result of the Biden administration reversing the transgender military ban.

The idea of the VA offering coverage for gender reassignment surgery was first raised during the Obama administration. However, in the lame duck session after former President Trump was elected, the then-Secretary of Veterans Affairs scrapped the idea, citing concerns about appropriate funding.

According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, the estimated number of U.S. veterans who are transgender is more than 134,000, and more than 15,000 transgender people are serving in the military today.

Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, hailed the change in a statement on Saturday as “another step in the Biden administration’s effort to fight discrimination against transgender people, including our transgender veterans.”

“Every veteran deserves to have access to the health care that they need, and the VA is working to make sure that includes transgender veterans as well,” Keisling said.

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HIV research sped development of COVID vaccine

Top NIH official says success in coronavirus will boost AIDS work

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‘In many ways, the work for the past 25 years that we’ve done in HIV vaccines sped the development of coronavirus vaccines,’ Carl W. Dieffenbach, Ph.D.

Since 1996, Carl W. Dieffenbach, who holds a Ph.D. in biophysics from John Hopkins University, has served as director of the Division of AIDS at the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, which is an arm of the U.S. National Institutes of Health or NIH.

In a June 10 interview with the Washington Blade, Dieffenbach gave an update on the extensive, ongoing research into the development of an HIV/AIDS vaccine that he has helped to coordinate for many years, including current human trials for a prospective AIDS vaccine taking place in the U.S., South America, and Africa.

One thing he feels passionate about is a development not widely reported in the media reports about the successful development of the COVID-19 vaccine. According to Dieffenbach, the extensive research into an AIDS vaccine in recent and past years, while not yet successful in yielding an effective AIDS vaccine, helped lay the groundwork for the rapid development of the different versions of a COVID vaccine.

“Because my division runs the largest clinical trials program in the word, we jumped in with both feet to help with coronavirus disease for both vaccines and drugs and things like that,” he said. “And the platforms that were used – the way they are making the coronavirus vaccines – the RNA vaccines with Moderna – were first piloted by NIH and Moderna to try to make an HIV vaccine,” Dieffenbach says.

“So, in many ways, the work for the past 25 years that we’ve done in HIV vaccines sped the development of coronavirus vaccines,” he told the Blade. “And now it’s time to take what we’ve learned from coronavirus and take it back to HIV and start afresh or continue with what we have and build upon from what we have learned.”

Dieffenbach says one reason the development of a COVID vaccine came about before an AIDS vaccine, despite more than 20 years of AIDS vaccine research, is that the HIV virus is far more complex than the coronavirus, especially its ability to infect and remain embedded in the infected person for life. 

“Back in 2007 we had the first hint that an AIDS vaccine might be possible with a study called RV144,” Dieffenbach says. “We spent 10 years trying to replicate that, and we just completed that study – a study called HVTN702. And it showed no efficacy,” he said, meaning it did not work.

“So that was a big disappointment to us,” he says “But in the meantime, we had pushed forward with the J&J [Johnson and Johnson pharmaceutical company] vaccine and are pretty far along. We’ll see what happens. We should know in the next several months whether the N26 version of an AIDS vaccine, and HIV vaccine works or not,” he says. “We’re very close to an answer.”

Washington Blade: Where do things stand in the development of an HIV/AIDS vaccine in light of Dr. Fauci’s statement a few weeks ago that the development of a COVID-19 vaccine could provide a boost to developing an AIDS vaccine?

Carl Dieffenbach: Sure. So, maybe I can start by introducing myself to you as a way of putting this into a context.

So, I’m the director of the Division of AIDS, which is the largest funder of HIV research in the world. And I report directly to Dr. Fauci. So, I’m responsible for all AIDS, all the time. And that is my passion and purpose in life. Part of that is working toward a safe, effective, and durable HIV vaccine, which has been one of the two most challenging questions left in science today. The other is a cure. They are connected in some ways.

So, with that as background, when coronavirus disease came along – because my division runs the largest clinical trials program in the world – we jumped in with both feet to help with coronavirus disease for both vaccines and drugs and things like that. And the platforms that were used – the way they are making the coronavirus vaccines – the RNA vaccines with Moderna were first piloted by NIH and Moderna to try to make an HIV vaccine. So, we’ve being working on that platform with Moderna for several years.

The leadership at Pfizer used to be part of a group at Penn, where we were also working with them. The J&J vaccine – we currently have in two Phase III clinical trials for HIV, one in sub-Saharan Africa, specifically in young women and the other one in the Americas in men who have sex with men and transgender individuals. Both of those Phase IIIs are moving along. The women’s study is fully enrolled. The men’s study was hit hard by COVID, but we worked through and will be fully enrolled by September.

One other vaccine just to talk about is the Oxford vaccine, the AstraZeneca vaccine. That is also using a platform at Oxford University, which has been used for HIV. So, in many ways, the work for the past 25 years that we’ve done in HIV vaccines sped the development of coronavirus vaccines. And now it’s time to take what we’ve learned from coronavirus and take it back to HIV and start afresh or continue with what we have and build upon from where we have learned.

