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‘One life ended and one forever changed’

Two years ago, a gay Rehoboth bartender left work drunk, climbed into his Jeep and killed another gay man, shocking a community and highlighting the problem of addiction — and the power of forgiveness



Brian Meegan, Russell Henman, Rehoboth, gay news, Washington Blade
Brian Meegan, Russell Henman, Rehoboth, gay news, Washington Blade

Brian Meegan, shown here at Sussex Correctional Institution where he’s serving at least 8.5 years, struck and killed Russell Henman two years ago. (Washington Blade photo of Meegan by Kevin Naff; photo of Henman courtesy of Barbara Kessler)

REHOBOTH BEACH, Del. — Before Brian Meegan left for work on June 30, 2012, he updated his Facebook status, “Working [a] double today, ready for Super July Fourth Week.”

The double shift bartending at the L Bar was long, extending from afternoon happy hour to past close at 1 a.m. and there was a promotion that day. Representatives from a vodka company were on hand promoting new flavors and cocktails and Meegan joined in, downing shots throughout his shift.

Even though he had two previous arrests for driving under the influence, Meegan left work early in the morning and climbed into his 2003 Jeep Wrangler. He turned left onto Rehoboth Avenue, headed for Route 1 when he hit what he thought was a bicycle from a nearby bike shop. For a moment, he couldn’t see anything through the windshield but kept driving, finally pulling over in a CVS parking lot nearby. He got out and noticed a bike stuck in the wheel well and tried to pull it out when he was spotted by police.

Meegan had struck a fellow gay man and one of the L Bar’s patrons that night, Russell Henman, 44. The impact sent Henman onto the hood and windshield of the car. He was carried 400 feet before the Jeep struck a curb, sending Henman onto the road. He died at the scene.

Meegan’s blood-alcohol level was nearly three times the legal limit; he was charged with first-degree vehicular homicide and driving under the influence, pleaded guilty and sentenced to 15 years with a chance to reduce the sentence to eight-and-a-half years by completing a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program in prison.

Nearly two years after that tragic night, Meegan is serving his time at the Sussex Correctional Institution in Georgetown, Del., and is one of the only openly gay men at the facility. He granted the Washington Blade his first interview to discuss the events of that night and what he hopes to do with his life during and after prison.

There are conflicting versions of exactly what happened at the L Bar that night and lingering concerns about the problem of drunk driving in Rehoboth and the safety of busy Route 1. Some of Henman’s friends remain angry that Meegan was allowed to drink alcohol while working; others are frustrated with Delaware officials for not making safety improvements to Route 1 in the wake of the crash.

Meegan touched on a wide array of topics during about two hours of interviews, conducted in prison with Meegan wearing a white Department of Correction jumpsuit and handcuffed to the cinderblock wall of a private office. He’d had no visitors in prison, until this interview.

“I wouldn’t want to be anyplace else,” Meegan said, “because I killed someone. It was one of the Ten Commandments I thought I could never commit.”

He continued, “This is someone I never knew, someone who had never done anything to me or anyone I know and I never met and I have no animosity for. There’s no way to ever take it back, to make it better; there’s nothing you could ever do. I remember watching TV afterwards and something was funny and I was laughing and I just felt horrible because that’s something he could never do again.”

Asked if he had anything to say to Henman’s family and friends, Meegan replied, “I really hope this article doesn’t hurt them. I don’t want to hurt them more than I already have. There is nothing to say. I hate the fact that it doesn’t change how people drink and drive. It doesn’t stop us. … To his family I should just be dead. I want to hide and for them to never remember who I am. I don’t think anyone wants to hear from me.”

To the gay community in Rehoboth, Meegan offers a piece of advice: “Get a designated driver and stick to it. The first thing to go is your judgment. If my story stops one person from drinking and driving, then it’s worth telling.”

Meegan said he didn’t know Henman and doesn’t remember seeing him in the bar that night. He also said he has no idea how much he drank that day, but that it was a lot.

“It was not unusual for bartenders to drink,” he said.

But John Meng, the L Bar’s co-owner, denied that Meegan was drinking during his shift.

“Brian was not drunk,” Meng told the Blade in an interview last year. “We have video of him at work. I don’t understand what the State Police said. He was not drinking while on his shift.”

Meegan disputes Meng’s assertions and said definitively, “I was drinking.”

Some of Henman’s friends questioned why Meegan was allowed to drink on the job, but there’s nothing in Delaware law that prohibits bartenders from consuming alcohol while working.

“There’s nothing that says they can’t,” said Robert Kracyla, deputy director of Delaware Alcohol & Tobacco Enforcement. He noted that legislation would not be required to make it illegal for bartenders to drink on the job. Such a rule could be enacted by the Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission.

Kracyla said there was no fine or penalty assessed against the L Bar for what happened the night Henman was killed.

“We conducted a full investigation,” Kracyla said. “We were not able to move forward with enough to issue a violation on our end. We did a parallel investigation to the police but there was not enough forensic evidence.”

Delaware is not a dram shop state. Such laws allow for the criminal prosecution of a bar owner or anyone who provides alcohol to someone who causes injury or death as a result. Meegan was not interviewed as part of the investigation as he invoked his Miranda rights against self-incrimination, according to Kracyla.

One issue that remains unclear is whether the company promoting its vodka that night violated a rule about giving away alcohol for free. Meegan said representatives of the company gave him the vodka he consumed. Meegan identified the company as Absolut, but the Blade could not confirm that account.

“According to Alcohol Beverage Control rules you can’t give away alcohol, so if that was going on that would be a violation,” Kracyla said.

The L Bar, which catered to a gay clientele, has since closed and been replaced by a dance club that appeals to a mixed crowd. Meng and his business partner retain ownership of the building, though they are not operating the new club, called Dive.


