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Amid change, LGBT Cubans face lingering challenges

Independent advocates slam Mariela Castro as a ‘fraud’

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Mi Cayito, Cuba, gay news, Washington Blade
Mi Cayito, Cuba, gay news, Washington Blade

Hundreds attended a state-sponsored party on May 17 at Mi Cayito, a gay beach east of the Cuban capital, to commemorate the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

HAVANA — The sun had already set over the Florida Straits on May 13 by the time Francisco Rodríguez Cruz, a gay journalist and advocate, and Miguel Angel Plasencia Rodríguez arrived at a section of Havana’s Malecón, an oceanfront promenade, near the iconic Hotel Nacional that is a popular late-night gathering place for LGBT Cubans.

Musicians were playing conga drums and guitars along the oceanfront promenade as couples danced salsa and street venders sold candy, soft drinks and flowers. Rodríguez was wearing a rainbow Pride bracelet as he wrapped his arm around Plasencia’s and held his hand.

“To sit on the Malecón as a couple like any other is one of those daily acts of love in Cuba that may not have been so easy five or 10 years ago for gay people,” Rodríguez told the Washington Blade. “It’s not that it was specifically prohibited, but the looks of disapproval and perhaps even some unfounded police action most likely would have been brought against us for this ‘exhibitionism.’”

LGBT Cubans over the last decade have become increasingly visible as efforts to extend rights to them have gained traction.

Transgender people have been able to obtain free sex-reassignment surgery under Cuba’s national health care system since 2008. Adela Hernández in 2012 became the first openly trans person to hold public office on the island when she became a member of the Caibarién Municipal Council.

The country’s lawmakers in late 2013 approved a proposal that banned anti-gay discrimination in the workplace. Mariela Castro, the daughter of Cuban President Raúl Castro who directs the National Center for Sexual Education, which is part of the Cuban Ministry of Public Health, has publicly backed marriage rights for same-sex couples.

Members of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington last month accepted Mariela Castro’s formal invitation to travel to Cuba in July and perform with a gay chorus in Havana.

These positions and overtures stand in stark contrast to the treatment of LGBT people in the years following the 1959 Cuban Revolution.

Then-President Fidel Castro in the 1960s sent more than 25,000 gay men and others deemed unfit for military service to labor camps known as Military Units to Aid Production or the Spanish acronym UMAP. Cuba repealed its sodomy law in 1979, but trans people continued to face persecution.

Hernández spent two years in prison in the 1980s for what the Associated Press described as “dangerousness” because of her gender identity. The Cuban government forcibly quarantined people living with HIV/AIDS in state-run sanitaria until 1993.

Fidel Castro during a 2010 interview with a Mexican newspaper described the persecution of gay Cubans that included sending them to work camps in the years following the revolution as a “great injustice.”

Independent Cuban LGBT rights advocates and their supporters in the U.S. and elsewhere insist the government continues to persecute those who criticize it through arbitrary detentions, the enforcement of public assembly laws and social isolation. The normalization of relations between Washington and Havana that President Obama announced late last year has done little to temper these criticisms inside Cuba and abroad.

 

Part of a ‘marvelous island’

Mariela Castro Espín, Cuba, gay news, Washington Blade, International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, IDAHAT

Mariela Castro has championed a number of LGBT initiatives in Cuba over the last decade, but has been criticized by some for not doing more. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Mariela Castro has publicly championed a number of LGBT-specific initiatives in the Communist country over the last decade through the National Center for Sexual Education, which is known by the Spanish acronym CENESEX. One source with whom the Blade spoke in Cuba said she is expanding upon the work that her late mother, Vilma Espín, began on behalf of LGBT Cubans when she was president of the Cuban Federation of Women.

CENESEX over the last eight years has organized a series of events in Havana and across the country to commemorate the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia.

Pastors from the U.S. and Canada on May 9 blessed the relationships of 20 Cuban same-sex couples in Havana during a series of events marking the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. Singer Thelma Houston also performed.

Mariela Castro a week later led a march through Las Tunas, a provincial capital about 410 miles southeast of Havana, to commemorate the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia.

