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Sanders touts LGBT record in White House bid

‘I have one of the strongest records in Congress on LGBT issues’



Bernie Sanders, United States Senate, U.S. Congress, Vermont, Democratic Socialist, gay news, Washington Blade
Bernie Sanders, United States Senate, U.S. Congress, Vermont, Democratic Socialist, gay news, Washington Blade

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) touted his record on LGBT issues. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernard Sanders wants you to know he’s had a strong record on LGBT issues during his nearly 35 years as a public servant.

In an exclusive interview with the Washington Blade on Thursday in his Senate office, Sanders touted that record when asked why LGBT voters should support him in his recently announced bid for the Democratic presidential nomination over fellow ally Hillary Clinton.

“All I can say is I think I have one of the strongest, if not the strongest record, in the United States Congress on LGBT issues,” Sanders said. “My record speaks for itself, and I will compare it to any candidate who is out there.”

Indeed, the self-avowed “democratic socialist” has a long history of public service. In the 1980s, he served as mayor of Burlington, Vt. Afterward, he represented the state from 1991 to 2007 in the U.S. House. Since 2007, he’s served in the U.S. Senate.

In 1996, Sanders was among 67 U.S. House members to vote against the Defense of Marriage Act, which was later passed by Congress and signed into law by President Bill Clinton.

Sanders said he couldn’t have predicted that the U.S. Supreme Court would ultimately strike down the section of the law barring the federal government from recognizing legal same-sex marriages.

“I remember being on the floor at the time,” Sanders said. “It was politically a very difficult vote, and despite what some may say, the Supreme Court evolves as does the American public. I think it’s also fair to say that very few people would have predicted the degree to which gay rights have changed, the dramatic change in a relatively short period of time.”

Sanders pointed to the pioneering role Vermont has played on LGBT issues. He said Vermont “arguably is the leading state that has advanced gay rights.” In 2000, Vermont became the first state in the country to enact civil unions, which Sanders said he supported at the time, even though it was “very, very difficult” politically. In 2009, Vermont became the first state in the country to legalize same-sex marriage through the legislature.

The country could see another milestone in a little more than a month, when the U.S. Supreme Court is set to rule on whether same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry.

Sanders said a decision from the Supreme Court in favor of same-sex marriage would be evidence of sweeping change in the country on social issues, but maintained progress in economic inequality hasn’t been as successful.

“It will be very clearly, a very significant decision, and a major step for equality,” Sanders said. “In the United States, I think we have seen in the last 20 to 25 years, some very positive changes in terms of becoming a less discriminatory society. I talk a whole lot about economics, in fact, in terms of economics, we are becoming clearly a nation with more and more wealth inequality. We’re losing that battle. But in areas of civil rights, in areas of gay rights, in areas of women’s rights, we’ve made some good progress.”

The independent Democrat criticized state lawmakers seeking to roll back this progress with anti-LGBT legislation, including those in the Texas House. At the time of the interview, anti-gay forces in Texas were pushing a bill that sought to undermine a potential Supreme Court ruling in favor of same-sex marriage by prohibiting the use of state and local funds for issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

“I think that when you’re devoid of ideas as to how you can address the major problems facing this country, what politicians have done historically is look at scapegoats — whether they’re blacks, whether they’re immigrants, whether they’re gays, whether they’re women — make it easier, try to create a political climate where you can gain votes by beating up on a minority,” Sanders said. “And that’s just another attempt, but they’re losing ground, there’s no question about it.”

Sanders, 73, said such lawmakers are “losing the generational battle” and recalled meetings he’s had in his state with high school students, whom he said even in the conservative parts of Vermont think same-sex marriage and abortion are “non-issues.”

“I’m sure there are people who are 80 and 90 who still have their prejudices, but not among people who are 20 and 30 by and large,” Sanders said.

Asked about the continued lack of nondiscrimination protections for LGBT people in the federal code, Sanders said he supports amending the Civil Rights Act and Fair Housing Act to include sexual orientation and gender identity.

Asked to elaborate, Sanders replied, “Keep going. What I just told you. I spent 25 years fighting for equal rights.”

“What makes it a good idea that black people can drink water at a fountain?” Sanders continued. “We are trying to create a non-discriminatory society where we judge people based on their character, on their abilities, not on the color of their skin, their sexual orientation, their gender. Clearly, as a nation we’ve made good progress, we have a lot further to go.”