‘He killed my best friend’


Russell Henman, Brian Meegan, Rehoboth, gay news, Washington Blade

Friends shared their favorite photos of Russell Henman, who was killed two years ago after being hit by a drunk driver in Rehoboth Beach, Del.

“Meegan had a DUI and came back to work unsupervised and was allowed to drink, that’s one thing I’m angry about,” said Barbara Kessler, 56, a close friend of Henman’s. “From a business point of view, the bar should have done something to intervene.”

Kessler and her husband, Steve, 59, live part-time in Rehoboth. They met Henman at a popular area Mexican restaurant, Dos Locos, listening to live music, and quickly became close friends, with Henman regularly staying at their home.

“He was the biggest-hearted guy in the world,” she said. “He loved his family and was utterly devoted to his mother.”

Henman had two brothers who have families of their own and he lived with his mother in Snow Hill, Md. “He used to always say, ‘I’m going to take care of my mom,’” Kessler added. Henman had always dreamed of owning a place in Rehoboth and just eight weeks before he died had purchased a trailer there, she said.

“He was loving life, this was going to be his summer, he had his own place to call home,” Kessler said. “It was so unfair it was snatched from him.”

Asked about Meegan’s sentence, Kessler said, “I feel bad for his situation but he killed my best friend. I don’t know what to think of that. I miss Russ every day. I feel for Brian’s family having a son who went to the dark side. I’ve forgiven him, it doesn’t bring Russ back to hate him.”

Her husband Steve echoed other friends who said they hope Meegan will find help while in prison.

“It’s a confounding thing that people can have so many DUIs and remain on the road,” he said. “To drag him and then drive away, we were distraught over that. I don’t know what’s fair but nothing brings Russ back. I hope he uses prison to turn his life around.”

Barbara Kessler said Henman’s mother has decided against pursuing a civil lawsuit against the L Bar. “She said ‘we’re not the type of people that sue, nothing can be gained from it,’” Kessler recalled.


Two previous arrests


Meegan moved to Rehoboth in May 2012 from Fort Lauderdale. He had never been to Rehoboth before but said he met some people from the area in Florida who encouraged him to visit. He was arrested six weeks before Henman was killed on a DUI charge in Rehoboth after he said he backed into another car in the L Bar parking lot.

“The other guy wanted a police report,” Meegan said. “He called the cops and they did sobriety tests and I got arrested for a DUI.”

In 2005, Meegan was arrested in New York on a DUI charge. He said he drove 20-30 miles out of his way on the Southern State Parkway in Long Island, headed in the opposite direction of his intended destination.

“That’s one of those moments when, as a drinker, you delude yourself,” he said. “You should say, ‘I’m an alcoholic’ and instead you say ‘Wow, I‘m a really great driver.’ It scared me then, but it didn’t last.”

He was sentenced to attend driving classes but received no jail time.


From privilege to addiction


Brian Meegan, Russell Henman, Rehoboth Beach, gay news, Washington Blade

Brian Meegan (Photo courtesy of the Delaware State Police)

Meegan, 39, grew up in Garden City, N.Y., a small town of 22,000 mostly white residents about 20 miles from Manhattan. A 2007 estimate put the median income for a family there at more than $160,000. It’s a wealthy enclave and a privileged place to grow up.

“One thing about rich white suburban kids is that we drink,” Meegan said. “Drinking was fun especially if you feel awkward.”

After high school, Meegan pursued a degree in marine sciences at the University of Miami but dropped out in 1994 after just one year. He said he wanted to come out to his father but feared being cut off financially as a result. His mother discovered he’s gay in high school, but Meegan said they kept it from his father. He dropped out and became independent so his father wouldn’t have financial control over his life.

“My Dad didn’t want me to go through the struggles associated with being gay,” Meegan said. “He was afraid of me getting HIV and he still doesn’t know I’m positive.”

The pressure of fitting in and feeling “awkward” is something Meegan said he experienced again later in life when he came out as gay.

“Going into the gay community is like going through adolescence again,” he said. “So you feel like a 13-year-old awkward kid again and now you’re legally able to drink and it helps.”

Looking back, Meegan now says that dropping out of school was one of the biggest mistakes he made. After leaving school and coming out to his father he spent some time in Miami working as a bartender, then moved to New York City. That period began a spiral of destructive behavior, including drug abuse, prostitution and stripping that spun out of control. There were years spent following the gay party scene — Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Aspen in the winters and Fire Island and Provincetown in the summers.

He also found work as a model, which ironically led to more problems with his self-esteem.

“I was not a cool kid,” he said. “Suddenly to be a bartender and model and to be sought after by people was hard for me. I’m a geek who’s fat with braces and bifocals and now people want to pay me $7,000 to stand in front of a camera.”

He turned to alcohol and drugs to cope, a strategy familiar to many in the LGBT community, which suffers disproportionately high rates of alcoholism and drug addiction, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“When you start doing the bartending and acting and modeling, they are scenes that are very big on drinking and drugs so it just becomes part of a normal life, you don’t think of it as this seedy lifestyle,” Meegan said. “You’re not going to the back alley to get these things.”

In 2001, just after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, Meegan returned to the city from Fire Island to check on an ex-boyfriend who lived near the towers. His friend was OK but on that same day, Meegan said he received an email from a former client of his prostitution services informing him that he was HIV positive and urging Meegan to get tested. A few weeks later he did and learned he, too, was positive.

“At the time, HIV was more of a death sentence,” he recalled. “I obliterated my feelings [with alcohol] so I don’t remember that time very well.”

Crystal meth soon became his drug of choice.

“I drank for confidence and comfort, then I met meth,” he said. “I was thin, felt sexy, had energy to do everything I wanted. I could clean, cook, do laundry, have sex, spend time at the beach and work because I barely slept.”

