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HIV patients in the South face uphill battle

Poverty, lack of health care among problems

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AIDS Alabama, Kathie Hiers, gay news, Washington Blade, HIV

AIDS Alabama CEO Kathie Hiers (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — AIDS Alabama CEO Kathie Hiers will “never forget” the day in 1985 when she and her partner were at Denny’s in her hometown of Mobile, Ala., when six of her “best gay boyfriends walked in” and said they had all tested positive for HIV.

They had gone to nearby Pensacola, Fla., to get tested because Florida offered anonymous testing, unlike Alabama.

“I was like ‘Oh my God, what is happening,’” Hiers told the Washington Blade during a July 16 interview at her Birmingham office before traveling to the 2014 International AIDS Conference in Australia. “Today one of those six guys is still alive.”

More than three decades after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported the first cases of what became known as AIDS, the epidemic continues to have a disproportionate impact on the South.

The CDC in 2010 noted nearly half of all new HIV infections in the U.S. were in the South, according to a policy report from the Southern AIDS Coalition. Eight of the 10 states with the highest rates of HIV — Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas and Tennessee — are in the region.

The CDC notes Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina are among the states with the highest rates of AIDS diagnoses.

Hiers said the statistics are slightly lower in Alabama because her organization has partnered with all of the state’s HIV/AIDS service organizations and works within all of its 67 counties.

“We’ve got a pretty cohesive network,” she said. “It’s very different than the other Southern states where you go to Atlanta and there’s a good bit, but you get outside Atlanta and there’s nothing. The same in Louisiana with New Orleans and so on.”

Hiers further noted the 1917 Clinic where a number of groundbreaking discoveries around HIV/AIDS have taken place is located at the University of Alabama-Birmingham.

“We’re always very connected to clinical trials and so on,” she said. “Those two things have helped Alabama.”

The Duke Center for Health Policy and Inequalities Research in 2011 noted Mississippi had the highest number of deaths from HIV of any state. Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee were among the top 10.

The U.S. Census also indicates that Mississippi is the poorest state in the country, with 22.3 percent of residents living below the poverty line between 2008-2012. Louisiana and Alabama have the second and fourth highest rates of poverty in the country respectively.

Statistics also indicate that people of color are more likely to live in poverty than whites.

“Part of what happens with people who are poor is they don’t go to the doctor,” Kathryn Garner, executive director of AIDS Service Coalition, an HIV/AIDS service organization in Hattiesburg, Miss., that serves people with the virus who live in 71 of the state’s 82 counties, told the Blade during a recent telephone interview. “If you don’t go to the doctor, you don’t know you’re HIV positive until you go to the doctor when you’re really sick and then you’re AIDS-defined.”

Charlotte “Dot” Norwood, gay news, Washington Blade, HIV

Charlotte “Dot” Norwood (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Charlotte “Dot” Norwood, a prevention counselor at Open Arms Healthcare Center, an HIV/AIDS clinic in Jackson, Miss., that My Brother’s Keeper, an organization based in nearby Ridgeland, Miss., that seeks to reduce health disparities among minority groups, is known affectionately as the “AIDS Lady.”

She told the Blade during a July 11 interview at the clinic that patients with the virus are often unable to get a job.

“[They] go for an interview, don’t get hired and it could be for many reasons,” she said. “Sometimes I think it’s because you know maybe they go in and the person’s first perception… masculine, things like that.”

People with HIV/AIDS fall under the Americans with Disabilities Act. It also bans all public entities and private companies that employ more than 15 people from discriminating against their employees based on their status.

No Southern state bans anti-LGBT employment discrimination. Louisiana, Tennessee and Florida include sexual orientation in their anti-hate crimes statutes, but not gender identity and expression.

HIV, Carl Green, gay news, Washington Blade

Carl Green (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Carl Green, a gay white man who has lived at Belle Reve, a residence in the Fraubourg Marigny neighborhood of New Orleans for people with HIV/AIDS since May, told the Blade during a July 14 interview that he lost his job when he told his then-manager he was living with HIV after several hospitalizations.

Green said he eventually lost his home and lived in his car until a bank repossessed it.

The New Orleans AIDS Task Force, an HIV/AIDS service organization that serves people with the virus in the Crescent City and throughout southeastern Louisiana, referred Green to Belle Reve.

“It was the universe saying you need to go back to square one and get your health together,” said Green.

