D.C. Council member and mayoral candidate Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) had an emphatic and detailed response to the question of why LGBT residents should vote for her over her two main opponents.
Mayoral rivals David Catania, an at-large Council member since 1997, and former at-large Council member Carol Schwartz, who served on the Council for 16 years, have a longer record on LGBT issues than Bowser by way of their longer tenure on the Council. Both are running as independents.
Bowser, who leads Catania and Schwartz in the latest polls, first won election to the Council in 2007.
“I’ve been as you know well regarded across the city for supporting the LGBT community and have done so from a leadership position from my Council seat,” Bowser told the Blade in an Oct. 17 interview.
“I was very proud to cast a vote in support of marriage equality and make sure that we’re opening up all of our institutions for people in the LGBT community.”
Bowser added, “What’s important now is what’s next to do. And that’s a lot.”
Using the mayor’s office as a platform for drawing attention to hate crimes targeting the LGBT community and their root causes, making sure LGBT people, especially LGBT seniors, are included in the city’s affordable housing programs, and strengthening the city’s job training program for transgender residents initiated by Mayor Vincent Gray are just some of the LGBT issues she will pursue if elected mayor, Bowser said.
LGBT activists following the mayor’s race say the LGBT community appears divided between Bowser and Catania, who, if elected, would become the city’s first out gay mayor. Activists say Schwartz, a longtime popular figure in the LGBT community, has a smaller but highly committed corps of supporters in the LGBT community.
Many LGBT Democrats, including Paul Kuntzler, co-founder of the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, the city’s largest LGBT political group, are supporting Catania, saying they believe he’s the best candidate on both LGBT and non-LGBT issues.
But Bowser points to her strong support among LGBT residents in all sections of the city. She is often accompanied at LGBT campaign events by her openly gay brother, Marvin Bowser, who serves as her campaign’s LGBT community liaison.
An LGBT campaign rally for Bowser Tuesday night at Hank’s Oyster Bar next to 17th Street, N.W., before the start of the annual Halloween High Heel Race on 17th Street, drew more than 200 people. Bowser was besieged by well-wishers when she waded into a crowd of mostly LGBT people waiting for the race to begin.
Catania and Schwartz also showed up for the high heel race festivities. People carrying Bowser and Catania signs could be seen up and down the street.
“As I see it I’m very proud of the broad base of support that I have in the LGBT community across all kinds of race and income and geographic areas,” she said. “I was never more proud — maybe a month ago we had a huge LGBT meet and greet and the diversity is what made me so proud. People were from every ward — gay, lesbian, transgender — all to support the agenda that remains.”
Bowser was also quick to challenge an allegation by Catania that her record on HIV/AIDS is non-existent. Catania told the Blade in an interview in early October that he cannot recall her ever mentioning HIV/AIDS during her seven years on the Council.
“That’s not a fair assessment at all,” she said. “But I know what is an absurd statement is that one person can claim to have driven down AIDS in the District of Columbia.”
Bowser was referring to Catania’s campaign statements that during his tenure as chair of the Council’s Committee on Health, in which he prodded city officials to strengthen the city’s AIDS office, the number of AIDS deaths in the city dropped by 69 percent and the number of new HIV infections dropped by 50 percent.
“So the idea, first of all, that a lot of people reject at the Whitman-Walker Clinic or in previous administrations – the executives who really put the money and the people in place to get prevention programs and treatment programs and testing programs in place – they have to have a big quarrel with the assertion that one legislator drove down the incidents of HIV in the District of Columbia,” Bowser said. “That’s just not true.”
Possibly for the first time during the campaign Bowser responded to rumors that have circulated in anonymous postings on Twitter and readers’ comments on the Blade’s website that she might be a lesbian.
“Well I’m not,” she said.
When asked about the social media postings where the rumors have surfaced, Bowser said, “They post a lot of wacky things. I think you know that. But as I said I’m very proud to have the support of a lot of people in the LGBT community who are posting on your newspaper as well.”
She added, “And they’re posting on things that matter – that I’m focused on how we build on the democratic values in this city and represent the large swath of Washingtonians who want to invest in our schools all across the city, who want to build a strong and growing middle class in the city, and who want to make sure that we’re attracting the talent in our government that’s going to allow us to get ready for the city’s growth over the next 25 years. And so that’s what our focus is.”
