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European LGBT advocates offer assistance to refugees

Countries struggling to respond to crisis

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Jure Poglajen, Syria, refugee crisis, gay news, Washington Blade

Jure Poglajen, Syria, refugee crisis, gay news, Washington Blade

Jure Poglajen, right, a gay Slovenian dentist, with a Syrian family who arrived on the Greek island of Lesbos last month. (Photo courtesy of Jure Poglajen)

Jure Poglajen, a Slovenian dentist, and his partner of more than four years last month spent two weeks on the Greek island of Lesbos.

The couple had gone to the town of Molyvos, which is on the island’s northern coast, for what Poglajen described as a “normal vacation.” The two men soon found themselves on the frontlines of Europe’s largest refugee crisis since World War II.

Poglajen told the Washington Blade on Monday during a telephone interview from his home in the Slovenian town of Brezice, which is near the country’s border with Croatia, that he and his partner began working with volunteers to provide medical care to some of the nearly 800 people who were arriving in Molyvos each day. The two men soon began providing them food, water and clothing.

“We had to take care of them, like giving them new clothes because they were mostly wet,” said Poglajen. “Their boats were sinking.”

Serbians ‘know what war is’

Lesbos — separated from Turkey by the narrow Mytilini Strait — is often the first stop in Europe for refugees and migrants who are fleeing Syria, Iraq and other countries.

The International Organization for Migration notes that 481,612 migrants have entered Europe by boat so far this year, including more than 351,000 in Greece. The organization reports 2,852 migrants have either died or gone missing in the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas.

European advocates with whom the Blade has spoken in recent weeks said it is exceedingly difficult to identify refugees and migrants who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. They have nevertheless joined efforts in their respective countries to provide assistance to them.

The Lesbian and Gay Federation in Germany — the ultimate destination for many of the refugees and migrants who have made their way to Europe — has opened a center for LGBT refugees in Berlin. Jovanka Todorović of Labris, a Serbian LGBT advocacy group, told the Blade that members of her organization have offered assistance to those who have passed through her country.

“We in Serbia know what war is,” she said, referring to the two conflicts in the 1990s that ravaged Serbia and neighboring countries that were once part of Yugoslavia.

András Léderer, a gay man who lives in Budapest, has worked with refugees and migrants in the Hungarian capital and in camps and detention centers throughout the country since June.

András Léderer, gay news, Washington Blade

András Léderer talks with two migrants in Budapest, Hungary. (Photo courtesy of András Léderer)

The Hungarian government in recent weeks has faced increased criticism over its response to the crisis, which includes the construction of a barbed wire fence along the country’s border with Serbia in order to prevent refugees and migrants from passing through. Prime Minister Viktor Orban earlier this month said these people — the majority of whom are Muslim — “threaten Europe’s Christian identity.”

“The Hungarian government hasn’t responded to the refugee situation at all,” Léderer told the Blade.

Léderer said his country’s government has “absolutely abandoned” LGBT migrants and others who are vulnerable. He told the Blade that volunteers — and not Hungarian officials — have coordinated relief efforts.

“I guess those LGBT asylum seekers that are still in Hungary are in constant fear and have to stay in the closet 24/7 precisely because there will be no one to protect them in the camp,” said Léderer.

Gay men fleeing ISIS reach out to Macedonian group

The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees late last month said there are more than 4 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and other neighboring countries. Many of these people have fled areas under the control of the Islamic State and other Islamic militant groups.

Subhi Nahas, a gay man from the Syrian city of Idleb, told the U.N. Security Council last month during its first meeting on LGBT-specific issues that he fled to Lebanon in 2012 after Jabhat al-Nusra, a militant group affiliated with al-Qaida, took control of his hometown. He later moved to Turkey where he remained until UNHCR granted him refugee status.

The U.S. then allowed Nahas to resettle in San Francisco.

“For my compatriots who do not conform to gender and sexual norms, the 11th hour has already passed,” Nahas told the U.N. Security Council. “They need your help now.”

Subhi Nahas, Syria, ISIS, Islamic State, gay news, Washington Blade

Subhi Nahas, a gay Syrian refugee who now lives in the U.S., on Aug. 24, 2015 spoke at a U.N. Security Council hearing on LGBT rights that focused on the Islamic State and anti-LGBT rights abuses committed by the Sunni militant group. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)


Todorović told the Blade the primary reasons that migrants have tried to enter Europe are the fear of war and what she described as “damn ISIS.” Bekim Asani, chair of LGBT United Tetovo Macedonia, a Macedonian LGBT advocacy group, said two gay Syrian migrants recently contacted him through Facebook about whether they would have “problems” traveling through the former Yugoslav republic.

The two men fled the Islamic State, which claims to have executed dozens of men whom members of the Sunni militant group accused of committing sodomy.

U.S. urged to accept 500 LGBT refugees

German Chancellor Angela Merkel earlier this month announced that her country would accept up to one million refugees by the end of the year. British Prime Minister David Cameron has said his country will allow up to 20,000 Syrian refugees to settle in the U.K. over the next five years.

“The current refugee crisis is a serious test for EU unity and its founding principles,” ILGA-Europe Executive Director Evelyne Paradis told the Blade on Monday in a statement. “It can only be resolved with a coordinated plan, one involving all EU member states. EU members must act in solidarity with people in need and with each other.”

Secretary of State John Kerry on Sunday announced the U.S. will admit 85,000 refugees from around the world in fiscal year 2016 that begins on Oct. 1 and another 100,000 in fiscal year 2017.

President Obama earlier this month said the U.S. will allow at least 10,000 Syrian refugees to resettle in this country next year. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest on Monday announced the U.S. will provide an additional $419 million to the roughly $4.5 billion in humanitarian assistance it has provided since the Syrian civil war began more than four years ago.

Neil Grungras, executive director of the Organization for Refugee, Asylum and Migration, which works with LGBT asylum seekers, has called upon the Obama administration to set aside 500 of the 10,000 “slots” for Syrian refugees for those who suffered persecution because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Paul Dillane, executive director of the U.K. Lesbian and Gay Immigration Group, a London-based organization that also works with LGBT asylum seekers, also stressed the importance of providing assistance to the aforementioned people.

“One might say these mass of Syrians who are coming into Europe; does it really matter if they’re LGBTI because everyone who is Syrian is fleeing civil war, barrel bombs, poverty,” Dillane told the Blade on Monday during a telephone interview from London. Does their sexual orientation or their gender identity really matter? It does matter.”

State Department spokesperson John Kirby on Monday told the Blade during his daily press briefing that he was unaware of any plans the U.S. may have to increase the number of LGBT refugees it will allow to resettle in this country.

“We try to be flexible, obviously, based on what’s going on on the ground anywhere around the world,” said Kirby. “We don’t break it out by religion or gender. It’s about who needs the help the most and coming from what situation. And that will continue.”

As for Poglajen, he and his partner are now helping migrants who are entering Slovenia from Croatia after Hungary closed its border with Serbia. The two plan to return to Lesbos this fall with Adra Slovenia, a Protestant relief group that is raising funds to respond to the refugee crisis.

“Now there’s more need,” Poglajen told the Blade.

Adra Slovenia, a Protestant relief group that gay Slovenian dentist Jure Poglajen supports, is raising money for a relief trip to the Greek island of Lesbos to help refugees from Syria and other war torn countries.

Adra Slovenia, a Protestant relief group that gay Slovenian dentist Jure Poglajen supports, is raising money for a relief trip to the Greek island of Lesbos to help refugees from Syria and other war torn countries.

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

Played key role in creating red ribbon for awareness

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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

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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

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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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