She ran under a large rainbow flag after stepping out of a gray van and joined her supporters who had gathered on Las Tunas’ main street before they and hundreds of others marched to the center of the city. Two CENESEX-affiliated advocates placed a wreath of flowers and palm fronds from the organization under a statue of Vicente García, a leading figure in the 10 Years’ War from 1868-1878 during which Cubans fought for Independence from Spain, that noted its events commemorating the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia.

Mariela Castro paid homage to García in a brief ceremony before speaking to her supporters. A handful of journalists and photographers from Cuba and the U.S. were also present.

“We are working for the social participation of everyone,” said Mariela Castro during her speech.

Mariela Castro did not speak to journalists after her remarks, but she greeted supporters at a community fair that featured CENESEX-affiliated LGBT and HIV/AIDS advocacy groups from Las Tunas and Havana. Dozens of dancers, musicians and other performers took to the stage at Las Tunas’ main theater before a CENESEX party with drag queens and dancers took place at Cabaret Taíno, a local nightclub.

Restaurants and other businesses in Las Tunas hung signs supporting the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. These included a CENESEX poster in a local food stall that read “homosexuality is not a danger” and a picture inside a nearby home that depicted gay and lesbian families.

More than half a dozen gay men and a drag queen who took a horse-drawn cart from Cabaret Taíno around 3:15 a.m. on May 17 — the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia — did little to hide their sexual orientation and gender identity to the two drivers and passersby. They were among the hundreds of people who drank beers and rum at an after-party that was taking place at a bar on the outskirts of Las Tunas.

“We are part of the marvelous island of Cuba,” said Morgot, a drag queen who performed at Cabaret Taíno during the CENESEX party.

Mercedes García, a Havana resident who is a member of the CENESEX-affiliated Humanity for Diversity Network, told the Blade after the Las Tunas march she feels the events around the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia provide “open spaces where we can share among ourselves independent of sexual orientation and gender identity.”

“It is more important to see the support for the large community…from the government,” said García.

Gala, a Havana-based drag queen and HIV/AIDS educator who performs at Humboldt 52, a gay bar near the Hotel Nacional, was quick to applaud Mariela Castro and CENESEX during a May 13 interview with the Blade. She performed earlier in the evening before highlighting a campaign to fight HIV among men who have sex with men that featured colorful balloon animals engaging in sexual activity.

Gala also traveled to Las Tunas to take part in the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia commemorations.

“We are seeing advances thanks to Mariela Castro and CENESEX,” Gala told the Blade. “They give us a chance.”

Rodríguez and other supporters of CENESEX and Mariela Castro concede that homophobia, transphobia and anti-LGBT discrimination remain problems on the island.

Frank Padrón, a prominent gay theater critic who has a weekly show on Cuban television, told the Blade during an impromptu interview on a street near the Riviera Movie Theater in Havana’s sprawling Vedado neighborhood on May 13 that police continue to harass trans people and cross-dressers who they suspect are sex workers. He said that CENESEX and “individual activists have worked to change this.”

“We are not yet a society that is free from homophobia,” said Padrón. “We are not satisfied.”

Mariela Castro and her supporters who marched with her in Las Tunas sought to frame the expansion of LGBT rights on the island as a continuation of the revolution that toppled then-President Fulgencio Batista and brought Fidel Castro to power nearly six decades ago.

Marchers chanted “yes to Socialism, no to homophobia” as they worked their way through the provincial capital. A large banner containing a picture of Fidel Castro against the backdrop of the Cuban flag with a slogan reading “We will defend this flag, this sky and this land at any cost” provided a backdrop for Mariela Castro’s speech.

International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, IDAHAT, Cuba, Las Tunas, gay news, Washington Blade

Participants in events to commemorate the annual International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia in Las Tunas, Cuba, on May 16, 2015, carry a large rainbow flag through the streets of the provincial capital. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Mariela Castro is ‘a fraud’

Nelson Gandulla Díaz, Cuba, gay news, Washington Blade, Cuban Foundation for LGBTI Rights

Nelson Gandulla Díaz, president of the Cuban Foundation for LGBTI Rights, stands outside his home in Cienfuegos, Cuba, on May 15, 2015. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Cuban advocates who work independently of CENESEX have a vastly different opinion of Mariela Castro, her father’s government and the state of LGBT rights on the Communist island.

