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LGBT detainees describe harrowing life inside Eloy

Notorious facility is home to scores of asylum seekers; we go inside to hear their stories

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Eloy Detention Center, gay news, Washington Blade

The Eloy detention center in Arizona sits alone in the desert, an imposing de-facto prison for asylum seekers. (Photo by yashmori; courtesy Flickr)

By GREG MARZULLO

Special to the Blade

Moths cover the walls in the claustrophobic antechamber of the Eloy detention center in Eloy, Ariz. The fluttering insects are dark brown, obvious against the stark white cinderblocks where they crawl toward the room’s single door.

“My grandmother said they were reincarnated souls,” said Dago Bailon, my guide to this Dantean holding cell for America’s undocumented immigrants. I’ve arrived at Eloy with Bailon and other representatives of Trans Queer Pueblo, a Phoenix-based organization whose goal is to assist LGBT undocumented immigrants, providing legal help, access to healthcare, job training and a sense of community.

The town of Eloy is about 80 minutes south of Phoenix, along a desolate expanse of Route 10, and the detention center stands completely isolated from any commerce or housing, although the facility is one of the town’s leading employers. The August sun is unforgiving on the day I visit with Trans Queer Pueblo, a trip organizers and volunteers make monthly to visit detainees in the hopes of connecting them with legal aid.

Five rows of razor wire tower over our heads as we walk up to the entrance. We’re buzzed in by unseen guards at each subsequent door, and as the last one shuts behind me and we enter the detention center, I’m grimly aware of how many obstacles are between me and the outside world.

Each member of the group has the name of someone inside, a person to visit. We take a number and wait to be called. After about half an hour, it’s my turn, and I go up to the guards’ desk. They take my paperwork, my passport, my driver’s license and my bank card before I walk through the metal detector. I am allowed no cell phone or even a pen and paper. I now have no identity — a non-entity inside a veritable prison.

I first met Bailon months earlier at a café in Phoenix.

“I crossed the border,” he said, “I was around 8 or 9. That was an experience I’ll never forget.”

Many of the people I spoke to for this story tell me of their own migration, as well as those of family members – parents, grandparents, siblings and cousins. They are harrowing tales, involving insurmountable odds and, sometimes, death. Since the U.S. Border Patrol began keeping statistics on migrant deaths in 1998, the Arizona border boasts the deadliest record of any other border area in the country.

Bailon, who is now 29, crossed with his grandmother and brother and remains undocumented in a state infamous for its rough handling of Mexican immigrants. In 2011, he helped to found the Arizona Queer Undocumented Immigrants Project in response to the state’s 2010 legislation SB 1070 that was widely regarded as the most draconian immigration law in the country. One of its provisions stipulated that police officers were required to demand papers from anyone they suspected of being in the country illegally. If the suspected immigrant did not have their papers on them, it was considered a misdemeanor.

“Initially, our mission was to bridge the LGBT and migrant communities,” he said. “We saw a lot of the movement was focused on the migrant community and was really religiously led.”

Within five years, however, Bailon and others founded Trans Queer Pueblo in order to address the wide scope of disenfranchisement faced by LGBT undocumented immigrants – healthcare, job training, legal aid and, of course, the confluence of immigration and homophobia or transphobia.   

“LGBT communities, the migrant community and the detention movement was really focused on family ties,” said Bailon. “Some of us are running away from our families.”

Even in the organization’s nascent days, Bailon and others heard of gay men, lesbians, bisexuals and trans people in detention centers who desperately needed contacts, legal aid and advocacy to help them navigate a system that often proves deleterious to their safety.

“For people who are LGBTQ, immigration detention is more than just unpleasant – it’s, in fact, dangerous,” said Aaron Morris, executive director of Immigration Equality, a national LGBT immigrant rights organization. “LGBTQ people are much more likely to be subjected to physical assault, trans women in particular.”

Physical and sexual assault and suicide are commonly reported from those inside the detention centers. One of the recent cases that gained national attention was that of Marichuy Leal Gamino, a transgender woman who reported being raped by her male cellmate in 2014 at Eloy.

“They’re all jails at some point,” Morris said of the detention centers, before adding, “We have rarely heard good things about Eloy.”

A 2013 study by the Center for American Progress stated that LGBT detainees are 15 times more likely to experience sexual assault than their heterosexual counterparts – a threat well known by Karyna Jaramillo, a trans woman who spent two weeks in Eloy in the summer of 2015.