Washington Blade: Can you tell a little about your background growing up in D.C., what you did before getting elected to the Council, and how that might have prepared you for running for mayor?
Muriel Bowser: Oh, absolutely. I would love to. I think that my experience is directly related not only to how we’ve been able to bring the city back in so many ways but it directly relates to the challenges ahead. I have the wonderful experience of being born and raised here in the District of Columbia. And in my formative years especially we were a very different city, a city that was dangerous, a city whose schools were spiraling out of control. The school issues were spiraling out of control and the Congress took us over.
And so I have that context to know that the government and the community have to work together to make sure we never go back to those days. I’ve been trained in public policy, which is my passion. And I worked 10 years in local government before being elected to the Council — most recently in Montgomery County where I worked in downtown Silver Spring on transportation, downtown development in keeping the community engaged in all of those issues.
I was elected in 2007 to represent Ward 4. And quite frankly I think the experience as a ward Council member is the best experience to be mayor of the District of Columbia. As a ward Council member you have the responsibility to lead a discreet group of people and be held accountable by them. And that’s what we’ve been able to do. We moved an agenda focused on expanding quality school options, investing in our under invested corridors and also making sure we’re holding government agencies accountable.
So as such I have to know all of the directors, all of their budgets and how they’re working or not working. And that has given me the experience to lead the city.
Blade: Were you an ANC commissioner?
Bowser: I was an ANC commissioner. When I moved in my home I was lucky enough, smart enough I guess even at the time to buy a home in a neighborhood that I thought was a good neighborhood. It could be a great neighborhood. And I got a house for $125,000. I had a few criteria. I wanted three bedrooms, I wanted a finished basement and I wanted to be close to a Metro. And I was able to find that in Riggs Park and I’ve lived there ever since – for the last 14 years.
But I come from a tradition of ANCs. My father was elected in the first ANC class and I thought it would be the best way for me to serve my community as well. I was elected twice to be an ANC commissioner.
Blade: You and your two main opponents have each said that you strongly support LGBT equality and LGBT rights and you have a record on some of those issues. What would you say to an LGBT resident about why they should vote for you and not the other two?
Bowser: Well I’ve been as you know well regarded across the city for supporting the LGBT community and have done so from a leadership position from my Council seat. I was very proud to cast a vote in support of marriage equality and make sure that we’re opening up all of our institutions for people in the LGBT community.
What’s also important now is what’s next. A lot of people have worked long and hard to get us to this point. And I want to especially acknowledge the GLAA [Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance] and the Stein Democrats who really made sure that we had marriage equality in this city. And you know how — because they made it a prerequisite to get elected, to have people who were fairness based and would move and advance the ball in the District of Columbia.
But now we have to look at what’s next to do. And there’s a lot. As I see it I’m very proud of the broad base of support that I have in the LGBT community across all kinds of race and income and geographic areas. People in the LGBT community come out and support me in great numbers. I was never more proud maybe a month ago we had a huge LGBT meet and greet and the diversity is what made me so proud. People were from every ward – gay, lesbian, transgender – all to support the agenda that remains.
What we hear most is – I’ll start with how we make sure people are safe. We have to end hate crimes in the District of Columbia. It’s too much. We have to have a strong partnership with MPD so our officers are trained and know how to deal and respond to hate crimes. But more than that, the mayor of the District of Columbia has to use the perch that she has to tell people that hate and violence are not going to be acceptable in our city. And I’ve stood up and done that when people in our community have been harmed.
We also hear about housing issues and how important it is to get rid of discrimination for LGBT people in all manner of housing. I was proud to include in this budget funding to examine how other cities approached LGBT senior issues, for example, in housing. Those are important questions to consider. In our public housing, how are we approaching LGBT issues? So I think that’s kind of an untapped area that this government has to get in that space. By next year, 20 percent of our population will be over the age of 65. And that of course includes our LGBT community.
I think you heard when we were at Mary’s House – the groundbreaking for Mary’s House – when Dr. Woody said we don’t disappear at age 65. And I think for too long our housing strategies were not taking into account all of our community. Jobs are another area where we have to focus on. I was honored to host a tea at my home for the transgender community and their sole focus was on jobs. And what I heard loud and clear was that people thought that the Gray administration had done a lot in advancing the discussion and beginning the implementation of meaningful jobs programs. So I don’t think we need to start all over. And I want to build on some of those initiatives.