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) is expected to introduce legislation along those lines this spring that would institute comprehensive LGBT non-discrimination protections in the areas of employment, public accommodations, housing, credit, education and federal programs. When the Blade asked Sanders whether he’d support the bill, he replied, “Jeff and I work closely on these issues and I suspect that I will.”

Sanders said he’d make a point during his campaign to talk about transgender people being part of American society and added the Obama administration should end the medical regulation barring openly trans people from serving in the U.S. military.

Asked about what steps can be taken to address the high rate of violence against transgender women, particularly transgender women of color, Sanders said, “I think we have to, among other things, do a better job in educating our police officers.”

Sanders recalled his tenure as mayor of Burlington in the 1980s, when he said police would sometimes ignore incidents of domestic violence because it was considered a “family dispute.”

“The point is we need to make sure that police departments are sensitive to the fact that every person in this country — man, woman, transgender, whatever you may be — is entitled to equal protection under the law, and abusing people is not acceptable,” Sanders said.

Speaking to the Blade just hours after he voted on the Senate floor against the fast-track for legislation to advance the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement, Sanders said draconian anti-gay laws criminalizing same-sex relations in countries like Brunei and Malaysia are one reason to reject the measure.

“That’s one of the reasons, but there are many other reasons,” Sanders said. “It would be a disastrous agreement for American workers. This agreement is incredibly anti-Democratic in the sense that it allows corporations to sue countries to pass legislation to protect workers or the environment or their health. This is disastrous for a number of reasons. You’ve named one, but you can add it to a long list of other reasons.”

One day after the House Appropriations Committee approved legislation that would cut funding for Amtrak by $1.5 billion in the same week an Amtrak train derailed and killed eight people, Sanders was critical of the funding effort, noting “the timing was immaculate” for passage of the bill.

“One of the provisions in legislation that we’ve already introduced is the strongest infrastructure currently that has been offered,” Sanders said. “It would require the expenditure of a trillion dollars over a five-year period to rebuild roads, bridges, our rail system, airports. And what it does is make this country more competitive, more productive, safer … So rebuilding our troubling infrastructure and rail is an example of where we are falling further and further behind many other countries: Europe, Japan, China. So investing in rail is something that I believe is very important.”

Sanders has his work cut out for him in winning the Democratic nomination to run for president. According to a recent Public Policy Polling poll, Clinton leads Democratic candidates with 63 percent support among Democratic voters, followed by Sanders at 13 percent.

But the Vermonter had little to say about his Democratic rivals. Much as he didn’t explicitly mention Clinton when asked why LGBT voters should support him over her, Sanders had few words when asked about former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who’s expected to announce his candidacy May 30 in Baltimore.

“I don’t know honestly,” Sanders said. “I’ve met Martin once in my life. So I don’t know much about him.”

In the event he doesn’t win the Democratic nomination, Sanders said he’s sticking with his position that he won’t run as an independent in the general election, saying, “No, I would not do that.”

Sanders said his worldview intersects with the LGBT rights movement because democratic socialism is “very much about dignity and equal rights for all people” and against discrimination.

“But where it’s also important is that whether you are gay or straight or transgender, you don’t have a job, or if you don’t have the kind of income you need to live with dignity, you’re going to suffer,” Sanders said. “So, I think what we have to do as a nation is make sure that the jobs we create pay a living wage, which means raising minimum wage, passing pay equity, creating trade policies that work for American workers, expanding Social Security. Those impact every person in American regardless of their sexual orientation.”

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Patrick O’Connell, acclaimed AIDS activist, dies at 67

Played key role in creating red ribbon for awareness



Activist Patrick O’Connell was instrumental in creating the red ribbon to promote AIDS awareness. (Photo courtesy of Allen Frame; courtesy Visual AIDS)

Patrick O’Connell, a founding director of the New York City-based AIDS advocacy group Visual AIDS who played a lead role in developing the internationally recognized display of an inverted, V-shaped red ribbon as a symbol of AIDS advocacy, died on March 23 at a Manhattan hospital from AIDS-related causes, according to the New York Times. He was 67.