Vicki Weeks, HIV, gay news, Washington Blade

Belle Reve Executive Director Vicki Weeks (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

People with HIV struggle to find housing, food

The Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 bans discrimination against people living with HIV/AIDS and other disabilities.

In spite of this federal law, a lack of housing remains an acute problem for low-income people with HIV/AIDS in the South.

Fifteen people currently live in two group homes in Belle Reve — including one called Belle Grace that Executive Director Vicki Weeks joked opened because of the “grace of God.” A third building — Belle Esprit — has four apartments for couples and families that can accommodate between seven to 10 people with children at any given time.

Belle Reve was able to renovate all three of its buildings several years ago after it received $1,189,000 in funds from Housing Opportunities for People with AIDS (HOPWA) from the New Orleans Office of Community Development, $300,000 from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, grants from the National AIDS Fund and other groups and money from the Qatari government.

“I’m happy until I can get on my own and start over again,” a Belle Reve resident of color who describes himself as “very-much gay,” but asked to remain anonymous told the Blade. He worked at Tulane Hospital in New Orleans for four years before he tested positive in May 2013. “I’m looking for another job, but I’ve been having a little problem with that because I guess I’m gay. They look at you and they judge you.”

Miss Eddie, a 58-year-old transgender woman who has lived with HIV since the 1980s, moved from the New Orleans suburb of Kenner to Belle Reve in late May after her former lover died.

“It’s a great blessing being here,” she told the Blade.

Thirty-two people with HIV/AIDS currently live at Grace House, a residence in Jackson, Miss.

AIDS Services Coalition runs two residences in Hattiesburg for people living with the virus.

Eight men live in 121 Haven House, a Victorian home built in the 1880s that serves as a transitional shelter. More than a dozen women with HIV and a family live in a second facility — 227 Place — with nine two-bedroom apartments.

AIDS Service Coalition last month bought a 16-unit apartment complex with four fourplexes.

Garner said they should be renovated by the end of the year.

“Our goal of course if someone’s able to work or able to function out in the world,” she told the Blade. “We do everything we can to get them away so they can be out in the world and do the things everything they want to do.”

The South Mississippi AIDS Task Force in Biloxi, Miss., operates a transitional housing facility for people with HIV/AIDS on the state’s Gulf Coast.

“Everyone we have in any of our shelters either have no income or have disability or a low-paying job,” said Garner. “It’s really difficult if you’re making $790 a month when a one-bedroom apartment in Hattiesburg is $550 to $600 a month. The math on that just doesn’t work and there’s not enough public housing and there’s not enough housing choice vouchers.”

AIDS Alabama has one of the largest housing programs of any HIV/AIDS service provider in the South with roughly 150 units throughout the state. The majority of these are in Birmingham, the state’s largest city.

AIDS Alabama also offers rental assistance to people living with HIV across the state through HOPWA.

“Even so we always have waiting lists,” Hiers told the Blade. “Housing is just a huge need for people with HIV.”

HIV/AIDS service providers with whom the Blade spoke in Mississippi and Alabama said access to transportation and even food can adversely affect the health of people living with the virus — especially those who live in rural areas.

Dr. Laura Beauchamps, an infectious disease practitioner at Open Arms, told the Blade as she prepared to administer pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) that many people with HIV/AIDS who live in rural areas are simply unable to travel to Jackson “to get checked on a regular basis.”

“They just don’t take care of themselves and they keep on spreading [the virus,]” she said as Norwood listened. “It is just very sad to see. In other states it’s not the same because they have a better transportation situation or ways to get them to the clinics and continue [with their treatment.]”

Garner told the Blade one of her organization’s clients who lives in a shelter in Columbus, Miss., travels to the state capital, which is nearly two hours away, to receive health care and HIV treatments. AIDS Service Coalition also provides her with support network, even though its offices are a 4-hour drive away from where she currently lives.

“She calls once a month and we visit,” said Garner. “We do what we can do.”

Hiers said the majority of AIDS Alabama’s clients in the Birmingham metropolitan area do not own cars. The agency has three vans that “run full time” to bring clients to their appointments and other commitments, but Hiers said “it’s not enough.”

Hiers described the city’s public transportation system as “pitiful,” noting an AIDS Alabama client who takes a 5:30 a.m. bus from his home to get to his job at 9:30 a.m. was almost fired because he was late.

Up to 170 families each month receive food assistance from Open Arms.