I know there was a focus on Project Empowerment. How can we build on that to make sure that people in the transgender community are being hired? I was really struck by what seems like on its face to be discrimination against the transgender community in employment practices. We have to make sure our own government is not doing that. As I understood it we could only account for transgender people who were working in D.C. government. Now there may be others, but I want to make sure that the D.C. government is a welcoming place. And so you’ll hear me talk about jobs a lot and how we can refocus the up to $100 million that is spent every year in job training – a hundred million dollars that doesn’t necessarily equate to jobs.
So I have a big focus on how to close the jobs and opportunity gaps in our community. We know that they exist in great numbers in the Ward 7 and 8 communities. And we know that they exist in great numbers in our returning citizens’ community. And we know that they exist in great numbers in our transgender community. So how can we refocus our efforts to help populations that really need it?
Blade: You mentioned how the problem of hate crimes is an ongoing issue. Most LGBT advocates have said relations between the LGBT community and the police department has improved significantly in recent years. But a recent report on LGBT-police relations prepared by an independent task force initiated by Chief Cathy Lanier found that the department’s Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit appeared to become less effective than it was under the previous chief, Charles Ramsey. Is that something you might look into and have you made a decision yet on whether to retain the chief?
Bowser: Well I have great confidence in Cathy Lanier. And I think that she has really helped to make sure we have a high quality force of officers who want to do the right thing. And when she’s found officers that were not doing the right thing she has acted speedily to make sure they’re not in a position to disgrace their badge or to harm the department. So I have great confidence in her.
And issues with the specialized units, including the GLLU, when it came up – I’m trying to think what year that was. It must be 2008 or 2009 when I had some very direct conversations with her about why she thought this was the best way to use her resources. And she’s been policing in the District of Columbia for a long time. She believes in equality and fairness and she believes in protecting all of our residents. But she also has to be held accountable. So we want to follow all these crimes. But she believes that the deployment of resources actually is making officers who are trained and sensitized to all of these issues in the gay and lesbian and the transgender community available all across the city.
I think that we’ve kind of gotten away from this notion that gay people only live in one place, right?
Bowser: And so we need a whole force that needs to be able to address issues in the LGBT community and they need to be responsive all across the city. The same is true — we used to think that Latinos in our city only lived in Ward 1. And we know that’s not true. So we have to have a force where it shouldn’t be the expectation that only a few officers know what they’re doing when dealing with issues in the gay and lesbian community. All of the officers should. So I want that to be my focus.
But what I’ve heard loud and clear is that there’s a model that worked under Ramsey and there’s kind of the adage if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. But I think that what the chief found is that she could have a broader coverage all across the city if she deployed resources differently.
Blade: In the area of hate crimes, there is a consensus that the police respond quickly and do all they can to investigate those crimes but most agree that the police can’t prevent someone from committing a hate crime. Some in the LGBT community say they are worried just walking the streets.
Bowser: That makes me sad.
Blade: Is there anything the mayor can do to get at the underlying causes of hate crimes? Arrest records show that many hate crimes targeting the LGBT community are committed by young people.
Bowser: Yes. The one benefit of office is having a bully pulpit and leading by example and speaking out when things are wrong. Another advantage that the mayor has is that we can have partnerships with other leaders in the community that have a voice in people’s lives like our faith community and our non-profit community. And having real candid conversations with them about treating people fairly, ending the violence, and having a city that is safe for everyone can make a difference.
Blade: One thing that Councilman Catania said in his interview with the Blade earlier this month was that he cannot recall you ever mentioning the word HIV/AIDS – even once. I noticed AIDS-related issues are mentioned in your campaign platform booklet. But is that a fair assessment?
Bowser: Certainly not – certainly not. That’s not a fair assessment at all.
Blade: Do you think he was referring to Council meetings?
Bowser: You will have to ask him. But I know what is an absurd statement is — that one person can claim to have driven down AIDS in the District of Columbia. We know the seriously bad impacts that AIDS had on our community across a lot of our population. And it’s still having a bad effect for people who look like me – women in my age group. Where we haven’t seen a lot of attention is talking to women in my age group who are contracting AIDS and who are not getting tested and who may not be aware of all the dangerous situations that they’re putting themselves in.
So the idea, first of all, that a lot of people reject at the Whitman-Walker Clinic or in previous administrations the executives who really put the money and the people in place to get prevention programs and treatment programs and testing programs in place – they have to have a big quarrel with the assertion that one legislator drove down the incidents of HIV in the District of Columbia. That’s just not true.