Visual AIDS said in a statement that O’Connell held the title of founding director of the organization from 1980 to 1995.

During those years, according to the statement and others who knew him, O’Connell was involved in the group’s widely recognized and supported efforts to use art and artist’s works to advocate in support of people with HIV/AIDS and efforts to curtail the epidemic that had a devastating impact on the art world.

Thanks to a grant from the Art Matters foundation, Visual AIDS was able to retain O’Connell as its first paid staff member in 1990, the group said in its statement.

“Armed with a fax machine and an early Macintosh computer, Patrick helped Visual AIDS grow from a volunteer group to a sustainable non-profit organization,” the statement says. “A passionate spokesperson for the organization, he helped projects like Day Without Art, Night Without Light, and the Red Ribbon reach thousands of people and organizations across the world,” the group says in its statement.

“We were living in a war zone,” the statement quoted O’Connell as saying in a 2011 interview with the Long Island newspaper Newsday. “But it was like a war that was some kind of deep secret only we knew about,” O’Connell said in the interview. “Thousands were dying of AIDS. We felt we had to respond with a visible expression,” he told the newspaper.

With O’Connell’s help, Visual AIDS in 1989 organized the first annual Day Without Art in which dozens of galleries and museums in New York and other cities covered art works with black cloths to symbolize the mourning of those who died of AIDS. Among those participating were the Brooklyn Museum, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which replaced a Picasso painting with a “somber informational placard,” according to the New York Times.

In 1990 O’Connell helped Visual AIDS organize the first Night Without Light, which was held at the time of World AIDS Day. New York City’s skyscraper buildings, bridges, monuments, and Broadway theaters turned off their lights for 15 minutes to commemorate people who lost their lives to AIDS, the New York Times reported.

In the kickoff of its Red Ribbon Project in 1991, McConnell helped organize volunteers to join “ribbon bees” in which thousands of the ribbons were cut and folded for distribution around the city, the Times reports. Those who knew McConnell said he also arranged for his team of volunteers to call Broadway theaters and producers of the upcoming Tony Awards television broadcast to have participants and theater goers display the red ribbons on their clothes.

Among those displaying a red ribbon on his label at the Tony Awards broadcast was actor Jeremy Irons, who was one of the hosts. In later years, large numbers of celebrities followed the practice of wearing the red ribbon, and in 1993 the U.S. Postal Service issued a red ribbon stamp.

The Times reports that O’Connell was born and raised in Manhattan, where he attended Fordham Preparatory School and later graduated from Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., in 1973 with a bachelor’s degree in history. According to Visual AIDS, O’Connell served as director of the Hallwalls arts center in Buffalo, N.Y. from 1977 to 1978 before returning to New York City to work for a gallery called Artists Space.

The Times reports that O’Connell learned in the middle 1980s that he had contracted AIDS and began a regimen of early AIDS treatment with a cocktail of over 30 pills a day. His involvement with Visual AIDS, which began in 1989, ended on an active basis in 1995 when his health worsened, the Times reports.

As one of the last remaining survivors of his New York contemporaries who had HIV beginning in the 1980s, O’Connell continued in his strong support for AIDS-related causes through 2000s and beyond, people who knew him said.
Visual AIDS says it is gathering remembrances and photos for a tribute post for O’Connell on its website. It has invited people to share their memories of him by sending written contributions and images via email to: [email protected].

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Activists concerned over removal of D.C. AIDS office executive

Dept. of Health declines to explain abrupt replacement of Kharfen



annual AIDS report, gay news, Washington Blade
D.C. Department of Health Director Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt abruptly dismissed Michael Kharfen from his position. (Photo via Linkedin)

The leaders of several local and national AIDS organizations have expressed concern over a decision by D.C. Department of Health Director Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt to abruptly dismiss Michael Kharfen from his position since 2013 as Senior Deputy Director of the department’s HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis, Sexually Transmitted Disease and Tuberculosis Administration.

Under the leadership of Kharfen, who is gay, the Department of Health entity commonly referred to as HAHSTA has played a lead role in what AIDS advocacy organizations consider to be D.C.’s highly successful efforts in recent years to lower the rate of new HIV infections among city residents.

