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‘Establishment’ criticism of HRC strikes a chord

Some say leading LGBT rights group ‘represents the 1 percent’

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Chad Griffin, HRC, Human Rights Campaign, gay news, Washington Blade
Chad Griffin, Bernie Sanders, HRC, Human Rights Campaign, gay news, Washington Blade

HRC President Chad Griffin and Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) (Washington Blade photos by Michael Key)

Sen. Bernard Sanders retracted his comments about the Human Rights Campaign days after he made them, but labeling the nation’s leading LGBT advocacy group as part of the “establishment” last week struck a chord with some LGBT critics.

Some said Sanders was correct in labeling as “establishment” the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBT group known for black-tie fundraising dinners, lauding corporations with pro-LGBT records in its Corporate Equality Index, close ties to Democratic Party leaders and support for Republicans who back LGBT rights (even when their Democratic opponents are stronger on LGBT issues).

The day after Sanders made the comments, Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, was in Davos, Switzerland, to attend the World Economic Forum where Vice President Joseph Biden spoke in support of international LGBT rights.

Andrew Miller, a member of the New York-based grassroots group Queer Nation, said Sanders’ comments were accurate.

“I’m surprised Chad Griffin wasn’t flattered that Bernie Sanders labeled HRC ‘part of the political establishment,'” Miller said. “Griffin, who has just returned from the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, certainly runs the organization as if that’s what they aspire to. It’s gratifying that at least one American politician understood — at least for a moment — that HRC represents the 1 percent, not the majority of the LGBT community nor the values of LGBT Americans.”

On Monday during an interview on MSNBC’s “Rachel Maddow Show,” Sanders called the Human Rights Campaign — as well as the women’s health group Planned Parenthood — part of the “establishment” in response to a question about those groups endorsing Hillary Clinton during the increasingly competitive Democratic primary.

“What we are doing in this campaign, and it just blows my mind every day, because I see it clearly, we’re taking on, not only Wall Street, and the economic establishment, we’re taking on the political establishment,” Sanders said. “So, I have friends and supporters in the Human Rights Fund, in Planned Parenthood. But, you know what, Hillary Clinton has been around there for a very, very long time, and some of these groups are, in fact, part of the establishment.”

Sanders’ comments echoed remarks his campaign spokesperson Michael Briggs made to the Washington Blade immediately after the Human Rights Campaign announced it had endorsed Clinton. Dismissing the endorsement as consistent with establishment organizations, Briggs said the decision “cannot possibly be based on the facts and the record” of Sanders’ support for LGBT rights.

One of the chief criticisms of the Human Rights Campaign is the view that it has been historically reluctant to insist on the inclusion of transgender people in the LGBT movement. In 2007, HRC ignited a firestorm by declining to oppose a version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act that prohibited discrimination only on the basis of sexual orientation and omitted gender identity.

In 2014, Griffin apologized to the transgender community at the Southern Comfort Conference, which serves as an annual gathering for transgender advocates. The Human Rights Campaign has since emerged as a stronger voice for transgender people and has promoted transgender advocates likes Blossom Brown and Jazz Jennings.

Rebecca Juro, a New Jersey-based transgender advocate and Sanders supporter, said she thinks Sanders calling the Human Rights Campaign “establishment” is a “net-gain” for the progressive movement and the transgender community.

“Especially those who are a little older, my age, believe the HRC is exactly that, they are the establishment,” Juro said. “They’ve constantly resisted change, they’ve consistently resisted going beyond the rich, white gay level of support. They had to basically be forced into it, embarrassed into it by journalists, columnists and protests. So, I think especially within the trans community, I think calling HRC ‘establishment’ will help [Sanders] a lot because that’s exactly the way transgender people see HRC.”

But Sanders’ characterization of HRC and Planned Parenthood as “establishment” was short-lived. At an event in Burlington, Iowa, Clinton said she was “somewhat confused” by Sanders calling those groups “establishment,” adding “I wish it were.” Both the Human Rights Campaign and Planned Parenthood said on Twitter they were “disappointed” in Sanders for his remarks.

On Thursday, Sanders walked back his comments, denying he ever said the Human Rights Campaign and Planned Parenthood were establishment groups. According to Sanders, he intended to convey the confusion of grassroots supporters who were wondering why those groups were backing Clinton when Sanders has a 100 percent supportive voting record on LGBT and abortion rights issues.