We should also not congratulate ourselves too much because still too many people are getting infected. Still too many young people are involved in behaviors that will get them infected. There are still too many women who are involved. We have so many other issues in our health care community as well. And people in the LGBT community making sure they have access to quality care that they’re not being discriminated against in that setting either and that there are welcoming environments.
I strongly support removing the stigma around HIV. We know that people can live with HIV. And again I think that the mayor can play a role in helping to remove that stigma, especially in the African-American community where people are less likely to talk about it, get tested and get treated.
Blade: The Council’s Judiciary and Public Safety Committee, of which you are a member, voted unanimously on Oct. 15 to pass the Human Rights Amendment Act of 2014. The bill calls for repealing a clause that Congress added to the D.C. Human Rights Act back in 1989 that allows religious educational institutions in the city to discriminate based on sexual orientation. Assuming the full Council passes this bill, as expected, do you think this could prompt Congress to try to step in again?
Bowser: Well there’s always the concern of Congress stepping in. That’s why it’s so important that we forge a new path to get autonomy – legislative autonomy, budget autonomy and a new path toward statehood. We have to always be concerned about the Congress stepping in. There are all kinds of riders that can be attached to our legislation and appropriations bills. And that has to change. We’ve seen it with reproductive health issues. And I think we should be concerned about seeing it again.
But that doesn’t stop us from doing the right thing. And we have a human rights law in the District of Columbia that we all should be proud of. We should look to every instance that we have to make it stronger. And so I will be voting for it.
Blade: Concerning the transgender community, would you support and continue a program started by Mayor Gray and operated by the D.C. Office of Human Rights that seeks to curtail hate crimes and discrimination against transgender people through public service announcements?
Bowser: The more public education the better. I tend to think – and I get this question a lot. In my experience in bringing communities together who are very diverse is that people tend to — if we take down these barriers — not to say let’s all get together to figure out how to end hate crimes, because mostly you will attract the people who are activists in that area, when, in fact, we need to have that message in everything that the city does. And so the city needs to be at festivals and parades where people are coming together for a whole other reason entirely to say that this government is diverse and we support all of our residents. So that’s important.
How can we have that message delivered at schools? How can we have that message delivered in the faith community? So I think it’s best – yes – to have public service, to have ad campaigns. But to also make sure that message is ever-present in everything we do when people are coming together for nothing to do with violence but everything to do with community.
Blade: A number of messages the Blade has received from readers through Twitter postings and email links have questioned your sexual orientation. They often mention that you are single and perhaps all single people, men or women, receive these comments. Would you like to comment on that?
Bowser: Oh, I’ve commented on it extensively.
Blade: Do you mean for you or the subject in general?
Bowser: What do you mean?
Blade: Well what they appear to be implying is that you may be gay.
Bowser: Well I’m not.
Blade: Most people would likely say who cares? But we don’t know if someone is putting people up to do this. But the messages keep coming up – sometimes as postings by readers as comments on our stories online.
Bowser: They post a lot of wacky things. I think you know that. But as I said I’m very proud to have the support of a lot of people in the LGBT community who are posting on your newspaper as well. And they’re posting on the things that matter – that I’m focused on how we build on the democratic values in this city and represent the large swath of Washingtonians who want to invest in our schools all across the city, who want to build a strong and growing middle class in the city, and want to make sure that we’re attracting the talent in our government that’s going to allow us to get ready for the city’s growth over the next 25 years.
And so that’s what our focus is. I’ve put together a wonderful committee of LGBT leaders, activists and have been a Council member who has made sure I have a gay-friendly office that people from all over feel very comfortable talking to us, bringing their issues to us, and being responsive to their needs. And that’s exactly the kind of mayor I will be.
Blade: One of the issues the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance has raised in an election year position paper is that the legal standing for protesting a proposed liquor license for bars, restaurants and nightclubs should be removed from ad hoc groups of five or more citizens and left solely with Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, which are elected by the residents. GLAA and others have said that the so-called ‘gangs of five’ have unduly blocked or delayed a liquor license application for months and sometimes as long as a year, causing an unfair burden on small businesses seeking to open a restaurant or bar. Is that something you would consider supporting?