In 2007, he said he started to gain weight and to sleep on meth and that’s when he knew he was doing too much and quit on Aug. 4, 2007, cold turkey. His weight ballooned to 250 pounds and he continued to drink.

“My ex dumped me for weighing 250 pounds but he was supportive of me quitting drugs,” he said.

Meegan’s peripatetic existence eventually led him to Rehoboth, another gay-popular resort town.


Rehoboth dream realized


Henman loved Rehoboth, according to friends, and he saved money for five years to purchase his first place in 2012.

“As Rusty got more enamored with Rehoboth he wanted to see if he could swing a place on his own,” said Brian Gray, 46, a close friend and part-time Rehoboth resident. “He bought a camper and was renting space and was talking about buying a permanent mobile home.”

Friends describe him as fun loving, someone who appreciated an over-the-top gesture and who enjoyed entertaining, spending weekends with friends and especially karaoke.

“He lived a simple life but would give you the shirt off his back,” Gray said. “He loved Rehoboth, karaoke, Rigby’s, he loved Purple Parrot, anywhere with karaoke. He loved music and he liked to sing.”

Henman worked for about 25 years as a loan officer at PNC Bank and was single when he died. He adored his dog Maddy.

“He always did things by the book,” said Bryan Hecksher, another close friend. “His heart was as big as he was. He loved to cook and to do crafts. I used to joke with him that ‘I’m not that gay,’” he said laughing. “I really miss his Facebook posts on what he made for dinner. I used to look forward to those every night and would comment on them.”


A fateful night


Russell Henman, Brian Meegan, Rehoboth Beach, gay news, Washington Blade

Critics say these green plastic lane dividers separating busy Route 1 from a service road are insufficient and dangerous. Russell Henman was killed on the service road after being hit by a drunk driver. (Washington Blade photos by Michael Key)

In a small town like Rehoboth, everyone crosses paths with everyone else eventually. Hecksher knew Meegan from the L Bar and even picked him up from the police station after his first Rehoboth DUI arrest in May 2012.

“I made him promise not to do it again,” Hecksher said. “People cared for Brian too. I don’t hate Brian Meegan but I don’t understand his actions. You can call a cab or call a friend — he could have called me. He had plenty of choices.”

Gray, meanwhile, was with Henman on the night he died and even offered him a ride home just minutes before he was killed. Earlier in the evening, he was at Henman’s home for a cookout and the two decided to go to the L Bar. When the bar closed at 1 a.m., they walked to 7-Eleven, ordered a pizza and sat in a nearby park talking and eating. Gray recalled that Henman talked about his family and his young niece in particular. After about an hour in the park, Gray said they walked back to the L Bar, where Henman had left his bike. Gray said Henman turned on his bike’s safety blinkers and invited him to breakfast in the morning.

“I offered to drive him and put his bike in my car and he said no,” Gray said. “He rode into town most evenings and felt safe doing that. He avoided Route 1.”

Gray insists neither he nor Henman was intoxicated. Other friends said Henman wasn’t a big drinker. Meegan, on the other hand, appeared drunk, Gray said. He said he and Henman observed other customers in the L Bar buying shots for Meegan.

“His eyes were bloodshot,” Gray said. “He seemed under the influence of something. You never see that happen at the Blue Moon — you don’t see bartenders drinking. All of the bartenders were doing shots that night.”

Gray said he followed Henman for a short distance, then drove home. It was only minutes later that Meegan pulled out of the parking lot.

“I texted him the next morning about breakfast and there was no response,” Gray said.

Meegan said he remembers very little about what happened.

“I thought I hit the curb, I couldn’t see out the windshield,” he said. “The police were adamant that I must have known but I didn’t. I remember the police being very upset that I wasn’t more upset. I had one cop tell me, ‘I’ve had people arrested for shoplifting and they’re crying,’ but I was in shock.”

Despite his lengthy sentence, Meegan said he doesn’t regret pleading guilty. The prosecutor sought six years in prison, but in February 2013, Judge Richard Stokes sentenced him to 15 years, reduced to 8.5 years upon completion of the “Key” program, a drug and alcohol treatment program. “The judge decided to make an example of me,” Meegan said.


Bias behind bars


Today, Meegan’s days are spent reading, writing and serving food in the prison cafeteria. Early on, he described fits of crying at night. Now he survives by isolating himself from other inmates and writing. As an openly gay man, he knows there are constant risks to his personal safety. He said he endures frequent anti-gay slurs from inmates. “Sometimes the corrections officers chime in, too.”

“I’m upfront about being gay,” he said. “When someone new starts talking to me, I tell them right away because just for talking to me, people are going to hate you.”

Even the lone minister at Sussex Correctional preaches against homosexuality, he said. “The only minister who comes in every Sunday is against it and I have people saying things like ‘God bless you, fucking faggot,’” he said. Meegan has stopped attending services but has maintained contact with his former Episcopalian minister from New York, who did not respond to a Blade inquiry.

Despite the abuse, Meegan seems to have found a purpose in coming out behind prison walls — a purpose inspired by Rusty Henman. Meegan said Henman’s mother talked at the trial about her son’s advocacy work for LGBT and other charitable causes.

“I think my sentence here is to make it easier for the next generation,” he said. “I know some people in here who are in their 20s and have long sentences and are gay and they hide it. They won’t talk to me because it would implicate them. They’re worse to me than other inmates. If I can make people understand that being gay isn’t this horrible thing … maybe that could help.”

He added that he prays for Henman’s mother every night and has even talked to Rusty in prison.

Although he’s out as gay, Meegan said the inmates do not know he’s HIV positive. He lies to them about the daily medication he takes when they ask, “What’s the Skittles you’re getting?” He’s been positive for 13 years and his health is good, he said. He attends weekly Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

Henman’s friends seem satisfied with the sentence and hopeful that Meegan will turn his life around after prison.