“When I got there, they started yelling at me,” Jaramillo said of the other detainees, speaking to me through an interpreter. “They would yell homophobic slurs, transphobic slurs. They started screaming, ‘Yeah, we’re going to have someone we can get laid with tonight, fresh meat.’ They would grab their parts and tell me, ‘Look at this, this is all you’re going to have.’”

As I walk into the larger waiting room at Eloy, “Captain America” plays on the television. The iconic white hero frees prisoners of war from a cage just as we’re about to enter one. Chairs and benches are filled with visitors, mostly young mothers trailing children or elderly men and women, some limping, others with the shakes. Every single one of the people I see in the waiting room over the next three hours is Latino.

Shortly, the discomfort and anxiety at being trapped inside gives way to the tedium of bureaucracy. There’s nothing to be done but wait for our visiting time slot, which could be in an hour or several. The credits roll for “Captain America,” but not before a little girl claps her hands and chants his name in excitement. Family members buy candy, chips and Hot Pockets from the vending machines that only take special payment cards you can purchase for a fee outside the metal detector.

Eventually, our turn comes, along with about 20 others, and we’re ushered into a holding pen. The door shuts behind us and locks. Another door in front of us opens, and we’re finally in the visiting room.

It’s packed. A mother carrying a boy with Down syndrome rushes to embrace a man, seemingly the boy’s father. There are smiles and tears. People share Fritos, candy and conversation while a tall, broad-shouldered guard patrols the room.

Bailon and I meet with an immigrant who describes himself as bisexual. He doesn’t know I’m a reporter. If I were to declare myself a journalist upon entering Eloy, I never would have made it past the front desk, and the circulating guards in the room make it impossible to have a private conversation.

What I can say is that listening to his story – the death threats in his home country, the mind-numbing conditions of detention, the Kafka-esque bureaucracies he’s wrangling in order to obtain asylum – I wonder how anyone in this place retains their sanity.

Jaramillo said her stay at Eloy was a battle against her own mind as much as the system itself.

“It was a constant fight with my thoughts,” she said. “It was this war that was happening inside my head – desperation, depression…absolute fear.”

Jaramillo, 46, only got out of Eloy after she finally spoke to a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) representative, who set her bond price at $5,000. Her family was only able to raise $4,500, but ICE accepted the lesser amount and let her go.

“That’s why sometimes cases take forever,” she said, “because we are a bank for the state and for this country.”

Jaramillo, born and raised in Cuernavaca Morelos, about an hour south of Mexico City, first came to the United States 27 years ago. She says there weren’t as many border guards then and crossing was relatively easy. Thirteen years after her initial entry, she was living in Texas and got pulled over by police for expired license plates. She was deported, and the journey back to the United States was torturous. At first, she was caught, but she made the attempt again the same day.

“I had to walk for two nights and two days. We had to get water from where the cows drink. It’s dirty. There’s cow poop. It was contaminated. At the end, my thighs gave out on me, and I was pulling them with my hands so I could continue walking. We had to pay a lot of money – about $3,000 – to the coyotes.”

“Coyotes” are human smugglers who get people across the border for a steep price, and they’re known for leaving their charges to die in the desert or demanding more money than originally agreed upon.

When I asked Jaramillo what would drive her to risk such an experience across the Sonora, she begins to cry.

“I had been threatened before [in Mexico] by gangs and people who told me that I had to sell drugs or had to give my body to them.”

About a decade after her second crossing into the U.S., Jaramillo, who has struggled with alcoholism, began drinking again. She was stopped by the police, and upon investigating her background, they discovered she had an unpaid DUI on her record from 10 years prior. The police contacted ICE, and six ICE officials picked her up outside of the gym. They handcuffed her and eventually sent her to Eloy.

“I’ve always been afraid of the police,” she said. “In Mexico, the police, instead of helping, are part of the corruption. They’re the ones harassing you, and the same happened with ICE. They never respected my gender identity. They continued to treat me as a man, telling me I was not a woman.”

She was detained with other men, and in recounting her time there, she begins to cry again.

“I was thinking if I could make it another day. If I was going to be able to stay alive in there, knowing somebody could start something and get me in trouble. If they send me back to Mexico, I would lose my life. I had the fear…of somebody touching me without my consent and not being able to protect myself, and if I do that, they’re going to say it was my fault.”

Without access to her hormones, Jaramillo said she began thinking of committing suicide. She told the medical staff at Eloy about her needs, and they did give her hormones and antidepressants. However, she’s dubious about the center’s motivation and fast turnaround time.

“I know that at that time, something had happened and they were investigating the detention centers. Far from wanting to help me, I think they wanted to look good.”