Blade: That’s very interesting. But can we assume, then, from the clinical trials that have taken place for an HIV vaccine that they did not succeed in providing the immunity needed for an effective vaccine? 

Dieffenbach: So, that’s exactly the problem we have. Back in 2007 we had the first hint that an AIDS vaccine might be possible with a study called RV144. We spent 10 years trying to replicate that, and we just completed that study – a study called HVTN702. And it showed no efficacy. So, that was a big disappointment to us. But in the meantime, we had pushed forward with the J&J vaccine and are pretty far along. We’ll see what happens. We should know in the next several months whether the N26 version of an AIDS vaccine, and HIV vaccine works or not. We’re very close to an answer.

Blade: So, the human trials are ongoing.

Dieffenbach: Oh, again – the study in young women in sub-Sahara Africa is fully enrolled. The men’s study will be fully enrolled in September. So, we have fought through the coronavirus epidemic to maintain, to nurse these trials along to make sure with the $100 million or so we’ve invested, that we didn’t want them to go down the drain literally because we lost too many people for follow-up. So, this was a herculean effort that has gone on all the time trying to do the vaccine studies for coronavirus disease, which we were also incredibly successful in.

Blade: Can we assume all of the people participating in the studies were HIV negative?

Dieffenbach: Yes, they’re HIV negative. They are people who are at risk. And also, in South America, for example, the major countries we’re in are Peru and Brazil. And they’ve had a strong research culture with us, going back more than a decade. For example, both of those countries played big roles in our studies of pre-exposure prophylaxis. A study called I-PREX that demonstrated that in men who have sex with men that [a PrEP drug] works well to prevent HIV acquisition in seronegative men who have sex with men.

So, we’ve been there. This is a really good setup for the countries, for the citizens that are in those countries that want to avail themselves to the research that has benefited everybody.

 Blade: Among those who are participating in these ongoing AIDS vaccine trials, can we assume they cannot be taking the PrEP anti-retroviral drugs that have been shown to be highly effective in preventing HIV infection?

Dieffenbach: So, what we’ve done is we – everything is by conversation. So, when somebody who is interested in the study comes in, we talk to them. What is your chief interest in being in this study? And a lot of people want to be in the study because then they can access PrEP. They want to make it easier to get a hold of pre-exposure prophylaxis. They feel that is the best way that they can protect themselves.

So, in that situation, what we do is we take those people and link them to PrEP services where they can easily get PrEP in their community. So, first it’s taking care of those people. Then there are people who really have no interest in PrEP. And we actually counsel them every time they come in for a study. Are you sure you don’t want to access PrEP? And those are the people we then say, if you’re not interested in PrEP, what do you think about participating in a vaccine trial?

Because they’re the ones who have the most freedom of thought. They don’t have an opinion about the vaccine or about PrEP. So, those are the people we’ve been focusing on and enrolling. So, we’ve been very careful to make sure that if people wanted PrEP they not only have access, but they didn’t feel like somehow having to trade something in order to get it. The freedom to join a study should be a free choice. And it shouldn’t be a coercive thing to get PrEP. So, we just took that off the table and said if you’re truly interested in PrEP we can get you PrEP and make sure that was available. 

Blade: So, in that case, if they choose PrEP they would not be in the vaccine trial?

Dieffenbach: You know, it’s interesting that you ask it in that way. Because you have relationships with your community, many of the investigators have reported that people will say, you know I tried PrEP and it wasn’t for me. It made me gaseous. It upset my stomach. I wasn’t myself. I tried it. I couldn’t make it work for me. I want to stop PrEP. Am I still eligible for the [vaccine] study? And the answer is of course. Many people are very happy on PrEP and they come in for visits occasionally and say this is working for me and just have the relationship with the doctors there, so it works. So, again, it’s about maintaining contact with your communities.

Blade: Can you tell a little about what happens next after people become part of an HIV vaccine trial. Do you have to keep in touch with these people, and do they have to get an HIV test periodically?

Dieffenbach: Exactly. So, the vaccine consists of a series of injections. It’s a mixture of vector systems that delivers a series of encoded HIV genes that are specifically designed to induce very broad immunity. There’s a whole computer-based process to design those components of the vaccine to make sure that it has sequence similarities with all the different versions of HIV circulating in the globe. And then at the end there is a protein boost. And we carry this out.

So, about every three to four months people come in. They get a shot. They fill out questionnaires. They give a blood sample. And they’re tested for HIV and are given a boost or a placebo. And they stay in touch with the clinic. They come in and out of the clinic. And the retention is quite high in these situations because people really like having the attention of the clinic available to them. It’s part of the community.

Blade: So, they go to a clinic for all of this?

Dieffenbach: It’s a research clinic. It’s not like a state-run health clinic. It’s a research clinic. Clinic is just a term for where people are seen.

Blade: Are any of these AIDS vaccine trials that are going on taking place in the United States?

Dieffenbach: Yes. So, the study is called Mosaico. And it’s HVTN706. And we have sites throughout the United States as well as South America. But that study is limited to men who have sex with men – the one in the United States.

Blade: Is it broader than just men who have sex with men in other countries?