“I hope he uses this time to change his core behavior,” said Hecksher. “I think the sentence was fair and will give him time to reflect.”

Gray echoed that sentiment.

“People make mistakes in life,” Gray said. “Hopefully he’ll have an opportunity to take care of the alcohol problem he has. He’s being punished and hopefully when he gets out he’ll be a changed person.”

Barbara Kessler urged forgiveness. “I think he’s hurting also,” she said. “You have to find forgiveness in your heart, otherwise it’ll eat you up.”

Another thing they agree on: Sussex County needs to improve pedestrian safety on Route 1, especially the spot where the highway intersects with the main road leading into downtown Rehoboth and the service road where Henman died.

“What’s tragic is that two years later, we’re still working on ideas for improving safety on Route 1,” Hecksher said. “Something should be done.”

Gray said there are plenty of ideas for improving safety, including construction of a jersey wall at the accident site to better insulate the service road from Route 1. In addition, he noted the lack of crosswalks in the area and said a seasonal shuttle should be expanded to year-round service.

“Absolutely nothing has been done to improve safety on Route 1,” he said. “How many people have to die for Sussex County to wake up and do something?”

The other fear they share is of drunk drivers, especially in summer, which arrives unofficially this week with Memorial Day celebrations.

“In Rehoboth, I worry all the time about drinking and driving,” Hecksher said.

In prison, Meegan has settled into a new routine and he worries that as life goes on, he will forget the details of what he did that put him there.

“We have a very easy time of disassociating,” Meegan said. “Something I thought I would never stop thinking about every single day, in here, there are days when you forget completely now, which feels horrible the next day when I remember it. How could I do that and now it’s becoming a distant memory, which feels horrible.”

The memory remains fresh for the friends and loved ones left behind.

“One life ended and one is forever changed,” said Hecksher. “One careless move left a huge void in the whole community.”


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New Supreme Court term includes critical LGBTQ case with ‘terrifying’ consequences

Business owner seeks to decline services for same-sex weddings



The U.S. Supreme Court is to set consider the case of 303 Creative, which seeks to refuse design services for same-sex weddings. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

The U.S. Supreme Court, after a decision overturning Roe v. Wade that still leaves many reeling, is starting a new term with justices slated to revisit the issue of LGBTQ rights.

In 303 Creative v. Elenis, the court will return to the issue of whether or not providers of custom-made goods can refuse service to LGBTQ customers on First Amendment grounds. In this case, the business owner is Lorie Smith, a website designer in Colorado who wants to opt out of providing her graphic design services for same-sex weddings despite the civil rights law in her state.

Jennifer Pizer, acting chief legal officer of Lambda Legal, said in an interview with the Blade, “it’s not too much to say an immeasurably huge amount is at stake” for LGBTQ people depending on the outcome of the case.

“This contrived idea that making custom goods, or offering a custom service, somehow tacitly conveys an endorsement of the person — if that were to be accepted, that would be a profound change in the law,” Pizer said. “And the stakes are very high because there are no practical, obvious, principled ways to limit that kind of an exception, and if the law isn’t clear in this regard, then the people who are at risk of experiencing discrimination have no security, no effective protection by having a non-discrimination laws, because at any moment, as one makes their way through the commercial marketplace, you don’t know whether a particular business person is going to refuse to serve you.”

The upcoming arguments and decision in the 303 Creative case mark a return to LGBTQ rights for the Supreme Court, which had no lawsuit to directly address the issue in its previous term, although many argued the Dobbs decision put LGBTQ rights in peril and threatened access to abortion for LGBTQ people.

And yet, the 303 Creative case is similar to other cases the Supreme Court has previously heard on the providers of services seeking the right to deny services based on First Amendment grounds, such as Masterpiece Cakeshop and Fulton v. City of Philadelphia. In both of those cases, however, the court issued narrow rulings on the facts of litigation, declining to issue sweeping rulings either upholding non-discrimination principles or First Amendment exemptions.

Pizer, who signed one of the friend-of-the-court briefs in opposition to 303 Creative, said the case is “similar in the goals” of the Masterpiece Cakeshop litigation on the basis they both seek exemptions to the same non-discrimination law that governs their business, the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act, or CADA, and seek “to further the social and political argument that they should be free to refuse same-sex couples or LGBTQ people in particular.”

“So there’s the legal goal, and it connects to the social and political goals and in that sense, it’s the same as Masterpiece,” Pizer said. “And so there are multiple problems with it again, as a legal matter, but also as a social matter, because as with the religion argument, it flows from the idea that having something to do with us is endorsing us.”

One difference: the Masterpiece Cakeshop litigation stemmed from an act of refusal of service after owner, Jack Phillips, declined to make a custom-made wedding cake for a same-sex couple for their upcoming wedding. No act of discrimination in the past, however, is present in the 303 Creative case. The owner seeks to put on her website a disclaimer she won’t provide services for same-sex weddings, signaling an intent to discriminate against same-sex couples rather than having done so.

As such, expect issues of standing — whether or not either party is personally aggrieved and able bring to a lawsuit — to be hashed out in arguments as well as whether the litigation is ripe for review as justices consider the case. It’s not hard to see U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts, who has sought to lead the court to reach less sweeping decisions (sometimes successfully, and sometimes in the Dobbs case not successfully) to push for a decision along these lines.

Another key difference: The 303 Creative case hinges on the argument of freedom of speech as opposed to the two-fold argument of freedom of speech and freedom of religious exercise in the Masterpiece Cakeshop litigation. Although 303 Creative requested in its petition to the Supreme Court review of both issues of speech and religion, justices elected only to take up the issue of free speech in granting a writ of certiorari (or agreement to take up a case). Justices also declined to accept another question in the petition request of review of the 1990 precedent in Smith v. Employment Division, which concluded states can enforce neutral generally applicable laws on citizens with religious objections without violating the First Amendment.

