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Will next speaker continue Boehner’s anti-LGBT ways?

Little indication things would change under new House leadership



John Boehner, Ohio, Republican Party, GOP, United States House of Representatives, U.S. Congress, gay news, Washington Blade
John Boehner, ENDA, United States House of Representatives, Republican Party, gay news, Washington Blade

House Speaker John Boehner announced his resignation last week. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key).

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio)’s announcement that is resigning was hailed by social conservatives and LGBT advocates alike, although there’s little indication things would change dramatically with another Republican in charge.

Boehner, who’s served in the U.S. House since 1991 just before the “Gingrich Revolution,” said last week he would resign as speaker and give up his House seat at the end of October amid a stand-off in Congress threatening a shutdown of the U.S. government over continued federal funding of Planned Parenthood.

On the same day he announced his resignation, Boehner said the House would vote on a continuing resolution to keep the U.S. government open with funds at the same level as last year, which means, for the time being, Planned Parenthood would continue to receive government money.

As speaker, Boehner has a dismal record on LGBT rights, although there have been occasions when he’s broken with far-right Republicans on LGBT issues.

Boehner doesn’t have a ranking in the Human Rights Campaign’s annual scorecard because of his position as speaker, but he received a rating of “0” during the time he was minority leader. In the earlier days before he was in leadership, Boehner, an opponent of same-sex marriage, voted in favor of U.S. constitutional amendments that would have banned it throughout the country.

Hilary Rosen, a D.C.-based Democratic activist and lesbian, criticized Boehner on LGBT rights and said she doesn’t see things improving after he’s gone.

“John Boehner has had personal friends and staff members who are gay,” Rosen said. “Yet he never once stuck his neck out to help for fear of his reputation in the caucus. I can’t imagine there will be any difference for LGBT policy until a broader group of Republican Americans start demanding that their party leadership stop kowtowing to the right wing. It will happen eventually if the community keeps pushing.”

Rosen didn’t respond to a follow-up email asking her to identify Boehner’s friends and staffers who are gay.

One key issue that emerged during his four-and-a-half years as House speaker was the U.S. House’s prolonged and ultimately unsuccessful defense in court of Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibited the federal government from recognizing lawful same-sex marriages.

After former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced in February 2011 the Justice Department would no longer defend DOMA in court, Boehner convened a meeting of the five-member Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group, which voted on a 3-2 party-line basis to take up defense of the anti-gay law.

BLAG hired Paul Clement, a former U.S. solicitor general under the George W. Bush administration as lead attorney to defend DOMA. By the time the litigation ran its course all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, where justices ruled 5-4 to strike down DOMA, the cost of defending the law totaled an estimated $2.3 million.

In January 2013, when the Washington Blade asked Boehner whether he supported the continued raising of the cost cap to defend DOMA, which at the time reached $3 million, he replied, “If the Justice Department is not going to enforce the law of the land, the Congress will.”

At the same time BLAG was defending DOMA in court, the House under Boehner voted on at least three occasions to approve amendments on the floor reaffirming the anti-gay law. Just after the Supreme Court agreed to review DOMA, the House at the start of the 113th Congress by a 228-196 vote approved governing rules making clear BLAG has authority to speak for the House before the Supreme Court.

But Boehner’s supporters say he advanced at least one pro-LGBT measure. In 2013, under pressure from Democrats and women’s rights advocates, Boehner allowed a Senate-passed LGBT-inclusive version of the Violence Against Women Act to come to the floor, which passed by a 286-138 vote.

It wasn’t the first time a Republican-controlled chamber of Congress passed LGBT-inclusive legislation. During the 109th Congress, the House passed an LGBT-inclusive version of hate crimes protections as part of a broader bill. But reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act did mark the first time a pro-LGBT bill passed under Boehner.

Speaking to LGBT reporters this week, Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz identified VAWA as one thing Boehner achieved for the LGBT community, saying, “He deserves credit for not continuing to block it.”

In his later years as speaker, Boehner’s views on LGBT issues became more mixed. That was best exemplified by his decision to meet with the LGBT Equality Caucus in early 2014, which was first reported by the Blade.