Alison Reeves, a spokesperson for Nesbitt, declined to give a reason for Kharfen’s termination, saying the DOH does not comment on “personnel matters.” Reeves said DOH official Dr. Anjali Talwalker has been named as interim Senior DOH Deputy Director for HAHSTA while a national search is being conducted for a permanent HAHSTA leader.

People who know Kharfen have said he has declined at this time to publicly comment on his departure from HAHSTA. He could not immediately be reached by the Blade for comment.

“Michael Kharfen’s departure is a real loss to HAHSTA, the D.C. community, and nationally,” said Paul Kawata, executive director of the D.C.-based National Minority AIDS Council. “It is important to remember that when Michael took over HAHSTA there were real challenges and concerns,” Kawata said.

“He transformed the agency and built strong relationships with local organizations and D.C.-based national organizations,” said Kawata. “His reasoned voice and ability to collaborate will be sorely missed.”

At least three sources familiar with HAHSTA, who spoke on condition of not being identified, have said reports have surfaced internally from DOH that director Nesbitt is planning to reorganize several DOH divisions, including HAHSTA.

The sources say people familiar with the reported reorganization expressed alarm that HAHSTA would be dismantled as a separate DOH entity, with AIDS-related programs operated by other DOH divisions.

“Some think she wants to use the funds earmarked for HAHSTA for other things,” said one of the sources. “She could be jeopardizing federal grant money for HIV and hepatitis,” the source said.

The Washington Blade raised questions surrounding Kharfen’s departure with John Falcicchio, the D.C. Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, who also serves as Mayor Muriel Bowser’s chief of staff, at a press conference on Monday on an unrelated topic. Falcicchio said he would try to arrange for mayoral spokesperson LaToya Foster to respond to the Blade’s questions about a possible DOH reorganization of HAHSTA and the issues surrounding Kharfen’s departure from DOH.

Neither Foster nor another mayoral spokesperson had responded as of late Tuesday.

“Michael Kharfen’s leaving D.C. government is a huge loss to the D.C. community and potentially puts at risk federal grants for HIV, sexually transmitted diseases, and hepatitis,” according to David Harvey, executive director for the D.C.-based National Coalition of STD Directors.

“If his departure is about a consolidation of agencies within DOH, then the community will be the loser,” Harvey said.

“We need HAHSTA to continue,” he said, adding, “The mayor should reverse this decision and reinstate Michael Kharfen.”

Sources familiar with the D.C. government’s personnel polices have said that Kharfen and other high-level officials holding positions such as that of a senior deputy director are considered “at will” employees who serve at the pleasure of the mayor and the agency head for whom they work. They can be removed for any reason or no reason, those familiar with the personnel policy say.

Before becoming the DOH Senior Deputy Director in charge of HAHSTA in 2013, Kharfen served from 2006 to 2013 as HAHSTA’s Bureau Chief for Partnerships, Capacity Building, and Community Outreach. Those who know Kharfen said in that role he is credited with working closely with a wide range of local and national organizations that provide services for people with HIV/AIDS as well as other public health organizations.

Among them is the D.C. Appleseed Center for Law & Justice, which has worked closely with HAHSTA and the DOH to develop, among other things, a plan to significantly curtail new HIV infections in the city by 2020.

Other groups working closely with Kharfen have been the Washington AIDS Partnership, the National Coalition of STD Directors, the Prevention Access Campaign, and the HIV-Hepatitis Policy Institute.

“Under Michael’s leadership, D.C. was instrumental in pioneering many new innovations in preventing and treating HIV that were later adopted by other jurisdictions,” said Carl Schmid, executive director of the D.C.-based HIV-Hepatitis Institute. “And if you look at the results, I think it demonstrates success,” Schmid said.

“I do not know any details of his departure, but I know he will be missed not only in D.C. but across the country,” Schmid told the Blade.

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Trans teacher, P.G. County schools face off in discrimination lawsuit

Officials deny charges of harassment, retaliation



Jennifer Eller, gay news, Washington Blade
Jennifer Eller alleges the P.G. County school system subjected her to discrimination and harassment. (Photo courtesy of Lambda Legal)

Attorneys representing transgender former English teacher Jennifer Eller in a 2018 discrimination lawsuit against the Prince George’s County Public Schools and the county’s Board of Education filed a motion in federal court last week asking a judge to rule in support of Eller’s two main allegations against school officials.