Representing 303 Creative in the lawsuit is Alliance Defending Freedom, a law firm that has sought to undermine civil rights laws for LGBTQ people with litigation seeking exemptions based on the First Amendment, such as the Masterpiece Cakeshop case.

Kristen Waggoner, president of Alliance Defending Freedom, wrote in a Sept. 12 legal brief signed by her and other attorneys that a decision in favor of 303 Creative boils down to a clear-cut violation of the First Amendment.

“Colorado and the United States still contend that CADA only regulates sales transactions,” the brief says. “But their cases do not apply because they involve non-expressive activities: selling BBQ, firing employees, restricting school attendance, limiting club memberships, and providing room access. Colorado’s own cases agree that the government may not use public-accommodation laws to affect a commercial actor’s speech.”

Pizer, however, pushed back strongly on the idea a decision in favor of 303 Creative would be as focused as Alliance Defending Freedom purports it would be, arguing it could open the door to widespread discrimination against LGBTQ people.

“One way to put it is art tends to be in the eye of the beholder,” Pizer said. “Is something of a craft, or is it art? I feel like I’m channeling Lily Tomlin. Remember ‘soup and art’? We have had an understanding that whether something is beautiful or not is not the determining factor about whether something is protected as artistic expression. There’s a legal test that recognizes if this is speech, whose speech is it, whose message is it? Would anyone who was hearing the speech or seeing the message understand it to be the message of the customer or of the merchants or craftsmen or business person?”

Despite the implications in the case for LGBTQ rights, 303 Creative may have supporters among LGBTQ people who consider themselves proponents of free speech.

One joint friend-of-the-court brief before the Supreme Court, written by Dale Carpenter, a law professor at Southern Methodist University who’s written in favor of LGBTQ rights, and Eugene Volokh, a First Amendment legal scholar at the University of California, Los Angeles, argues the case is an opportunity to affirm the First Amendment applies to goods and services that are uniquely expressive.

“Distinguishing expressive from non-expressive products in some contexts might be hard, but the Tenth Circuit agreed that Smith’s product does not present a hard case,” the brief says. “Yet that court (and Colorado) declined to recognize any exemption for products constituting speech. The Tenth Circuit has effectively recognized a state interest in subjecting the creation of speech itself to antidiscrimination laws.”

Oral arguments in the case aren’t yet set, but may be announced soon. Set to defend the state of Colorado and enforcement of its non-discrimination law in the case is Colorado Solicitor General Eric Reuel Olson. Just this week, the U.S. Supreme Court announced it would grant the request to the U.S. solicitor general to present arguments before the justices on behalf of the Biden administration.

With a 6-3 conservative majority on the court that has recently scrapped the super-precedent guaranteeing the right to abortion, supporters of LGBTQ rights may think the outcome of the case is all but lost, especially amid widespread fears same-sex marriage would be next on the chopping block. After the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against 303 Creative in the lawsuit, the simple action by the Supreme Court to grant review in the lawsuit suggests they are primed to issue a reversal and rule in favor of the company.

Pizer, acknowledging the call to action issued by LGBTQ groups in the aftermath of the Dobbs decision, conceded the current Supreme Court issuing the ruling in this case is “a terrifying prospect,” but cautioned the issue isn’t so much the makeup of the court but whether or not justices will continue down the path of abolishing case law.

“I think the question that we’re facing with respect to all of the cases or at least many of the cases that are in front of the court right now, is whether this court is going to continue on this radical sort of wrecking ball to the edifice of settled law and seemingly a goal of setting up whole new structures of what our basic legal principles are going to be. Are we going to have another term of that?” Pizer said. “And if so, that’s terrifying.”

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Kelley Robinson, a Black, queer woman, named president of Human Rights Campaign

Progressive activist a veteran of Planned Parenthood Action Fund



Kelley Robinson (Screen capture via HRC YouTube)

Kelley Robinson, a Black, queer woman and veteran of Planned Parenthood Action Fund, is to become the next president of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s leading LGBTQ group announced on Tuesday.

Robinson is set to become the ninth president of the Human Rights Campaign after having served as executive director of Planned Parenthood Action Fund and more than 12 years of experience as a leader in the progressive movement. She’ll be the first Black, queer woman to serve in that role.

“I’m honored and ready to lead HRC — and our more than three million member-advocates — as we continue working to achieve equality and liberation for all Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer people,” Robinson said. “This is a pivotal moment in our movement for equality for LGBTQ+ people. We, particularly our trans and BIPOC communities, are quite literally in the fight for our lives and facing unprecedented threats that seek to destroy us.”

Kelley Robinson IS NAMED as The next human rights Campaign president

The next Human Rights Campaign president is named as Democrats are performing well in polls in the mid-term elections after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, leaving an opening for the LGBTQ group to play a key role amid fears LGBTQ rights are next on the chopping block.

“The overturning of Roe v. Wade reminds us we are just one Supreme Court decision away from losing fundamental freedoms including the freedom to marry, voting rights, and privacy,” Robinson said. “We are facing a generational opportunity to rise to these challenges and create real, sustainable change. I believe that working together this change is possible right now. This next chapter of the Human Rights Campaign is about getting to freedom and liberation without any exceptions — and today I am making a promise and commitment to carry this work forward.”

The Human Rights Campaign announces its next president after a nearly year-long search process after the board of directors terminated its former president Alphonso David when he was ensnared in the sexual misconduct scandal that led former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to resign. David has denied wrongdoing and filed a lawsuit against the LGBTQ group alleging racial discrimination.