Nearly 20 LGBT advocates and independent journalists spoke with the Blade at the home of Nelson Gandulla Díaz, president of the Cuban Foundation for LGBTI Rights in the city of Cienfuegos on May 15.

A poster reading, “Mariela Castro is a fraud” with the acronym CENESEX crossed out in a rainbow-colored circle hung prominently next to the entrance of Gandulla’s home as the advocates spoke. A gay flag was flying outside in the front yard that overlooks one of Cienfuegos’ main streets.

Gandulla told the Blade that more than a dozen independent LGBT rights advocates from across the country are members of his organization that he founded last year. He said his group’s primary mission is to “defend the rights of the LGBTI community in Cuba” and to speak out against anti-LGBT discrimination.

“We come together in this sense as the entire LGBTI community in Cuba, regardless of ideology, regardless of belief, regardless of who you are,” said Gandulla.

Gandulla told the Blade that Mariela Castro declined to take part in a June march in Havana to commemorate Pride month.

He also questioned the effectiveness of her efforts to build support for marriage rights for same-sex couples. Maykel González Vivero, a gay blogger who is a member of Proyecto Arcoiris, another independent LGBT advocacy organization, told the Blade during an interview at his apartment in the city of Sagua la Grande on May 17 that Mariela Castro previously said that Cuba is “not ready for marriage.”

“She did this as though she was speaking on behalf of the LGBTI community,” said González. “Clearly, as is frequently the case in Cuba, she speaks on behalf of everyone and does not consult with anyone.”

Tanía García Hernández of the LGBTI Help Line, which is based in the province of Villa Clara, told the Blade as she attended the Cuban Foundation for LGBTI Rights meeting in Cienfuegos with her son Leandro that CENESEX only “answers to the government.”

“It is one more office of the government,” said García. “It corresponds with the objectives of the government and she (Mariela Castro) is there.”

Many of the independent LGBT rights advocates with whom the Blade spoke insisted that fewer than 30 trans Cubans have been able to receive sex-reassignment surgery. Navid Fernández Cabrera, president of Proyecto Shui Tuix, an independent LGBT advocacy group named for one of the gay parties he organized in the Cuban capital in 2008, told the Blade during a May 14 interview in his one-bedroom apartment in Havana’s 10 de Octubre neighborhood that CENESEX subjects potential candidates to a lengthy screening process that includes meeting psychologists and other health care professionals.

“It’s not a lot,” said Fernández.

Fernández and five advocates who are affiliated with his organization spoke with the Blade for nearly two hours about Mariela Castro, CENESEX and the harassment and discrimination they said they have experienced.

Leosbel Heredia Azafares, a cross-dressing sex worker who goes by the nickname Doris la Exploradora (Doris the Explorer in English) when he works in Havana’s Carlos III area that trans prostitutes frequent, told the Blade that Cuban police officers routinely harass him and others known as jineteros or jineteras in Cuban Spanish by taking their money and forcing them to have sex with them. Hand-painted red signs along the National Highway in the city of Camagüey read “no prostitution” and “no illegal activities” without providing any specifics.

“Trans life is not recognized on the part of the police,” said Heredia, who presented himself as a man while at Fernández’s apartment.

Fidel Malvarais Pelegrino, 24, who represents Proyecto Shui Tuix in the city of Santiago de Cuba, said authorities detained him last June for seven days because he was in Havana without permission from the government. Marino López Borell, 28, who lives in the San Miguel del Padrón area of Havana, told the Blade the police stopped him and his Cuban American partner who lives in Florida last year while they were along a dark portion of the Malecón.

“The police officer only wanted money and wanted sex,” said López.

“CENESEX does not care about these stories,” added Fernández.

Juana Mora Cedeño, a member of Proyecto Arcoiris who met with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other members of Congress in February at the home of Jeffrey DeLaurentis, chief of mission of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, told the Blade during an interview at a colleague’s home in Vedado that there are few “spaces” for LGBT Cubans to gather freely.

Juana Mora Cedeño, Havana, Cuba, gay news, Washington Blade

Juana Mora Cedeño, a member of Proyecto Arcoiris, met with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in Havana. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

LGBT-specific events take place at bars and clubs throughout Havana, but Mora said the government operates many of them.

