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Mississippi legislature approves ‘turn away the gays’ bill

Legislation along the lines of Arizona bill vetoed by Jan Brewer

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Mississippi, Jackson, Turn Away the Gays, gay news, Washington Blade
Mississippi, Jackson, Turn Away the Gays, gay news, Washington Blade

The Mississippi legislature has approved a “turn away the gay” bill. (Photo by Chuck Kelly; courtesy Creative Commons)

The Mississippi legislature approved late Tuesday a “turn away the gays” measure that would enable businesses and individuals in the state to discriminate against or refuse services to LGBT people on religious grounds — making a signature from the governor the last remaining step before the bill becomes law.

In a development that largely went unnoticed on the national stage, the State House and Senate on the same day both approved a conference report for S.B. 2681, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The vote in the Republican-controlled House was 78-43 and the vote in the Republican-controlled Senate vote was 38-14.

Much like the controversial Arizona bill known as SB 1062 vetoed by Gov. Jan Brewer, the six-page legislation never once mentions the words “sexual orientation,” “gender identity” or “gay.” Still, LGBT advocates insist the legislation would have the effect of allowing discriminatory practices against LGBT people seeking services in Mississippi.

Sarah Warbelow, the Human Rights Campaign’s state legislative director, said the bill would in essence make “LGBT people strangers to the law.”

“Before Mississippi has had the opportunity to robustly discuss the lived experiences of LGBT people, this bill would hollow out any non-discrimination protections at the local level or possible future state-wide protections,” Warbelow said. “Just as we’ve seen in other states, this bill is bad for business, bad for the state’s reputation, and most of all, bad for Mississippians. Gov. Bryant must veto the measure.”

Notably, the measure also contains language modifying the state seal in a way adds to it the words “In God We Trust.” The bill also has language that says nothing in the measure “shall create any rights by an employee against an employer if the employer is not the government,” which is different from the Arizona legislation.

Now that the legislature has approved the bill, the last remaining step before it becomes law is a signature from Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, who’s known for his conservative views as chief executive of a state in the Deep South. Still, Brewer has the same reputation, but she vetoed the Arizona bill after pressure from LGBT advocates, businesses, religious groups and faith leaders.

If Bryant signs the bill, it’ll go into effect on July 1. Bryant’s office didn’t immediately respond to the Washington Blade’s request to comment on whether he’ll sign the legislation.

It should be noted that sexual orientation and gender identity currently aren’t protected under civil rights law in Mississippi. Based on state and federal law, individuals and businesses could refuse services to LGBT people, such as services for a same-sex wedding, without fear of reprisal regardless of whether or not the bill signed into law.

No municipalities in Mississippi have non-discrimination ordinances, although Starkville, Hattiesburg and Oxford have all passed pro-LGBT resolutions.

Still, according to the Human Rights Campaign, the measure could undermine future state non-discrimination laws, interfere with licensing organizations that have professional regulations protecting LGBT individuals and undermine public university non-discrimination policies.

The measure is part of a nationwide trend of “turn away the gay” bills advancing in state legislatures. Including the one vetoed in Arizona, other similar bills in Georgia, Idaho, Maine, and Ohio were rejected. But similar bills are still pending in Missouri and Oklahoma.

The measure advanced through the legislature after the Mississippi House voted last month to strike text related to religious liberty and instead created a study committee on how to pass such a bill in the future. Despite changes made by the House, the conference committee produced a report that advocates say would subject LGBT people to discrimination anyway.

The legislature’s passage of the bill has won praise from at least one anti-gay group, which says the legislation is along the lines of a federal religious exemption law introduced by the late Sen. Edward Kennedy and then-Rep. Chuck Schumer before being passed by Congress and signed into law by President Clinton.

Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, said the measure simply ensures religious freedom for individuals and businesses in Mississippi.

“This is a victory for the First Amendment and the right to live and work according to one’s conscience,” Perkins said. “This commonsense measure was a no-brainer for freedom, and like the federal RFRA, it simply bars government discrimination against religious exercise. The legislature gave strong approval to a bill that declares that individuals do not have to trade their religious freedom for entrance into public commerce.

Morgan Miller, a spokesperson for the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi, told the Blade although lawmakers attempted to align the Mississippi bill with federal law, the end result “falls short.”