Bowser: Well ultimately, of course the [Alcoholic Beverage Control] Board decides. And I have a neighborhood focus and have been an ANC commissioner. I do think and believe the ANC should be afforded great weight. And I’ve participated long and hard in that process with [D.C. Council member] Jim Graham on the reforms [liquor licensing reform legislation]. And I actually think we landed in the right place.
And I think the update has addressed – kind of streamlining the response times. But I think citizen input is important and that we have responsible business owners who have a liquor license. We have decided that having a liquor license requires an extra layer of scrutiny in this city. And I think we probably landed in the right place. We have I think about a year – a year and a half experience with it. And I want to watch it to make sure that the instances that you described, that the process isn’t being unreasonably hijacked. That’s not fair to the business community.
But we also have to say that, one, we can’t rely on one instance to determine what the law should be for everybody. So I can definitely, absolutely commit to looking at the experience with the changes that we recently made to the procedure – to see how they’re working and to see if they need to be tweaked.
Top 10 Blade news stories by web traffic
COVID breakthroughs, Equality Act, and anti-trans attacks
Each year our staff gathers in late December to review the highest trafficked stories of the year and there’s more than a little bit of competitive spirit as we review the results. Here are the top 10 stories by web traffic at HYPERLINK “http://washingtonblade.com”washingtonblade.com for 2021.
#10: Mark Glaze, gun reform advocate, dies at 51
The sad, tragic story of Glaze’s death captivated readers in November.
#9: COVID breakthrough infections strike summer tourists visiting Provincetown
This one went viral in July after a COVID outbreak was blamed on gay tourists.
#8: Thank you, Kordell Stewart, for thoughtful response to ‘the rumor’
This opinion piece thanked the former NFL quarterback for writing a personal essay addressing gay rumors.
#7: Elliot Page tweets; trans bb’s first swim trunks #transjoy #transisbeautiful
The actor created excitement by posting his first photo in swim trunks back in May.
#6: Romney declares opposition to LGBTQ Equality Act
Mitt Romney disappointed activists with his announcement; the Equality Act passed the House but never saw a vote in the Senate.
#5: White House warns state legislatures that passing anti-trans bills is illegal
The year 2021 saw a disturbing trend of GOP-led legislatures attacking trans people.
#4: Lincoln Project’s avowed ignorance of Weaver texts undercut by leaked communications
The Lincoln Project’s leaders, amid a scandal of co-founder John Weaver soliciting sexual favors from young men, have asserted they were unaware of his indiscretions until the Blade obtained electronic communications that called that claim into question.
#3: FOX 5’s McCoy suspended over offensive Tweet
Blake McCoy tweeted that obese people shouldn’t get priority for the COVID vaccine.
#2: Transgender USAF veteran trapped in Taliban takeover of Kabul
Among the Americans trapped in the suburban areas of Kabul under Taliban control was a transgender government contractor for the U.S. State Department and former U.S. Air Force Sergeant. She was later safely evacuated.
#1: Amid coup chaos, Trump quietly erases LGBTQ protections in adoption, health services
And our most popular story of 2021 was about the Trump administration nixing regulations barring federal grantees in the Department of Health & Human Services from discriminating against LGBTQ people, including in adoption services.
CDC still falling short on LGBTQ data collection for COVID patients: expert
Despite requests since the start of the COVID pandemic for the U.S. government to enhance data collection for patients who are LGBTQ, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention is still falling short on issuing nationwide guidance to states on the issue, a leading expert health on the issue told the Blade.
With a renewed focus on COVID infections reaching new heights just before the start of the holidays amid the emergence of Omicron, the absence of any LGBTQ data collection — now across both the Trump and Biden administrations — remains a sore point for health experts who say that information could be used for public outreach.
Sean Cahill, director of Health Policy Research at the Boston-based Fenway Institute, said Wednesday major federal entities and hospitals have been collecting data on whether patients identify as LGBTQ for years — such as the National Health & Nutrition Examination Survey, which has been collecting sexual orientation data since the 1990s — but the CDC hasn’t duplicated that effort for COVID even though the pandemic has been underway for two years.
“It’s not like this is a new idea,” Cahill said. “But for some reason, the pandemic hit, and all of a sudden, we realize how little systematic data we were collecting in our health system. And it’s a real problem because we’re two years into the pandemic almost, and we still don’t know how it’s affecting this vulnerable population that experiences health disparities in other areas.”