Dieffenbach: No, so we decided to really focus on specific at-risk populations. So, in the Americas we chose to focus on men who have sex with men and transgender individuals. And sub-Saharan Africa we focused on young women because that is the target of the study population. So, 705 is all women in sub-Saharan Africa. And in the Americas in North and South America it is all men who have sex with men and transgender individuals.

Blade: Can we assume that the researchers that are doing these studies have a sensitivity of LGBTQ people? Is there still an issue where people worry about being outed as being gay or transgender?

Dieffenbach: So, many of the sites that we work with have been part of our system for over 20 years. And so, they are trusted members of the LGBTQ community within their cities and states. And ‘states’ is a literal term where it’s a state in Colombia or Peru or Brazil. And so, it is part of the fabric of the gay community in these places. Just like in San Francisco the San Francisco health clinic and the DCF clinics are part and parcel of everything the community does there.

And so, the lead physician in San Francisco is Susan Buchbinder. She has been a leader in health in this population for over 25 years or actually closer to 30 years at this point. We’re all getting old. Do you know that? So, we have been at this a very long time. And really have tried to build structures that are durable and therefore are reliable to the community. And that’s where we go back to the same groups time after time.

Blade: Have the locations of the vaccine testing sites been released publicly?

Dieffenbach: Yes, all of that is publicly available on clinicaltrials.gov. If you go into clinicaltrials.gov and search HVTN705 or HVTN706 you will get a version of the protocol, all the times it’s been modified, where we are – the protocol. All of that is public knowledge and available to you. HVTN705 is the women’s study. HVTN706 is the men’s study.

Blade: Is there a timeframe for when these latest vaccine studies might be completed?

Dieffenbach: I think within the next several months. We will get an answer out of the women’s study and then the men’s study is probably a year away. We were slowed a little bit because of COVID. We actually had to pause enrollment for several months. But we’re back on track.

Blade: Isn’t there a parallel research effort for an HIV/AIDS cure?

Dieffenbach: Yes, we have a very large program in cure research. It is a lot earlier in the discovery process and so it’s still very ‘researchy.’ And we have a very large program called the Martin Delany Collaboratories for Cure Research. Martin Delany was an activist who really pushed NIH in so many wonderful ways to really take the need for a cure seriously. His argument was a cure is the next logical step after effective anti-retroviral therapy. You cannot stop with one pill once a day. You’ve got to keep going. And he was pretty persistent. And unfortunately, he died several years go and we just thought the best way to honor him, and his memory was to name a program after him.

Editor’s note: Next week, in the second and final installment of his interview with the Blade, Dr. Dieffenbach discusses the progress in research and studies into an HIV/AIDS cure and explains from a scientific standpoint why an HIV vaccine is taking longer to develop than a COVID vaccine.

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Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards vetoes trans youth sports bill

Discrimination is not a Louisiana value, and this bill was a solution in search of a problem that simply does not exist in Louisiana

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Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards (D) (Official state portrait)

Washington Blade: LGBTQ News, Politics,…

BATON ROUGE – Louisiana’s Democratic John Bel Edwards announced Tuesday that he has vetoed a measure that would have barred trans girls and women from participating on athletic teams or in sporting events designated for girls or women at elementary, secondary and postsecondary schools. 

The measure, Senate Bill 156 authored by Sen. Beth Mizell titled the ‘the Fairness in Women’s Sports Act,’ in the Governor’s eyes, “was a solution in search of a problem that simply does not exist in Louisiana,” Edwards said in his veto statement;

“As I have said repeatedly when asked about this bill, discrimination is not a Louisiana value, and this bill was a solution in search of a problem that simply does not exist in Louisiana. Even the author of the bill acknowledged throughout the legislative session that there wasn’t a single case where this was an issue. 

Further, it would make life more difficult for transgender children, who are some of the most vulnerable Louisianans when it comes to issues of mental health. We should be looking for more ways to unite rather than divide our citizens. And while there is no issue to be solved by this bill, it does present real problems in that it makes it more likely that NCAA and professional championships, like the 2022 Final Four, would not happen in our state. For these and for other reasons, I have vetoed the bill.”

The Baton Rouge Advocate newspaper’s State House reporter, Blake Paterson, noted that [the law] would have required athletic teams or sporting events for women at public institutions be composed only of “biological females,” or those who presumably were listed as female on their birth certificates.

The measure won Senate approval 29-6 and cleared the House 78-19. Those margins are wide enough to override a governor’s veto, though it’s unclear whether lawmakers will return to Baton Rouge to do so.


“Governor Edwards deserves enormous credit for urging Louisianans to reject the politics of division and to focus on what brings us together, including a shared concern for vulnerable children. As his veto message rightly notes, transgender youth already face huge challenges,” Shannon Minter, the Legal Director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, (NCLR) told the Blade in an email. “Banning them from school sports would not make any child’s life better or safer, but it would bring discredit and economic hardship to the state, which likely would lose NCAA and professional championships. Governor Edward’s veto message is a model of clarity and compassion. We need more leaders with his courage.”

The ACLU reacted in a tweet saying:

 

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