“This bill still could open the door for someone who wants to use their religion to discriminate against others,” Miller said. “It exposes virtually every branch and office of the government to litigation; our state will have to spend taxpayer money to defend lawsuits. It’s unnecessary: the Mississippi legislature has been unable to articulate why this law is needed in our state.”

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Delaware

Blade Foundation awards 7th Steve Elkins journalism fellowship

Joe Reberkenny will cover Delaware LGBTQ news all summer

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Joseph Reberkenny

The Blade Foundation this week announced the recipient of its 2024 Steve Elkins Memorial Fellowship in Journalism is Joseph Reberkenny, a recent graduate of American University.

He will cover issues of interest to Delaware’s LGBTQ community for 12 weeks this summer. The fellowship is named in honor of Steve Elkins, a journalist and co-founder of the CAMP Rehoboth LGBT community center. Elkins served as editor of Letters from CAMP Rehoboth for many years as well as executive director of the center before his death in March of 2018.

Kevin Naff, editor of the Blade, welcomed Reberkenny and introduced him to the Rehoboth Beach community at a recent event there. 

“We’re all excited to work with Joseph during this important election year in which Delaware is poised to make history by electing the nation’s first transgender congressperson and only the fourth Black woman U.S. Senator,” Naff said.

Reberkenny is the seventh recipient of the Elkins fellowship, which is funded by community donations at the Blade Foundation’s annual fundraiser in Rehoboth Beach. This year’s event was held May 17 at the Blue Moon and included a generous sponsorship from Realtor Justin Noble and a keynote address by Sarah McBride, a candidate for U.S. House.

“I am honored to work for the Blade and to contribute to its rich history in supporting the LGBTQ community,” Reberkenny said. “I am excited to cover Delaware’s politics, and can’t wait to amplify voices that deserve to be heard.” 

“The CAMP Rehoboth community is thrilled to know that the Washington Blade continues to support a student intern in memory of Steve Elkins,” said Kim Leisey, Ph.D., executive director of CAMP Rehoboth. 

For more information on the fellowship program or to donate, visit bladefoundation.org.

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Maryland

Turning around sex trafficking: One year after Safe Harbor in Maryland

TurnAround Inc. working to rescue youth, trans girls from exploitation

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The staff at TurnAround Inc. in Baltimore.

In 2023, the law in Maryland dictated the following: If a child was discovered to be sex trafficked during a sting operation, they were to be arrested, handcuffed, and then incarcerated as a “child prostitute.” One survivor testified to Maryland lawmakers that after being trafficked throughout College Park from ages 12 to 15, it was their ‘rescue’ by law enforcement that was the most traumatizing part of their experience.

In 40 states and in federal law, the sex trafficking of minors was already understood to be a crime committed against children, and not a crime committed by children. When Gov. Wes Moore signed the Safe Harbor law on May 16th of last year, prohibiting the criminal prosecution of sex-trafficked minors, he brought Maryland out of a legal dark age.

How do things look in Maryland a year later? The Washington Blade got in touch with TurnAround Inc., headquartered in Baltimore, to find out. TurnAround is Maryland’s first provider of comprehensive services to survivors of sexual trafficking, Baltimore’s rape crisis center, and a support center for victims of intimate partner violence and sexual violence.

Perhaps the most striking thing about TurnAround is how large of an operation it is — how large of an operation it needs to be. The organization fielded more than 10,000 calls on their hotline in 2022, conducted almost 4,000 counseling sessions, and placed 337 clients in safe shelter: nearly one for every day of the year. But the staff at TurnAround is relieved to see these numbers so high. During the pandemic, there was a steep decrease in reports of sex trafficking. 

“[COVID] had a very chilling effect on the number of trafficking survivors that were getting access to services,” said Amanda Rodriguez, executive director of TurnAround. Many of the avenues through which cases were referred to TurnAround simply shut down. The hospitals were inundated with COVID cases, and so weren’t referring anyone; the schools were closed down, and so weren’t referring anyone; and State Attorney Marilyn Mosby stopped prosecuting low-level crimes, which had the unintended consequence of limiting the opportunities law enforcement had to identify youth at risk of trafficking.