The Blade was among the first outlets to report on the lack of efforts by the states to collect data on whether a COVID patient identifies as LGBTQ, reporting in April 2020 on the absence of data even in places with influential LGBTQ communities. The CDC hasn’t responded to the Blade’s requests for nearly two years on why it doesn’t instruct states to collect this data, nor did it respond this week to a request for comment on this article.
Cahill, who has published articles in the American Journal of Public Health on the importance of LGBTQ data collection and reporting in COVID-19 testing, care, and vaccination — said he’s been making the case to the CDC to issue guidance to states on whether COVID patients identify as LGBTQ since June 2020.
Among those efforts, he said, were to include two comments he delivered to the Biden COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force in spring 2021, a letter a coalition of groups sent to the Association of State & Territorial Health Officers asking for states to collect and report SOGI in COVID in December 2020 as well as letters to HHS leadership and congressional leadership in spring and summer 2020 asking for them to take steps to encourage or require SOGI data collection in COVID.
Asked what CDC officials had to say in response when he brought this issue to their attention, Cahill said, “They listen, but they don’t really tell me anything.”
“We’ve been making that case, and to date, as of December 22, 2021, they have not issued guidance, they have not changed the case report form. I hope that they’re in the process of doing that, and maybe we’ll be pleasantly surprised in January, and they’ll come up with something…I really hope that’s true, but right now they’re not doing anything to promote SOGI data collection and reporting in surveillance data.”
Cahill, in an email to the Blade after the initial publication of this article, clarified CDC has indicated guidance on LGBTQ data collection for COVID patients may come in the near future.
“HHS leaders told us this fall that CDC is working on an initiative to expand SOGI data collection,” Cahill said. “We are hopeful that we will see guidance early in 2022. Key people at CDC, including Director Walensky, understand the importance of SOGI data collection given their long history of working on HIV prevention.”
In other issues related to LGBTQ data collection, there has been a history of states resisting federal mandates. The Trump administration, for example, rescinded guidance calling on states to collect information on whether foster youth identified as LGBTQ after complaints from states on the Obama-era process, much to the consternation of LGBTQ advocates who said the data was helpful.
The White House COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force has at least recognized the potential for enhancing LGBTQ data collection efforts. Last month, it published an implementation plan, calling for “an equity-centered approach to data collection, including sufficient funding to collect data for groups that are often left out of data collection (e.g….LGBTQIA+ people).”
The plan also calls for “fund[ing] activities to improve data collection…including tracking COVID-19 related outcomes for people of color and other underserved populations,” and specifically calls for the collection of LGBTQ data.
The importance of collecting LGBTQ data, Cahill said, is based on its potential use in public outreach, including efforts to recognize disparities in health population and to create messaging for outreach, including for populations that may be reluctant to take the vaccine.
“If we see a disparity, we can say: Why is that?” Cahill said. “We could do focus groups of the population — try to understand and then what kind of messages would reassure you and make you feel comfortable getting a vaccine, and we could push those messages out through public education campaigns led by state local health departments led by the federal government.”
The LGBTQ data, Cahill said, could be broken down further to determine if racial and ethnic disparities exist within the LGBTQ population, or whether LGBTQ people are likely to suffer from the disease in certain regions, such as the South.
“We have data showing that lesbian or bisexual women, and transgender people are less likely to be in preventive regular routine care for their health,” Cahill said. “And so if that’s true, there’s a good chance that they’re less likely to know where to get a vaccine, to have a medical professional they trust to talk to about it today.”
Among the leaders who are supportive, Cahill said, is Rachel Levine, assistant secretary for health and the first openly transgender person confirmed by the U.S. Senate for a presidential appointment. Cahill said he raised the issue with her along with other officials at the Department of Health & Human Services three times in the last year.
In her previous role as Pennsylvania secretary of health, Levine led the way and made her state the first in the nation to set up an LGBTQ data collection system for COVID patients.
“So she definitely gets it, and I know she’s supportive of it, but we really need the CDC to act,” Cahill said.
Although the federal government has remained intransigent in taking action, Cahill said the situation has improved among states and counted five states — California, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Nevada and Oregon — in addition to D.C. as among those that have elected to collect data on sexual orientation and gender identity of COVID patients.
However, Cahill said even those data collection efforts are falling short because those jurisdictions have merely been public about collecting the data, but haven’t reported back anything yet.