The motion for partial summary judgment, filed on April 28 in U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland, calls on the court to affirm Eller’s charges that school officials acted illegally by failing to intervene when she was subjected to a hostile work environment for five years that included abuse and harassment by students, parents, fellow teachers and supervisors and retaliation by administrators.

The motion also calls on the court to affirm that Eller, 39, was forced to resign from her teaching job in 2017 because of the harassment and discriminatory action based on her gender and gender identity.

Eller’s motion for summary judgement, which calls for a ruling in her favor on the allegations, came one month after attorneys for the P.G. County Schools and the school board filed their own motion seeking summary judgment against all the allegations in Eller’s lawsuit. If U.S. Magistrate Judge Charles B. Day rules in favor of the school system’s motion, which court observers do not think will happen, it would result in the dismissal of the lawsuit.

The motion filed by Eller’s attorneys calls on the court to rule against the school system’s motion for summary judgment.

Court records show that the motions by the opposing sides in the case came after Magistrate Judge Day issued a March 26 directive requiring the two sides to attend a May 7 settlement conference in which an effort must be made to settle the case before it goes to trial.

Day’s directive, in the form of a letter to the attorneys, called for Eller and her attorneys to submit 10 business days in advance of the conference a “written demand” for what a settlement agreement should include. Day’s letter calls for P.G. school officials and their attorneys to submit five days in advance of the conference a “written offer” to Eller for what a settlement should consist of.

“For years, I was aggressively misgendered, attacked and harassed in the hallways and even in my own classroom by students, peers and supervisors,” Eller said in a statement released by the LGBTQ litigation group Lambda Legal, which, along with the D.C. law firm Arnold & Porter, is representing Eller.

“My pleas for help and for sensitivity training on LGBTQ issues for students and staff, were ignored,” Eller said. “The relentless harassment stripped me of the joy of teaching and forced me to resign,” said Eller. “It is time for Prince George’s County Public Schools to be held accountable.”

Eller charges in her lawsuit that the harassment and discriminatory action against her began in 2011 when she began presenting as female during the school year. The lawsuit says school officials initially responded to her complaints about the harassment by demanding that she stop dressing as a woman and return to wearing men’s clothes, which she refused to do.

The lawsuit says she was forced to resign from her teaching job in 2017 after being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder due to the alleged abuse she faced on the job.

In addition to naming P.G. County Public Schools and the P.G. County Board of Education as defendants, the lawsuit also names as a defendant the school system’s CEO Monica Goldson.

The lawsuit charges that the school district and its administrators violated Title VII of the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title IX of the U.S. Education Amendments of 1972, the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution, the Maryland Fair Employment Practices Act, and the Prince George’s County nondiscrimination code.

In its official response to the lawsuit, attorneys for the school system denied Eller’s allegations and claimed the school system had in place nondiscrimination policies that covered gender identity and sexual orientation for school employees and students. The school system also states in its response that Eller may have failed to exhaust administrative remedies required prior to filing a lawsuit and that the lawsuit missed deadlines for certain legal claims.

It also says her legal claims may be disqualified because of her “voluntary resignation of employment,” an assertion disputed by Eller’s attorneys who say the resignation was forced by the abuse and harassment Eller faced on the job.

Her attorneys also point out that Eller filed a complaint against school officials in 2015 before the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which conducted an extensive investigation into Eller’s complaint. The attorneys note that in 2017 the EEOC issued a letter stating that there was “reasonable cause” to believe Eller had been subjected to unlawful treatment based on her sex and gender identity.

“After she filed this discrimination charge, the school administration retaliated against Ms. Eller by taking away her advanced placement English class and opening a disciplinary hearing against her that ended in no discipline,” the Lambda Legal statement says.

P.G. County school officials have declined requests from the Washington Blade for comment on Eller’s lawsuit, saying they have a policy of not commenting on pending litigation.

Among those expressing concern over the issues raised in the Eller lawsuit is College Park, Md., Mayor Patrick Wojahn, who is gay. College Park, which is home to the University of Maryland, is in Prince George’s County.

“It’s important for our county and for the entire community, especially for the kids, that the schools be places free of harassment and discrimination,” Wojahn said. “And if what Ms. Eller says is true, then it shows that the school system has fallen seriously short.”

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