Hundreds of people on May 17 attended a state-sponsored party at Mi Cayito, a gay beach east of the Cuban capital, to commemorate the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. A small, tattered gay flag was flying over the beach when the Blade visited it the following day, but Mora and other independent LGBT advocates said police have previously conducted raids there.

A police officer was sitting under a thatched umbrella on May 18, casually talking to men who rent chairs to beachgoers and bring them food and drinks from a restaurant adjacent to Mi Cayito’s parking lot.

A picture that González posted to his blog on the same day shows two Cuban police officers at an LGBT rights march in the city of Santa Clara that he said were “apparently” there to “provide security.” Fernández and other independent advocates told the Blade that authorities have also sought to intimidate those who attend their events that are not authorized by the government.

“We are not included in any governmental organization or any party,” said Gandulla. “What happens is that none of the official people, like Mariela Castro, want to work with us.”

González said he has faced harassment at the state-run radio station in Sagua la Grande where he works because of his public criticism over the omission of statistics from the 2012 Cuban Census that noted the number of same-sex couples who live together in the country. He told the Blade that CENESEX did not invite him and other independent advocates to a 2014 conference in the beach resort of Varadero that drew hundreds of LGBT rights advocates from across the Americas and the Caribbean.

González and other independent advocates have also questioned how the government will enforce the law that bans anti-gay discrimination in the workplace.

“There is a risk of quickly falling into a sort of social isolation zone,” González told the Blade. “People quickly assume that you are a dangerous person because you are someone who asks questions.”

Gandulla said that members of his group are “very afraid” of the Cuban government. He added it is “very dangerous” for them to criticize Mariela Castro or any other member of her father’s government during interviews with foreign journalists.

“It is only dangerous for us to meet with you because we don’t agree (with the government),” said García.

Neither Mariela Castro, nor CENESEX responded to the Blade’s request for comment on the criticisms that García, Gandulla, González, Fernández and other independent advocates made against them. Manuel Vázquez Seijido, a lawyer who is a senior CENESEX staffer, last month during a speech at a global LGBT rights conference at Rutgers University School of Law in Newark, N.J., dismissed those who publicly oppose his organization and the Castro government.

“Their goal is to simply criticize institutions like CENESEX and, of course, the Cuban government,” said Vázquez in response to a Blade question on the issue.

Rodríguez in an email to the Blade on Tuesday acknowledged there are independent Cuban LGBT rights advocates who are “honest people” who “want to advance their own projects without the tensions that working within the political commitment to the framework of a state institution entails.” He nevertheless described the activists who continue to criticize CENESEX and Mariela Castro as “not truly independent.”

“They only follow the instructions in a disciplined manner from the centers of power in the United States and other countries that don’t accept the possibility of an alternative policy to capitalism,” Rodríguez told the Blade. “They finance whatever force or individual that makes it easier for them to achieve their goals of destabilizing the country.”

Rodríguez did not provide any additional comment on the specific groups in the U.S. and elsewhere that he believes provide funding to the Cuban LGBT advocates who criticize the government. His assertion is a common one among Mariela Castro’s supporters when asked about Cuban LGBT rights advocates who publicly criticize her and CENESEX.

Herb Sosa, a first-generation Cuban American who is president of the Unity Coalition, a Miami-based LGBT advocacy group, in 2013 blasted Equality Forum Executive Director Malcolm Lazin’s decision to honor Mariela Castro at his organization’s annual dinner in Philadelphia. Sosa and U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), who was born in Cuba, both criticized CENESEX’s ultimately unsuccessful effort to hold an international LGBT rights conference in Havana.

“Unfortunately, and we all wish this to be different, the LGBT community has little to no rights of free speech, right to congregate, march or speak against the government,” said Sosa, noting Cubans also have limited access to the Internet. “The list goes on.”

Robyn Ochs, a bisexual advocate and writer who is a member of the MassEquality board of directors, attended the LGBT rights conference in Varadero in 2013.

She acknowledged lingering concerns over Cuba’s human rights record that include a lack of freedom of speech on the island. Ochs also noted to the Blade that “like all political figures,” Mariela Castro, has “said and done things over time that are problematic,” but she insists her support of LGBT Cubans is “crystal clear.”