The Eloy detention center is run by CoreCivic, the newly renamed Corrections Corporation of America, a publicly traded company that owns and runs both prisons and detention centers. Its reach in the industry is large, trailing only the federal government and three states, and it works hand-in-hand with ICE, which has 34,000 beds reserved for immigrants nationwide every night. At the time this article was written, CoreCivic’s shares were going for $20.92 on the New York Stock Exchange, after a 43 percent jump in price the day after the presidential election.

When dealing with privately owned companies of this scope, questions of regulation are bound to surface with immigrant rights advocates decrying the conditions in which detainees are held at private detention centers.

“In thinking about regulations,” said Morris of Immigration Equality, “you should think about two different schemes. For facilities that are owned and operated by the federal government, they are subject to regulation. There are detention standards they are required to obey. However, the privately run facilities are under no similar regulatory scheme.”

Morris is quick to point out that it’s not a complete free-for-all at privately run facilities. The federal government negotiates terms and regulations with any new facility or those seeking a renewed contract, but, he said, “the U.S. government has historically said it’s hard to increase requirements on facilities.”

According to a November 2016 Washington Post article, ICE holds more than 60 percent of its detainees at private facilities that follow, as Morris puts it, their “own set of rules,” which, historically, hasn’t been good for LGBT detainees.

“If you’re talking about a vulnerable population of people who have different needs or additional factors that make them in danger, relying on a corporation that has mixed or terrible reports or histories of abuse – it seems irresponsible at the very least. Surely, when you throw in a profit motivation, it changes the dynamic of how people are treated in a facility.”

In statements sent to the Blade by CoreCivic and ICE, both parties stressed their commitment to insuring the safety and well being of detainees.

“We have a zero-tolerance policy for all forms of sexual abuse and sexual harassment,” wrote Jonathan Burns, director of public affairs for CoreCivic. “We take very seriously and investigate any reported allegations. Under our policy, any allegation of this nature is also reported to outside law enforcement so that an independent investigation can be conducted.”

He also stated that the company’s “eight ICE-contracted facilities adhere to the federal government’s Performance-Based National Detention Standards,” a detailed document of instructions regarding all aspects of a person’s detention, from hygiene to segregating an individual in solitary confinement to secure their safety or, in certain cases, as a form of discipline.

Yasmeen Pitts O’Keefe, an ICE public affairs officer, also said in an e-mail that ICE “has a zero tolerance policy for any kind of abusive or inappropriate behavior in its facilities and takes any allegations of such mistreatment very seriously.”

In 2015, ICE came out with its Transgender Care Memo, a set of policies that, according to Pitts O’Keefe, “was the result of a six-month agency working group that examined issues and concerns related to LGBTI detainees and incorporates input from transgender individuals who visited various non-federal facilities across the country to observe best practices.”

ICE also has a designated national LGBTI coordinator and field office liaisons for local officers. Pitts O’Keefe reports that detainees have access to a toll-free number where they can report any abuse, even anonymously if they choose, and a flier about the hotline is posted in every ICE facility.

Yet neither Pits O’Keefe nor Burns addressed my question about the seeming discrepancy between what the official policies are and the first-hand accounts of LGBT immigrants’ detention experience.

Flor Bermudez, the detention project director at the Transgender Law Center in California, fills in some of the gaps, especially about ICE’s Transgender Care Memo.

“One of the biggest criticisms is that it’s optional,” she said. “The one facility where they are doing it is Santa Ana [in California]. Because this policy is only optional for facilities…the culture in the entire system has not changed.”

Santa Ana’s city jail has a special transgender unit for immigrants, but Bermudez calls it “terrible” and said when detainees at other centers consider disclosing their transgender status, “they know the consequences will be solitary in Eloy or [a transfer to] Santa Ana. Many of them choose not to disclose and they are exposed to the risk.”

Finally, she said LGBT sensitivity training for staff at the detention centers, at least as it concerns trans people, is inadequate.

“They’ve developed a one-hour video. The video has Caitlyn Jenner as an example of a transgender woman. It also has a transgender immigrant cartoon. The training…has no backup of an enforceable policy. It’s not helpful or efficient.”

CAP released a report in October stating that ICE officials kept greater numbers of LGBT immigrants in detention during fiscal year 2015 than 2014 – 88 percent of the time – instead of releasing them to community advocacy groups for monitoring.

In 2014, ICE, at the direction of the Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, began to implement the Priority Enforcement Program (PEP), which enabled law enforcement and ICE officials to work together on identifying undocumented immigrants. When local law enforcement arrests and books someone, they send fingerprints not only to the FBI, but, under PEP, to ICE as well, allowing all parties to identify undocumented immigrants considered a threat to public safety – a designation defined by Congress in 1996 with the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act.