Not even President Obama has met with the LGBT Equality Caucus, making Boehner’s meeting with the openly LGB members of the group a historic moment for the LGBT movement.

But according to Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), who was present during the closed-door meeting, Boehner took the opportunity to say there was “no way” the House would bring up the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which at the time had passed the Senate under its Democratic majority.

Boehner made his opposition to ENDA clear when the Blade asked him during a news conference shortly after the Senate passed the bill whether he would bring it up for a vote.

“Listen, I understand people have differing opinions on this issue, and I respect those opinions,” Boehner said. “But as someone who’s worked in the employment law area for all my years in the State House and all my years here, I see no basis or no need for this legislation.”

Although Boehner continues to oppose same-sex marriage, he made efforts to stay out of litigation seeking marriage rights for gay couples when it came to the Supreme Court, unlike his actions with DOMA.

Asked by the Blade in February during a news conference whether House Republicans would participate in the litigation, Boehner indicated he expected his caucus to accept the decision from justices.

I don’t expect that we’re going to weigh in on this,” Boehner said. “The court will make its decision and that’s why they’re there, to be the highest court in the land.”

When congressional Republicans made public their friend-of-the-court brief urging the Supreme Court to uphold state bans on same-sex marriage, Boehner’s signature wasn’t among the six U.S. senators and 51 U.S. House members who signed it. (However, he later clarified on NBC’s “Meet the Press” he thinks marriage should be left to the states, not the courts, and he would have signed the brief had it been presented to him.)

After the Supreme Court ruled on marriage, Boehner made no effort to bring to the floor a measure to address the ruling even though the Republican caucus has its greatest majority since the Truman administration. He’s been non-committal on the First Amendment Defense Act, religious freedom legislation seen to enable anti-LGBT discrimination, although social conservatives have clamored for a vote.

Gregory Angelo, executive director of Log Cabin Republicans, commended Boehner for his tenure as speaker, saying he was saddled with managing an ideologically fractured majority, but “did it well.”

“Additionally, both Boehner and McCarthy gave tremendous support to openly gay Republicans running for Congress,” Angelo said. “This was especially evident in the 2014 election cycle where House Leadership campaigned and fundraised for Carl DeMaio and Richard Tisei — and admonished House Republicans like Randy Forbes who tried to stop leadership from growing their ranks with gay Republicans.”

Angelo also credited Boehner with helping Log Cabin navigate potential allies in efforts to pass ENDA “before Democrats squashed it.”

After LGBT groups dropped support from ENDA last year over the breadth of the legislation’s religious exemption, it’s true Democrats sought to advance a version of the bill with a narrower carve-out, although Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) supported the Senate-passed bill and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said it was better than nothing.

It remains to be seen who’ll replace Boehner as presiding officer of the U.S. House after his departure, but the presumption is after the upcoming election it’ll be the No. 2 lawmaker in the Republican caucus: House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).

McCarthy has scored a “0” on the Human Rights Campaign’s most recent congressional scorecard. McCarthy, an opponent of same-sex marriage, began his tenure in the U.S. House in 2007 — too late for him to have voted on the Federal Marriage Amendment in either 2004 or 2006.

But McCarthy was one of the three members of BLAG who voted in favor of the House defending DOMA in court. The California Republican voted against “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal and a version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act in 2007.

If elected, social conservatives who feel emboldened by Boehner’s resignation are likely to press McCarthy for a vote on the First Amendment Defense Act, while at the same time LGBT rights supporters decry the absence of movement on the Equality Act. McCarthy’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment on whether he’d be open to allowing either of those measures to move forward.

Angelo declined to comment on a prospective McCarthy speakership because he said the leadership election “is still very fluid,” although Angelo maintained both Boehner and McCarthy always had an open door to Log Cabin.

David Stacy, government affairs director for the Human Rights Campaign, said McCarthy shares Boehner’s poor record on LGBT issues, but added that supporting LGBT rights is in the best interest of whomever leads the U.S. House.

“The next speaker comes to power in an environment where super majorities of the American people, and a majority of Republicans, stand on the side of equality,” Stacy said. “Time will tell, but I hope the next speaker will begin to reflect this emerging national consensus.”

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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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