In 2020, TurnAround moved into a new office in downtown Baltimore, and it is cavernous — half the floor of a skyscraper. When you walk in, you could mistake the headquarters for a dentist’s office for how calmly the front desk attendant answers the phone. A few lines here and there give away the seriousness of their work: “Is it OK for us to leave a voicemail?” Not every caller’s phone is a safe place.

The office is flanked by a hallway of therapists on one side of the building, who focus on the inner lives of their clients, and a hallway of advocates on the other side, who focus on their outer lives: support in court, government benefits, direct outreach on the streets of Baltimore. At the center are a host of services one would think spread across the whole of the city: a computer center, a clothing donation center, storage for the goods and products needed to survive while in shelter, a kitchen for group meals, and a place to wash and dry your clothes. But the most sobering part of the office is the play center full of toys, for the children that TurnAround serves. “We have clients as young as three years old,” said Jean Henningsen, senior director of strategic initiatives. Some of these children come in as the dependents of adult survivors, but they are sometimes the victims of sexual violence themselves.

“When we were creating Safe Harbor, we looked to see how many kids had been arrested and charged by law enforcement in every county in the state,” Amanda said. “Baltimore City had the highest number at the time. This has changed since then, and is actually getting much better.” The majority of these trafficked kids were trans girls living in the Charles Village neighborhood of Baltimore — a situation that would surprise many Baltimore residents. Charles Village has a reputation for being one of the safest neighborhoods in the city. It is the neighborhood of Johns Hopkins University, which has, in an effort to assuage the concerned parents of its undergraduates, stationed security officers on many of the surrounding street corners. Despite criticism, the university recently partnered with the Baltimore Police Department to create its own police force, and has started recruiting and training officers as of this spring.

“It’s historically been a safer neighborhood for the LGBTQ community in general,” Amanda said. “I don’t know what spurred more nefarious individuals coming in and exploiting people, other than opportunity. Traffickers are just such master manipulators. They will figure out for anybody what their vulnerability is.” But these nefarious individuals are not part of some transnational crime organization. They are sometimes trans women themselves, trafficking these girls to serve their own needs in the home. Often rejected by their families and in search of community,  trans girls find this community among other trans women, and then get manipulated into sexual service.

The procedure for dealing with suspected child sex trafficking in Maryland begins with what are called “Regional Navigators,” a role established by the Child Sex Trafficking Screening and Services Act of 2019. Law enforcement agents and local departments of Social Services will notify the county’s Regional Navigator of a suspected trafficking case, and then this Regional Navigator will put together a Multi-Disciplinary Team, or MDT. The MDT consists of all agents and departments that are involved in or have some stake in the case, including Child Protective Services, Juvenile Services, law enforcement, therapists, and schools. These stakeholders will compare notes on what the youth has told them, since they will often have provided different agents and departments with competing descriptions of what’s going on. 

While the MDT procedure is highly effective for inter-departmental coordination on a given case, Stephanie Gonzalez, the Acting Regional Navigator for Howard County, explained that the system has some way to go when it comes to LGBTQ youth. “When we get referrals in general, a lot of times, it’s not mentioned how they identify,” she said. As a consequence, their data on how many LGBTQ youth are being trafficked isn’t always accurate, and these youth sometimes aren’t being handled in ways consonant with their sexual or gender identity. And even when these youth are appropriately identified, they aren’t always able to access the appropriate resources.

“We had a transgender female come to us from another state, and she had been trafficked,” Stephanie said. “We had her in a hotel while we looked for other housing options. We could not find trans-friendly housing options.” The women’s shelters they approached didn’t have the requisite training or resources. They would ask insensitive and irrelevant questions about any surgeries the girl had undergone as part of her transition, or require that she be isolated from other women for their safety. “Why are they trying to make it seem like I’m going to hurt someone,” she would ask.

But that situation is changing. TurnAround has partnered with the YWCA of Annapolis and Anne Arundel County to open up a safe house with the resources needed to support any child survivor of sex trafficking. “It’s built!” Jean said. “TurnAround will be staffing it and running it 24/7. Right now there are no children in the facility. We’re still waiting on the final licensing paperwork from the state.”