Kelley Robinson, Planned Parenthood, Cathy Chu, SMYAL, Supporting and Mentoring Youth Advocates and Leaders, Amy Nelson, Whitman-Walker Health, Sheroes of the Movement, Mayor's office of GLBT Affairs, gay news, Washington Blade
Kelley Robinson, seen here with Cathy Chu of SMYAL and Amy Nelson of Whitman-Walker Health, is the next Human Rights Campaign president. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)
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Eastern Europe

Former Ambassador Daniel Baer explains it all on Ukraine crisis

Expert downplays strategic thinking behind Putin’s move



Daniel Baer, United States Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, gay news, Washington Blade
Daniel Baer served as U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security & Cooperation in Europe. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Daniel Baer, who worked on LGBTQ human rights and transatlantic issues as one of several openly gay U.S. ambassadors during the Obama administration, answered questions from the Washington Blade on Ukraine as the international crisis continues to unfold.

Topics during the interview, which took place weeks ago on Jan. 27, included Putin’s motivation for Russian incursions, the risk of outright war, predictions for Russia after Putin and how the crisis would affect LGBTQ people in Ukraine.

Baer was deputy assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor and U.S. ambassador to the Organization of Security & Cooperation in Europe.

The full interview follows:

Washington Blade: What’s your level of engagement with this affair? Are you doing any consulting work? Is the administration reaching out to you at all?

Daniel Baer: I actually think the White House is doing a pretty good job of recognizing that they need to not only have press conferences, but also talk to other people who are trying to figure out how to be constructive critics, idea generators from the outside.

Blade: OK, so you’re being solicited and engaging on this issue. My next question for you is why do you think Putin is doing this at this time?

Baer: So, I guess taking a step back from the whole thing, one of the things about a problem like this is that everybody is searching for the right answer assuming that there is a like comfortable or compelling or intellectually accurate answer, and I actually think we’re just in a really hard moment.

I don’t know why he’s doing it now. And in fact, I think that one of the puzzles that we haven’t solved yet is that all the things that he says are the reasons that he’s doing it — that he feels encirclement by NATO, … or that the situation in Ukraine is untenable — none of those things have changed. Setting aside the fact that they’re spurious, it’s not like there’s been some new move in the last 12 months that has precipitated [a reaction] on any of those fronts that you can say, “Oh, well, he’s responding to the recent meeting where Ukraine was offered membership in NATO, or he’s responding to a change in government in Ukraine that it’s clearly anti-Russia, or any other move that we’ve done.” The explanation just doesn’t hold water, and so I think we need to look for alternative ones.

The best I can come up with is actually just a broad — it doesn’t actually explain this particular moment, but I think you could look at the timing of his life. He has, I don’t know, 10 years left. And during those 10 years, it’s unlikely that Russia is going to grow more powerful; it’s much more likely that it’s going to become at least relatively and probably nominally less powerful. And so, if you’re unhappy with the status quo, and you feel like you’re a declining power, and you don’t have endless time, there’s no time like the present. And you’ll make up whatever reasons you need to in order to justify it.

I also think there’s a tendency on our part to attribute far more “strategery” to Putin than there necessarily is. I mean, he’s a bully and a thug. I think the whole Putin’s playing chess and we’re playing checkers is actually completely inverted. We’re in our own heads that there’s some kind of nuanced position that would mollify him. He’s just a gangster and he’s taking a punch because he has one. And I don’t think it gets much more complicated than that. And so, I guess the answer to why he’s doing this now, because the international conditions are such that he feels like the United States is focused domestically, the Ukrainians are not moving forward with succeeding to build — they’re kind of in stasis on building a European state— and he has, you know, he has the space to take a punch, so he’s contemplating doing it, or he’s already decided to do it. And he’s just extracting as much as possible before he takes it.

Blade: That leads me to my next question: What is your judgement of the risk of out and out war?

Baer: I don’t know because I have two hypotheses that cut both ways. One is that I think Putin is vastly underestimating the degree of resistance. On the other hand, I think that nothing short of domination is satisfactory. And so, I don’t know. I guess I think there’s a 90 percent chance that he does something, and I think there’s a 75 percent chance that what he does is not an all out invasion or ground invasion, at least not at first, but rather something that is aimed at confusing us. So some sort of hybrid or staged or false flag kind of attack in tandem with a political coup in Kiev, where he works to install a more Russia-loyal leader.

The thing with the ground invasion is that Russian soldiers’ moms are one of the only, like, powerful political forces in civil society in Russia. I just don’t see any way that a ground invasion doesn’t involve massive Russian casualties, even if they will be dominant. The people who are going to impose the consequences on him will be the Ukrainians, not the rest of us, and he should not invade, and if he does, we should, frankly, work hard to make it as painful and difficult for him as possible.

Blade: What will that look like?

Baer: I think we should at that point continue — we shouldn’t pause, we should continue to send the defensive equipment and backfill as much as possible their ability from an equipment basis to resist.

Blade: So if we were to look at a model for past U.S. engagements. I’m thinking Greece under President Truman, which was so successful that nobody really knows about it, I don’t think. Is there any model we should be looking toward, or not looking toward?

Baer: No, I guess. I’m not sure there’s any good historical model because obviously, any of them you can pick apart. I do think that one thing that has gotten lost in a lot of the analysis — and this goes back to Putin being a gangster thug, and not being such a genius — is there’s a moral difference between us. The reason why Putin gets to control the dialogue is because he’s willing to do things that we aren’t willing to do — as gangsters are, as hostage-takers are — and so yes, they get to set the terms of what we discussed, because we’re not holding hostages. We’re trying to get hostages released. And the hostage-taker has an upper hand and asymmetry because they are willing to do something that is wrong.