“Only California has reported data publicly, and the data that they’re reporting is really just the completeness of the data,” Cahill said. “They’re not reporting the data itself…And they’re also just asking people who tests positive. So, if somebody says positive COVID in California, a contact tracer follows up with that individual and asks them a battery of questions, and among the questions that are asked are SOGI questions.”
As a result of these efforts, Cahill said, California has data on the LGBTQ status of COVID patients, but the data is overwhelmingly more complete for the gender identity of these patients rather than their sexual orientation. As of May 2021, California reported that they had sexual orientation data for 9.5 percent of individuals who had died from COVID and 16 percent of people who tested positive, but for gender identity, the data were 99.5 percent.
Equality Act, contorted as a danger by anti-LGBTQ forces, is all but dead
No political willpower to force vote or reach a compromise
Despite having President Biden in the White House and Democratic majorities in both chambers of Congress, efforts to update federal civil rights laws to strengthen the prohibition on discrimination against LGBTQ people by passing the Equality Act are all but dead as opponents of the measure have contorted it beyond recognition.
Political willpower is lacking to find a compromise that would be acceptable to enough Republican senators to end a filibuster on the bill — a tall order in any event — nor is there the willpower to force a vote on the Equality Act as opponents stoke fears about transgender kids in sports and not even unanimity in the Democratic caucus in favor of the bill is present, stakeholders who spoke to the Blade on condition of anonymity said.
In fact, there are no imminent plans to hold a vote on the legislation even though Pride month is days away, which would be an opportune time for Congress to demonstrate solidarity with the LGBTQ community by holding a vote on the legislation.
If the Equality Act were to come up for a Senate vote in the next month, it would not have the support to pass. Continued assurances that bipartisan talks are continuing on the legislation have yielded no evidence of additional support, let alone the 10 Republicans needed to end a filibuster.
“I haven’t really heard an update either way, which is usually not good,” one Democratic insider said. “My understanding is that our side was entrenched in a no-compromise mindset and with [Sen. Joe] Manchin saying he didn’t like the bill, it doomed it this Congress. And the bullying of hundreds of trans athletes derailed our message and our arguments of why it was broadly needed.”
The only thing keeping the final nail from being hammered into the Equality Act’s coffin is the unwillingness of its supporters to admit defeat. Other stakeholders who spoke to the Blade continued to assert bipartisan talks are ongoing, strongly pushing back on any conclusion the legislation is dead.
Alphonso David, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said the Equality Act is “alive and well,” citing widespread public support he said includes “the majority of Democrats, Republicans and independents and a growing number of communities across the country engaging and mobilizing every day in support of the legislation.”
“They understand the urgent need to pass this bill and stand up for LGBTQ people across our country,” David added. “As we engage with elected officials, we have confidence that Congress will listen to the voices of their constituents and continue fighting for the Equality Act through the lengthy legislative process. We will also continue our unprecedented campaign to grow the already-high public support for a popular bill that will save lives and make our country fairer and more equal for all. We will not stop until the Equality Act is passed.”
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), chief sponsor of the Equality Act in the Senate, also signaled through a spokesperson work continues on the legislation, refusing to give up on expectations the legislation would soon become law.
“Sen. Merkley and his staff are in active discussions with colleagues on both sides of the aisle to try to get this done,” McLennan said. “We definitely see it as a key priority that we expect to become law.”
A spokesperson Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who had promised to force a vote on the Equality Act in the Senate on the day the U.S. House approved it earlier this year, pointed to a March 25 “Dear Colleague” letter in which he identified the Equality Act as one of several bills he’d bring up for a vote.
Despite any assurances, the hold up on the bill is apparent. Although the U.S. House approved the legislation earlier this year, the Senate Judiciary Committee hasn’t even reported out the bill yet to the floor in the aftermath of the first-ever Senate hearing on the bill in March. A Senate Judiciary Committee Democratic aide, however, disputed that inaction as evidence the Equality Act is dead in its tracks: “Bipartisan efforts on a path forward are ongoing.”
Democrats are quick to blame Republicans for inaction on the Equality Act, but with Manchin withholding his support for the legislation they can’t even count on the entirety of their caucus to vote “yes” if it came to the floor. Progressives continue to advocate an end to the filibuster to advance legislation Biden has promised as part of his agenda, but even if they were to overcome headwinds and dismantle the institution needing 60 votes to advance legislation, the Equality Act would likely not have majority support to win approval in the Senate with a 50-50 party split.