“Things are clearly moving in a positive direction,” said Ochs. “There is a great deal that is possible in Cuba now that was not possible a decade ago.”

Ros-Lehtinen in a statement to the Blade reiterated her long-standing criticisms of Mariela Castro and her father’s government.

“While Mariela Castro and the Cuban regime try to make the farcical case that they are LGBT-friendly, the reality the reality of their hostility to anyone who does not share their radical, Communist ideology is much harsher and well-documented,” said the Florida Republican who is an outspoken supporter of LGBT rights. “Interestingly, in its bid to promote its supposed LGBT record, the Castro regime has only spotlighted those who do not object to the regime’s history of repression. Sadly, any Cuban, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, who disagrees with the Castro brothers is subject to the same acts of repudiation, arrest and imprisonment that has characterized these tyrants’ rule.”

 

Impact of normalized relations unclear

 

Cuba’s LGBT rights movement is growing more visible as the process to normalize relations between Washington and Havana that President Obama began late last year continues to move forward.

The fourth round of talks between the two countries took place last week in Washington.

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest and State Department spokesperson Marie Harf both acknowledged to the Blade on May 22 that the treatment of independent LGBT advocates and other aspects of Cuba’s human rights record remain serious concerns for the U.S. as efforts to normalize relations with the Communist country continue.

“Human rights remain a centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy, including our approach to Cuba,” a State Department spokesperson told the Blade on Tuesday.

Cuban LGBT rights advocates remain mixed as to whether the normalization of relations between Washington and Havana will have a positive impact on their lives.

Mariela Castro last December described the prospect of normalized relations between Cuba and the U.S. as a “dream come true” during an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour.

She called upon human rights advocates to urge Washington to end its decades-long embargo against her country, which a billboard near Havana’s José Martí International Airport describes as “the world’s longest running genocide.” Signs with nearly identical slogans are a common sight throughout the country.

Mariela Castro once again spoke out against it during the Havana commemoration of the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. She also celebrated the release of three of the so-called “Cuban Five” — intelligence officers from the Communist island who had been in federal prisons — as part of the agreement to begin normalizing relations with the U.S. that included the release of Alan Gross, a subcontractor with the U.S. Agency for International Development who had been held in a Cuban prison for five years after authorities arrested him for connecting a local Jewish community to the Internet.

“The embargo is the main obstacle to our development plan and for the guarantee of our rights, including the rights of LGBTI people,” she said.

López told the Blade that he feels the Cuban government uses the embargo as an “excuse” for the country’s ailing economy, poor infrastructure, food shortages and other problems — the power went out for about five minutes as he and others spoke with the Blade inside Fernández’s apartment. Raúl Márques, a gay man who works in the arts in Havana, said the average Cuban is focused more on meeting their basic needs as opposed to the status of relations between their country and the U.S.

“People here have had many problems,” he told the Blade. “You are not going to think about other things in your life.”

González shared an equally pessimistic view, joking sarcastically that the Cuban people have a “very special” relationship that dates back to the 19th century. He further noted he is “not an optimistic man.”

“It is an issue that almost nobody talks about,” said González, referring to the prospect of closer ties between Washington and Havana. “It is not in people’s daily conversation.”

Gala told the Blade after performing at Humboldt 52 in Havana that normalized relations between the U.S. and Cuba will have no impact on her daily life, even though she said the country is “entering a beautiful moment.”

Mora said she hopes closer ties between Havana and Washington will help ease some of the problems that Cubans continue to face because of the island’s economic situation. She also expressed optimism for the future of her organization and other independent LGBT advocates on the island.

“All of us are agents of change,” said Mora. “I believe that if we all believe in something, we can change it.”

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Top 10 Blade news stories by web traffic

COVID breakthroughs, Equality Act, and anti-trans attacks

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Elliot Page created excitement by posting his first photo in swim trunks back in May.

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.

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CDC still falling short on LGBTQ data collection for COVID patients: expert

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COVID-19 vaccine, gay news, Washington Blade
The CDC is still not issuing guidance to states on LGBTQ data collection among COVID patients.

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.

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Equality Act, contorted as a danger by anti-LGBTQ forces, is all but dead

No political willpower to force vote or reach a compromise

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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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