Norwood noted the food pantry in the back of the clinic that her son helps stock with donations was “a little bare” because the next delivery had yet to arrive from a local food bank. She told the Blade she personally delivers food to her clients who are hungry and are unable to travel to the clinic.

“I’ll step out of pocket and go get them myself, or take food,” said Norwood. “Sometimes I have my people who haven’t ate in a few days and they’ll call one of my guys. And my guys will call me and say ‘hey Dot, honey can you help me Dot?’ Oh yeah, that’s not even to be asked.”

Lack of education, stigma spread virus

Timothy Thompson, HIV, gay news, Washington Blade

Timothy Thompson (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Anti-HIV stigma also remains a serious problem for those living with the virus in the South.

Timothy Thompson, a peer educator with the New Orleans AIDS Task Force, told the Blade over dinner in the French Quarter on July 13 that many people who are disproportionately at risk for HIV in the city do not get tested because of the stigma attached to the virus.

“One of the biggest things is that there is the idea if I go and I test positive I’ll be alienized from my people, from my family or the people that I hang out with or things that I’m able to do I won’t be able to do anymore,” he said. “There is a level of truth to that because of the ongoing problems that are faced because of the ignorance that is around the disease itself.”

Thompson said people with HIV/AIDS with whom he has worked in New Orleans have told him that people did not want to have someone who is positive eat in their home because they think the virus spreads through saliva.

“They’re not aware of the different things that really transmit the disease as well as the different things that you can do to make sure that the people you are around that are affected about it still feel like they are normal human beings,” said Thompson. “You’re aware that this does not transmit this way and most people aren’t aware and they tend to offend people by their lack of education.”

The Blade heard similar stories from service providers and LGBT rights activists in Mississippi.

“We have folks — and this is 2014 — who are being asked in their family homes to eat off of paper plates,” said Garner.

Antwan Matthews, a gay man of color from Meridian, Miss., living with HIV, officially learned his status on April 24, 2013, the day before his 20th birthday.

He told the Blade during a July 11 interview at Open Arms where he will begin to receive care next month that his mother told him that his father, who is a Pentecostal minister, took out a life insurance policy on him after he found out he was positive.

“He’s almost gambling with my life,” said Matthews. “He’s just waiting for me to die or something.”

Matthews said his mother was initially supportive of him, but he said she pointed out his HIV status after they argued about his sister wanting to move out of the house once she had turned 18.

“She texts me and said ‘you wouldn’t listen, so look at you, you’re living with HIV now so you don’t have anything to say to me,’” said Matthews. “I was like OK. It kind of bothered me because you just don’t expect that to be said from your mom or your parents and stuff like that.”

The Belle Reve resident who asked to remain anonymous told the Blade he initially did not want to “introduce” his family in Lafayette, La., to “my HIV” because he thought they were not “going to accept it.”

“They did,” he said. “So I came here just to get myself together, for myself. So I came here and now they accept everything.”

Katrina disrupted HIV care, damaged facilities

Vicki Weeks, HIV, gay news, Washington Blade

Belle Reve Executive Director Vicki Weeks (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Weeks said eight of 12 people who were living at Belle Reve when Hurricane Katrina approached New Orleans in 2005 could not evacuate on their own because they — or their relatives — did not have access to transportation.

She and three other Belle Reve staffers used private vehicles to evacuate their residents to a campground in Alexandria, La., a city roughly 200 miles northwest of New Orleans.

The trip that normally takes less than four hours took 16 hours because of massive traffic jams.

Weeks, her residents and staff spent nearly three weeks at the campground before an HIV/AIDS service organization in Anniston, Ala., offered them housing and a place to work.

They remained in Alabama for seven months before returning to New Orleans.

“The city did not have an evacuation plan for people with no vehicles, and that’s why so many people stayed,” said Weeks, who lives in the Gentilly Terrace neighborhood of New Orleans that Katrina inundated with six feet of water. “That’s why they had so many people here because there was no transportation out of this city other than your own vehicle or a vehicle of a relative. We tried to get our residents to go with relatives or with churches, but we still have eight out of 12 that had no way to get out of town.”

Katrina damaged the roof of AIDS Service Coalition’s shelter.

Garner told the Blade a man living with HIV from New Orleans approached her after she arrived to survey the damage and said he only had two days worth of his antiretrovirals.

“That story replicated itself,” she said. “Basically what we did for several months was triage.”

Garner added an additional problem that people living with HIV/AIDS from other states who fled to Mississippi after Katrina is the state’s Medicaid program offered less generous benefits than they had been accustomed.