The office of Manchin, who has previously said he couldn’t support the Equality Act over concerns about public schools having to implement the transgender protections applying to sports and bathrooms, hasn’t responded to multiple requests this year from the Blade on the legislation and didn’t respond to a request to comment for this article.
Meanwhile, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who declined to co-sponsor the Equality Act this year after having signed onto the legislation in the previous Congress, insisted through a spokesperson talks are still happening across the aisle despite the appearances the legislation is dead.
“There continues to be bipartisan support for passing a law that protects the civil rights of Americans, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity,” said Annie Clark, a Collins spokesperson. “The Equality Act was a starting point for negotiations, and in its current form, it cannot pass. That’s why there are ongoing discussions among senators and stakeholders about a path forward.”
Let’s face it: Anti-LGBTQ forces have railroaded the debate by making the Equality Act about an end to women’s sports by allowing transgender athletes and danger to women in sex-segregated places like bathrooms and prisons. That doesn’t even get into resolving the issue on drawing the line between civil rights for LGBTQ people and religious freedom, which continues to be litigated in the courts as the U.S. Supreme Court is expected any day now to issue a ruling in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia to determine if foster care agencies can reject same-sex couples over religious objections.
For transgender Americans, who continue to report discrimination and violence at high rates, the absence of the Equality Act may be most keenly felt.
Mara Keisling, outgoing executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, disputed any notion the Equality Act is dead and insisted the legislation is “very much alive.”
“We remain optimistic despite misinformation from the opposition,” Keisling said. “NCTE and our movement partners are still working fruitfully on the Equality Act with senators. In fact, we are gaining momentum with all the field organizing we’re doing, like phone banking constituents to call their senators. Legislating takes time. Nothing ever gets through Congress quickly. We expect to see a vote during this Congress, and we are hopeful we can win.”
But one Democratic source said calls to members of Congress against the Equality Act, apparently coordinated by groups like the Heritage Foundation, have has outnumbered calls in favor of it by a substantial margin, with a particular emphasis on Manchin.
No stories are present in the media about same-sex couples being kicked out of a restaurant for holding hands or transgender people for using the restroom consistent with their gender identity, which would be perfectly legal in 25 states thanks to the patchwork of civil rights laws throughout the United States and inadequate protections under federal law.
Tyler Deaton, senior adviser for the American Unity Fund, which has bolstered the Republican-led Fairness for All Act as an alternative to the Equality Act, said he continues to believe the votes are present for a compromise form of the bill.
“I know for a fact there is a supermajority level of support in the Senate for a version of the Equality Act that is fully protective of both LGBTQ civil rights and religious freedom,” Deaton said. “There is interest on both sides of the aisle in getting something done this Congress.”
Deaton, however, didn’t respond to a follow-up inquiry on what evidence exists of agreeing on this compromise.
Biden has already missed the goal he campaigned on in the 2020 election to sign the Equality Act into law within his first 100 days in office. Although Biden renewed his call to pass the legislation in his speech to Congress last month, as things stand now that appears to be a goal he won’t realize for the remainder of this Congress.
Nor has the Biden administration made the Equality Act an issue for top officials within the administration as it pushes for an infrastructure package as a top priority. One Democratic insider said Louisa Terrell, legislative affairs director for the White House, delegated work on the Equality Act to a deputy as opposed to handling it herself.
To be sure, Biden has demonstrated support for the LGBTQ community through executive action at an unprecedented rate, signing an executive order on day one ordering federal agencies to implement the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last year in Bostock v. Clayton County to the fullest extent possible and dismantling former President Trump’s transgender military ban. Biden also made historic LGBTQ appointments with the confirmation of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Rachel Levine as assistant secretary of health.
A White House spokesperson insisted Biden’s team across the board remains committed to the Equality Act, pointing to his remarks to Congress.
“President Biden has urged Congress to get the Equality Act to his desk so he can sign it into law and provide long overdue civil rights protections to LGBTQ+ Americans, and he remains committed to seeing this legislation passed as quickly as possible,” the spokesperson said. “The White House and its entire legislative team remains in ongoing and close coordination with organizations, leaders, members of Congress, including the Equality Caucus, and staff to ensure we are working across the aisle to push the Equality Act forward.”
But at least in the near-term, that progress will fall short of fulfilling the promise of updating federal civil rights law with the Equality Act, which will mean LGBTQ people won’t be able to rely on those protections when faced with discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
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