“They are standing up and fighting the important fights that have to be fought,” Sanders said of both groups.

Michael Petrelis, a gay San Francisco-based blogger who has been critical of HRC, said “much truth was spoken” by Sanders in his initial comments.

“As a longtime observer and critic of the HRC for its too-close ties and reluctance to criticize Democratic politicians, I wish the senator had not rescinded his remarks,” Petrelis said. “With HRC boss Chad Griffin again in Davos, Switzerland, for the World Economic Forum, and the group’s sucking up to Goldman Sachs and hedge fund billionaire Paul Singer among too many examples of HRC maintaining good establishment ties, it’s clear they like hobnobbing with the 1 percent. Despite the controversy of Bernie’s comments, I’d still vote for him in a primary election.”

JoDee Winterhof, the Human Rights Campaign’s senior vice president for policy and political affairs, responded to assertions that Sanders was right in calling her organization “establishment” by defending its endorsement of Clinton.

“While we’ve heard from passionate supporters of other pro-equality candidates in this race, HRC’s board of directors voted unanimously to endorse Hillary Clinton because of her strong record on LGBT equality as a senator and Secretary of State, her robust LGBT policy platform, and her ability to win in November,” Winterhof said. “The leading candidates on the Republican side have threatened to not only block progress — but to revoke, repeal, and overturn the gains made during President Obama’s two terms in office. The stakes couldn’t be higher in this election, we can’t afford to sit on the sidelines, and we believe that Hillary Clinton is the champion we need to fight for us as president.”

There’s evidence Sanders’ initial “establishment” remarks may have hurt him politically in the Democratic primary as the race tightens.

Gabriel Debenedetti, a reporter for Politico, on Twitter said the day after Sanders called the Human Rights Campaign and Planned Parenthood “establishment” was one of the Clinton campaign’s top 10 online fundraising days, which was confirmed to the Washington Blade by a Clinton campaign source.

But Briggs said “donations went up” for the Sanders campaign immediately after the “establishment” remarks and criticism of the candidate.

“It’s hard to pinpoint a particular cause because there’s so much enthusiasm and energy out there for lots of reasons, but generally speaking our supporters don’t like it when they think Bernie’s being unfairly attacked,” Briggs said.

Richard Socarides, a gay New York-based Democratic activist who supports Clinton, was critical of Sanders’ initial “establishment” remarks as well as the candidate’s clarification.

“I think his view is anyone who doesn’t support him is the establishment,” Socarides said. “I’m not sure he really took it back as much as amended it to apply to the leaders of those groups.”

Others LGBT advocates who spoke out in opposition to Sanders’ remarks on Twitter were Jim Obergefell, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit that led the U.S. Supreme Court to rule for marriage equality nationwide, and Roberta Kaplan, the lesbian who successfully argued against the Defense of Marriage Act before the court.

Both Obergefell and Kaplan have ties to the Human Rights Campaign and have spoken at the organization’s fundraisers. The Human Rights Campaign handled Obergefell’s public relations as his lawsuit seeking marriage recognition reached the Supreme Court and Kaplan participated with the Human Rights Campaign in “The People’s Brief” that encouraged the court to rule for same-sex marriage nationwide.

Despite the controversy over Sanders’ comments, polls this week showed he has the lead in the early primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire. In New Hampshore, a CNN/WMUR poll found Sanders leading Clinton by 27 points, 60 percent to 33 percent. In Iowa, A CNN/ORC poll found Sanders has an eight-point lead over Clinton among likely Democratic presidential caucus-goers, 51 percent to 43 percent.

Logan Casey, who’s transgender and a Ph.D. candidate in political science at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, nonetheless said Sanders’ initial remarks were “definitely unwise,” especially in the case of Planned Parenthood.

“HRC clearly represents establishment politics – something that has been well documented and critiqued by many in the LGBTQ community and beyond,” Casey said. “However, Sanders’ original comment doesn’t articulate any of those specific critiques of HRC, and falls even flatter in the context of Planned Parenthood. His more recent comments point out the differences between HRC’s leadership and the grass-roots movement (which is more in line with these queer critiques), but I think the general public isn’t understanding or listening to that depth, and so instead it just makes Sanders seem unsympathetic to LGBT and women’s issues, or even seemingly petty over lost endorsements.”

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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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