The project is expensive, with an estimated running cost of $1.5 million each year. TurnAround has partnered with Femi Ayanbadejo, a former Super Bowl winner with the Baltimore Ravens, to help coordinate fundraising. Ayanbadejo advocates for TurnAround with a deep enthusiasm—hearing him talk on the work they do, it could easily be a field-side interview in the final quarter of a game. “If we can reach five, ten, twenty, thirty, forty thousand people that we wouldn’t have with [the Blade’s] reach, maybe there’s one or two foundations that would give five, ten, a hundred, a thousand, maybe a million dollars. Who knows?”

To learn more about TurnAround’s work, visit their website at turnaroundinc.org. If you or someone you know is experiencing sexual violence, TurnAround has offices in Baltimore City, Baltimore County, and Howard County. All three offices can be reached via 410-377-8111.

CJ Higgins is a postdoctoral fellow with the Alexander Grass Humanities Institute at Johns Hopkins University.

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District of Columbia

12 percent of D.C. homeless adults identify as LGBTQ

Annual count shows increase over 2023

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The number of LGBTQ homeless in D.C. is growing by double digits.

In a development not widely reported, the 2024 annual Point-In-Time (PIT) Count of homeless people in the District of Columbia conducted in January shows that 527 or 12 percent of the homeless adults counted identified as “part of the of the LGBTQ+ community based on their responses to questions about their sexual orientation and gender identity,” according to a report released on May 13 by the D.C. Department of Human Services.

The 195-page report, which was prepared by the Metropolitan Washington Council  of Governments, or COG, includes separate counts of homeless people in the entire D.C. metropolitan area, including the surrounding Maryland and Virginia suburbs. A statement released by the D.C. DHS says the D.C. count was conducted for the city  by the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness, a local nonprofit group that provides services to homeless people.

The count of D.C. homeless people shows that a greater number of what the report calls Transition Age Youth between the ages of 18 and 24 — 28 percent — identified as LGBTQ, but it doesn’t provide the specific number that the 28 percent comprises.

“As in past counts, Transition Age Youth (ages 18-24) were more likely than older adults experiencing homelessness to identify as LGBTQ+,” the report says, “To wit, 34 percent of unaccompanied youth and eight percent of parenting youth (or 28 percent of all 18-to-year-olds) identified as LGBTQ+ compared to estimates of around nine percent of youth in the District at large,” according to the report.

The report says the total number of homeless people counted in D.C during the one-day count conducted on Jan. 24, was 5,616, with the total number of homeless adults coming to 4,391 based on the 12 percent figure said to comprise LGBTQ adults. It says the count was conducted by a team of trained counters who visited homeless shelters and places on the streets and other locations where homeless people are known to reside and congregate.

This year’s D.C. count showed an overall 14 percent increase in the number of homeless people compared to 2023. This year’s count of 527 LGBTQ homeless people marks an increase over the 349 LGBTQ homeless people counted in D.C. in 2023 and 347 LGBTQ counted in 2022.

This year’s report also says that for LGBTQ+ youth in the District, there are at least 53 transitional housing units and a rehousing program that serves 20 individuals at a time. Although the report doesn’t identify the LGBTQ youth housing facilities by name, they most likely are operated by the local LGBTQ youth services organization SMYAL and the Wanda Alston Foundation, which also provides housing services for LGBTQ homeless youth.

SMYAL spokesperson Hancie Stokes said SMYAL currently operates residential facilities that accommodate 55 homeless LGBTQ youth.  

“In Maryland and the District of Columbia, as well as nationwide, a key contributing factor to youth experiencing homelessness was conflict with a parent, guardian, or foster parent,” the report states.  

In addition, the report mentions that D.C. opened its first shelter for homeless LGBTQ+ adults in 2022 that serves up to 40 individuals. It says that the shelter, which D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser initiated, was filled to capacity on the day the count was conducted.

The report states that the count conducted in Arlington shows that 4 percent of the homeless identified as LGBTQ and 1.2 percent identified as transgender.

Like other jurisdictions, including D.C., the Arlington count showed that 63 percent of all homeless people counted identified as male and 36 percent identified as female.

The full 2024 Point-In-Time Count report of homeless people in the D.C. metro area can be accessed at dcpit.org.

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