We shouldn’t lose the kind of moral difference there. Nor should we lose sight of the fact that Ukraine is being menaced. And I’m not saying it’s our obligation [to intervene militarily], certainly not our obligation. They aren’t a treaty ally. We have neither a political obligation nor a moral one to necessarily risk our own lives, our own soldiers in defense of Ukraine. But if Ukraine wants to defend themselves, there’s a strong moral case to be made that anything, short of risking our own lives, is something that is morally good. We generally believe that self-defense from lethal threat is a reasonable moral cause and assisting others in defending themselves is too — I think there’s a lot of back and forth that get glossed over whether that’s a provocation or whatever, and I want to say to people stand back, look at this: we’ve got one party that is attacking another. And the question is, does the other have a right to defend itself? Yes. And if they have a right to defend themselves, and they also have a right to have whatever assistance people will offer them in defending themselves.

That doesn’t mean that they get to demand that we show up and fight in the trenches with them, of course, and I don’t think there’s any serious people who are recommending that but it’s a good thing to help them. It’s not like a technical thing. It’s a good thing to help

Blade: Getting into that moral background, one thing I want to ask you was about the significance of what would happen in this concept of democracy versus autocracy. First of all, how much is Ukraine a functional democracy, in the sense that if we’re defending Ukraine, we are defending a democracy, and what signal do you think it would send if that Ukrainian government fell to Russian autocracy?

Baer: I think the institutions of government that the Ukrainian people have are not worthy of the Ukrainian people’s own demonstrated commitment …

They are not worthy of the Ukrainian people’s own demonstrated commitment to the idea of democratic institutions. So the answer is today’s Ukrainian government is a mixed bag and it’s very hard to build, on the rot of a Russian fiefdom, a functioning democracy, so I think it’s a mixed bag. I don’t want to sound like I’m minimizing [the changes], or that they’ve completely bungled an easy project. It was always going to be a hard project, and it was never going to be linear.

But I think that what we’ve seen from the Ukrainian people — by which I mean not Ukrainian people, but people of Ukraine — is that there is a broad part of society that a) does not want to live under a Russian thumb and b) sees its future in kind of European style democracy. And so I think that if there was, there’s no question that the Russian attack would be in part about subjugating the people of Ukraine and forcing them to live under some sort of new Russian satellite. And I think that there’s little space for serious argument that that’s something that the people of the country wish to have.

Blade: But I’m just kind of getting at — you’re kind of minimizing that this is a strategic move by Putin, but if he were to successfully dominant Ukraine it becomes a Russian satellite isn’t that saying like, “Well, ha ha West, you thought the Cold War was over and there’s going to be just be a unipolar world in the future but no, we’re gonna we have this we’re back and we’re gonna create a multipolar world for the future.”

Baer: Yeah, I mean, my answer to the Russians who always raise the multipolar world to me is, “Fine, it’s going to be a multipolar world. What makes you think that Russia is one of the poles?” Poles by definition draw people to them, they are compelling and a pole attracts, magnetically or otherwise, and there is nothing attractive about the model that Russia is pursuing. And if the only way that you can be a pole is by subjugating, to force your neighbors, you are proving that you are not one.

I think the benefits for Russia are far smaller than Putin thinks and I think the consequences for the rest of the world of allowing a violation of international order to go forward are much larger than many people recognize.

Blade: But that was their approach when they were the Soviet Union. They were subjugating the Eastern Bloc through Russian force. They did have, in theory, the concept of their worldview of you know, of socialism, or whatever you want to put it charitably, was going to be the right way to go. Is there really that much of a difference?

Baer: Yeah, however disingenuous it was, they did have an ideology . So you’re right, that was a key distinction. The other thing is that the Soviet Union in relative size — its economy and population etc. — was much larger than Russia is today. And Russia is shrinking, and its economy is less diverse than the Communist one was. I think it’s a delusion to think that they’re going to kind of rebuild an empire, even if yes, because of their willingness to do awful things, they could potentially for a time politically control through violence, their neighbors. I just don’t — in a multipolar world, I don’t see Russia being one of the poles, at least not on its current path.

Blade: How would you evaluate the U.S. diplomatic approach to this issue?

Baer: There’s been very clear over-the-top effort to include the Europeans at every step — meetings with them before each meeting and after each meeting, to force conversations into fora that are more inclusive and stuff like that. And I think that Secretary Blinken is rightly recognizing the need to kind of play a role of kind of keeping everybody on the side while we test whether diplomacy whether there’s anything to do, whether there’s any promise with diplomacy.

I think there’s kind of, sometimes kind of, two camps in U.S. foreign policy circles. One is like: We should give the Russians what they want because it just doesn’t matter that much. War is much worse than anything that we would give them. And another is that we can’t give them an inch and we have to punch them in the face whenever we can. And I think both of those are kind of knee-jerk positions that have become a bit religious for people and neither of them is paying attention to the practical challenge that’s in front of the administration, which is like this guy’s threatening to invade and we need to identify whether there’s any opportunity for a functional off ramp, and that doesn’t mean we do that in a vacuum and ignore the long-term consequences, but our problem is not a religious one, it’s a practical one. And I think they’re doing a pretty good job of threading the needle on that and being not too far forward and not too far back.

Blade: Do you see any significant daylight between the United States and Europe?

Baer: No, I mean, no more than the minimum that is possible. There’s a lot of talk about Germany these days. Look, I think some of the things they say are not particularly helpful, but I don’t actually think that in the long run, if Putin invaded, I don’t think that they would hold up sanctions or anything like that. So I think they’re on our side, even if they’re talking out of both sides, in some cases.

Blade: I am wise to the fact that this is a nuclear power. It might be a little old school, but could escalation get that far?

Baer: There can’t be war. There can’t be war between NATO and Russia. It should be avoided. Obviously, there can be, but it should be avoided.

Blade: How committed do you think President Biden is to protecting Ukraine?

Baer: Reasonably so. I think he’s enough of an old school trans-Atlantist that he understands that this isn’t just about Ukraine.