“If they were getting psychotropic medicines or if they were getting pain medicines or fill in the blank, they came to Mississippi and that wasn’t covered,” she said.

Service providers criticize governors for not expanding Medicaid

 

Alabama State Capitol, HIV, gay news, Washington Blade

76 percent of those who are on the Alabama AIDS Drug Assistance Program would become eligible for Medicaid if Gov. Robert Bentley and the Republican-controlled Legislature expanded it, according to AIDS Alabama CEO Kathie Hiers. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

A Gallup survey noted Texas had the highest rate of uninsured residents, with 27 percent of people without health insurance. Arkansas, Mississippi, Florida and Louisiana, Georgia and North Carolina were among the other states with the highest rates of uninsured residents.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, Florida Gov. Rick Scott, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal and North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory have all refused to expand their state’s Medicaid programs under the Affordable Care Act.

Hiers told the Blade the majority of the 13,000 Alabamians living with HIV are “extremely poor,” yet the state’s Medicaid program requires potential recipients to be disabled and have a monthly income of 13 percent of poverty level. She said this figure works out to around $111 a month.

Hiers added 76 percent of those who are on the Alabama AIDS Drug Assistance Program would become eligible for Medicaid if Gov. Robert Bentley and the Republican-controlled Legislature expanded it.

“I get so frustrated at our Southern states who need the health care the most not expanding Medicaid here,” said Hiers. “It’s just colossally stupid. We’re turning down billions and billions in health care for Alabamians and Southerners just because of the ideological differences between the parties. And I think that’s just wrong.”

Advocates and HIV/AIDS service providers with whom the Blade spoke in Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama all said the vast majority of their funding comes from the federal government and private grants.

Eighty-five percent of AIDS Alabama’s annual budget of $7.9 million comes from federal sources, with HUD providing the majority of this money. The organization also receives financial support from the Ford Foundation, the Elton John Foundation, the Tide Foundation and other foundations.

HOPWA funds comprise 80 percent of Belle Reve’s $1 million annual budget.

“If we lose that there’s nothing else that we can do to keep the doors open,” Weeks told the Blade. “We have got to prepare for that.”

The Mississippi Department of Health runs a free STD clinic in Jackson where Beauchamps also works.

She told the Blade that she and her colleagues are able to find “a lot of people” there who are positive.

Beauchamps nevertheless stressed the state does not extend enough resources to her and other HIV/AIDS service providers to fight the epidemic.

“We need more grants,” said Beauchamps. “We need more support to do more testing and then to reach out in communities that don’t have a way to come all the way down to the metro area.”

Weeks criticized Louisiana lawmakers and Jindal for cutting state education and health care funding.

She noted the closest mental health clinic to Belle Reve is in Hammond, a city about an hour northwest of New Orleans, because Jindal closed the facility that had been in the Crescent City.

“All I can say is that we’re not happy with some of the issues or some of the things that our governor, Bobby Jindal, has done,” said Weeks. “We all get upset when he cuts funding for education or health care, but the state’s budget is in state law that they can’t touch any of this other stuff. That only leaves education and health care. So whoever set our government up did a very poor job.”

’I’m doing a 100 percent better’

Antwan Matthews, HIV, gay news, Washington Blade

Antwan Matthews (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

In spite of the steep challenges, people living with HIV/AIDS and those who support them remain optimistic.

Matthews has begun speaking with teenage boys about the virus. He is also fighting to include HIV/AIDS in school curricula.

“They need to be taught,” he told the Blade. “It’s just like anything else: English, history, math, anything else that they learn. They should learn about this.”

Green has once again began taking antiretrovirals after a three year lapse.

He also had surgery last month to remove a cancerous tumor from his rectum.

“I’m doing a 100 percent better,” said Green. “It’s like I’m getting back in touch with me and getting my priorities back together. I just don’t think I would have still been on this earth. I really don’t.”

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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

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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

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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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Trump ribbed Pence for thinking ‘it’s a crime to be gay,’ new book says

Former president openly wanted gay Fox News analyst for Supreme Court

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Donald Trump (left) ribbed former Vice President Mike Pence (center) in a meeting with Andrew Napolitano for thinking "it's a crime to be gay." (Blade photos of Donald Trump and Mike Pence by Michael Key; screen capture of Andrew Napolitano via Fox News YouTube)

Donald Trump, in the days before he took office after the 2016 election, openly contemplated naming an openly gay Fox News contributor to the U.S. Supreme Court amid concerns from social conservatives about his potential choices and ribbed former Vice President Mike Pence for thinking “it’s a crime to be gay,” according to the new book “Insurgency” detailing the former president’s path to the White House.