Blade: I was wondering because he had those comments from his press conference about “minor incursion” and I’m just wondering if you’re reading anything into that or not.

Baer: No, I think that was that was a — I think broadly speaking, everything he says is in line with the kind of view that you would expect. And of course, one sentence can catch [attention]. That wasn’t what he meant. What he meant was that he didn’t want to draw a “red line” that would prejudge policy in response to something short of the most extreme scenario.

I think it is a good caution to not obsess over a single sentence and to look at the broad considered policy statements.

Blade: What do you think if you were looking for developments, like what would you be looking out for is significant in terms of where we are going to be going in the near future? This is one thing to keep an eye out for but is there anything else that you are kind of looking out for in terms of the near future?

Baer: I guess I would look out for whether or not the United States joins meetings of the so-called Normandy Format, which is the France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia grouping, which has so far been unsuccessful, but I think can only be successful as the United States joins it, but the Russians, I think have misgivings with the idea of our joining it.

Blade: I’m not at all familiar with that. What makes this forum particularly so —

Baer: So it was started in the summer in like June of 2015, on the margins of some meeting between Merkel and Hollande. The French and the Germans are very committed to the idea that they might be able to mediate peace between Ukraine and Russia. It was supposed to implement the Minsk Agreement, and it just hasn’t been productive so far. I don’t think that the Russians will do anything — I don’t think the Ukrainians feel comfortable negotiating anything without the Americans at the table. And I don’t think the Russians feel like anything is guaranteed without the Americans at the table. So I just, I’m fine with France and Germany taking the lead, but I think the U.S. has to be there.

And there was a meeting of this group in Paris yesterday, and which the U.S. was supportive of, and so I’m watching to see whether or not the United States gets added in some ad hoc way, whether there are future meetings. I guess the reason I would watch it, if the U.S. were to join future meetings that would signal to me that it’s actually there’s some diplomacy happening there.

That’s meant to be focusing mainly on the existing Russian invasion, the occupation of the Donbas, so that’s not about the threat of the new invasion, but it would be interesting to me if there was forward movement on other parts of Ukraine. The announcement of the American ambassador is one. I think that last week movement of troops into Belarus was a game changer for the U.S., because there are all kinds of new implications if you’re using a third country as your launchpad for war, and so it complicates things and it also looks more serious if you’re starting to deploy to third countries and stuff like that. So I think that was that last week, you noticed a difference in the U.S. tone and tenor in response to that.

So things like that. But in general, like what I would do and I don’t think people always catch this is because there’s a boiling frog aspect to it. There are statements coming out from the White House or State Department. Almost every day on stuff related to this and like last week, there was a noticeable change in the tenor as the U.S. became less, I think more pessimistic about the prospects of diplomacy and those I don’t have anything better to look for in those statements as tea leaves, in terms of what the U.S. assessment is of the prospects of the escalation are, so it’s bad.

Blade: Right. That’s very sobering.

There’s a lot of talk, and I’ve just been seeing some like about in terms of, there’s like comparisons to Afghanistan and making sure that all Americans are able to get out of Ukraine. Is that comparing apples to oranges?

Baer: Yes.

Blade: And could you unpack that a little bit? I mean, I can kind of guess the reasons why. How is that apples to oranges?

Blade: Well, the level of development in Ukraine in terms of infrastructure and transport and stuff like that is not comparable to Afghanistan. I think it would be– if there were a Russian invasion–you would definitely want to, obviously, for safety reasons, it’s not safe to be in a war zone, so you would want people to be able to evacuate and you’d have to plan for that.

A major concern [in Afghanistan] was also that there were tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of locals who had worked for the Americans. The Americans that are in Ukraine are not a departing occupying power. There’s just not the same footprint there — the Americans are in Ukraine or there as business people or young [people working on] democracy assistance or whatever. And it’s just it’s a different context.

Blade: Why do you think the Russians put up with Putin? I mean, this is a country that was a world power and I would think has some economic potential just given its sheer size, first of all, and they do have oil to offer people. So why aren’t the Russians like angry at him for obstructing their participation in the global order as opposed to just putting up with him for years and years and years.

Baer: Successful instrumentalisation of cynicism. The lack of a belief in an alternative will keep you from fighting for it.

Blade: That’s pretty succinct.

Baer: I mean, I don’t think there’s any question that the people of Russia could be better off or different in terms of kitchen table issues, and ease of navigating the world, prospects for their future for their children’s future. The amount of money that Putin has invested into military modernization that Russia can ill afford, while he’s cut pensions and social services and health care. It’s just it’s objectively true that the average Russian person would be better served by a different leader. But he’s done a very good job of effectively selling off the country for profit and persuading people through repression and propaganda that there is no alternative.

Blade: And Putin won’t be around forever. Once he finally goes, is an alternative going to emerge, or will it be the next guy in Putin’s mold?

Baer: I think it’s far from clear that what comes after Putin isn’t worse and bloody. Regimes like this don’t reliably have stable transitions.

Blade: Wow, okay.

Baer: Yeah, we shouldn’t… we should be careful about wishing… wishing for his demise.

Blade: That’s good to know. It’s kind of a frightful note for me to end my questions. But actually before I sign off, there’s one more thing too because I do kind of want to talk about the intersection about your old job in democracy and human rights and then a Venn diagram of that with your experience in Eastern Europe in particular. Do you have a sense of what’s at stake for LGBTQ people in Ukraine or if they’re in more danger right now than they would be otherwise?

Baer: That’s a good question. I mean, my knee jerk reaction is yes. That — as mixed of a picture as Ukraine has been in the last seven years, or eight years — there have been meaningful steps forward, and certainly, in terms of visibility.

I guess, in the sense that Ukraine is better than Russia today, if you’re gay, if Russia is going to occupy or control Ukraine we can expect that it will get worse because it will become more like Russia.

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