The key moment between Trump, Judge Andrew Napolitano and Pence took place during the transition period after the 2016 election when Trump invited the other two for a meeting at Trump Tower.  That’s when Trump reportedly took the jab at Pence.

“During their meeting, for part of which Mike Pence was present, Trump ribbed Pence for his anti-gay rights views,” the book says. “Addressing Napolitano, Trump gestured toward the archconservative vice-president-elect and said, ‘You’d better be careful because this guy thinks it’s a crime to be gay. Right, Mike?’ When Pence didn’t answer, Trump repeated himself, ‘Right, Mike?’ Pence remained silent.”

The potential choice of Andrew Napolitano, who was fired last year from Fox News amid recently dropped allegations of sexual harassment from male co-workers, as well as other TV personalities Trump floated for the Supreme Court, as detailed in the book, were among the many reasons conservatives feared he wouldn’t be reliable upon taking the presidency. Ironically, Trump would have been responsible for making a historic choice for diversity if he chose a gay man like Napolitano for the Supreme Court, beating President Biden to the punch as the nation awaits his selection of the first-ever Black woman for the bench.

The new book — fully titled “Insurgency: How Republicans Lost Their Party and Got Everything They Ever Wanted” and written by New York Times political reporter Jeremy Peters, who is also gay — identifies Trump’s potential picks for the judiciary as a source of significant concern for conservatives as the “Never Trump” movement was beginning to form and expectations were the next president would be able to name as many as four choices for the Supreme Court. Among the wide ranges of possible choices he floated during the campaign were often “not lawyers or judges he admired for their legal philosophies or interpretations of the Constitution,” but personalities he saw on TV.

Among this group of TV personalities, the books says, were people like Fox News host Jeanine Pirro, whom Trump “regularly watched and occasionally planned his flight schedule around, directing his personal pilot to adjust the route accordingly so the satellite signal wouldn’t fade.” Trump told friends Pirro “would make a fine justice,” the books says.

Trump potentially making good of his talk about naming Napolitano as one of his choices for the Supreme Court “would have been doubly unacceptable to many on the religious right,” the book says. Napolitano, a former New Jersey Superior Court judge, was friendly with Maryanne Trump Barry, Trump’s sister and a federal judge with a reputation for liberal views, such as a ruling in favor of partial-birth abortion, and is also gay, both of which are identified in the book as potential concerns by the religious right.

Napolitano and Trump were close, the book claims. Napolitano, as the book describes, had a habit of telling a story to friends about Trump confiding to him the future president’s knowledge of the law was based on Napolitano’s TV appearances. Trump told Napolitano: “Everything I know about the Constitution I learned from you on Fox & Friends,” the book says.

The book says the meeting with Trump, Pence and Napolitano when the former president took a jab at Pence in and of itself suggested Trump “was indeed serious about giving the judge some kind of position in the government.” Napolitano, known for making outlandish claims as a Fox News contributor —such as the British government wiretapped Trump Tower — never took a post in the Trump administration.

The new book isn’t the only record of Trump ribbing Pence for his anti-LGBTQ reputation. A New Yorker profile in 2017 depicted a similar infamous meeting with Trump and Pence in which the former president joked about his No. 2’s conservative views. Per the New Yorker article: “When the conversation turned to gay rights, Trump motioned toward Pence and joked, ‘Don’t ask that guy— he wants to hang them all!'”The incident described in “Insurgency” was similar to the meeting detailed in the New Yorker profile.

Trump ended up making a list of names he pledged he’d limit himself to in the event he was in the position to make a selection to the Supreme Court and made good on that promise based on his selection. By the end of his presidency, Trump made three picks to the bench who were each confirmed by the U.S. Senate: Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett. 

But Trump limiting his options to the list of potential plans was not a fool proof plan for conservatives. To the surprise of many, Gorsuch ended up in 2020 writing the majority opinion in the case of Bostock v. Clayton County, a major LGBTQ rights decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, which determined anti-LGBTQ discrimination is a form of sex discrimination and illegal under federal civil rights law.

The Washington Blade has placed a request in with Trump’s office seeking comment on the meeting with Pence and Napolitano as described in “Insurgency.” Napolitano couldn’t be reached for comment.

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