“Certain portions of the law [don’t] just authorize detention of immigrants – it requires it,” Morris said, adding that when the law was passed in 1996, “Congress was focused overmuch on punitive measures. A lot of the laws they passed offered very little wiggle room for immigration officers on the borders.”

Specific petty crimes (e.g. moral turpitude, theft or fraud) on someone’s record automatically result in detention. Morris tells of one of his clients who had AIDS. Being poor, the 19-year-old male tried to self-medicate, stealing Advil and nasal spray to keep his nose from running. Technically, he could be held as a flight risk or as a danger to the community because of the two thefts, something Morris calls “ludicrous.”

It’s no secret that the Obama administration has deported more people than any other, claiming they’re focusing on criminals instead of young people and families. However, something as innocuous as jumping a New York subway turnstile can result in a criminal charge.

“I think the Obama administration was great at…tossing what was a temporary Band-Aid and then allowing us to bleed in another way,” said Bailon.

Despite the Obama administration’s high deportation numbers, the looming Trump presidency is causing even more anxiety.

“We are in a state of aggressive triage,” said Morris. “When you think about what President-elect Trump has really prioritized throughout his campaign and continuing through his president-elect status, he has consistently said he is going to deport people – a great number of those individuals will be LGBT people.”

“We’re figuring out strategy,” Bailon said. “LGBT communities are criminalized at a higher rate. We understand that we might be the first ones to be deported.”

For Bailon, Jaramillo and others, returning to Mexico or other countries where homophobic and transphobic violence are the norm, the increased threat of deportation takes on life-or-death consequences, and the day-to-day pressure of living in the U.S. as an undocumented immigrant increases exponentially.

“It’s very difficult to live like this every day,” said Jaramillo, who is in the midst of fighting her asylum case. “It’s like when someone tells you, ‘we’re going to send you to this place,’ and you’re waiting for somebody to shoot you…and end your life.”

After almost four hours inside Eloy, it’s time for us to go. As I walk out the door of the visiting room, I cast a backwards glance at the crowd and see a door at the opposite end. It looks just like the one I’m standing in – the same color, presumably the same make – but its destination is much different. In a few moments, I’ll get my passport, driver’s license and debit card back with relatively little hassle. I’ll pass through three more doors and stacks of razor wire, go to the parking lot, get in the car and text my husband that I’m out. I’ll drive home to my apartment, and my life will resume. That other door, though, on the far end of the visitors’ room, leads to a labyrinth where people seeking asylum or hoping to live that capricious American dream are lost in the bowels of institutionalized racism, xenophobia and anti-LGBT bias.

Sitting at lunch with the Trans Queer Pueblo workers after our visit, Jaramillo asks me how my experience was inside. I tell her that I was surprised not to be frightened. More than anything, I was disgusted. I ask her what makes her come back to this place where she, herself, suffered detainment and the possibility of sexual assault.

“To share the pain of the others,” she said. “To feel the impotence of it. We can leave and continue with our lives, and they’re caged like rats. I’m here because I want to continue fighting against this feeling of impotence. To open those gates and let everyone free.”

Eloy Detention Center, gay news, Washington Blade

Dago Bailon (left) and Karyna Jaramillo near the Trans Queer Pueblo headquarters in Phoenix. (Washington Blade photo by Greg Marzullo)

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New Supreme Court term includes critical LGBTQ case with ‘terrifying’ consequences

Business owner seeks to decline services for same-sex weddings

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The U.S. Supreme Court is to set consider the case of 303 Creative, which seeks to refuse design services for same-sex weddings. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

The U.S. Supreme Court, after a decision overturning Roe v. Wade that still leaves many reeling, is starting a new term with justices slated to revisit the issue of LGBTQ rights.

In 303 Creative v. Elenis, the court will return to the issue of whether or not providers of custom-made goods can refuse service to LGBTQ customers on First Amendment grounds. In this case, the business owner is Lorie Smith, a website designer in Colorado who wants to opt out of providing her graphic design services for same-sex weddings despite the civil rights law in her state.

Jennifer Pizer, acting chief legal officer of Lambda Legal, said in an interview with the Blade, “it’s not too much to say an immeasurably huge amount is at stake” for LGBTQ people depending on the outcome of the case.

“This contrived idea that making custom goods, or offering a custom service, somehow tacitly conveys an endorsement of the person — if that were to be accepted, that would be a profound change in the law,” Pizer said. “And the stakes are very high because there are no practical, obvious, principled ways to limit that kind of an exception, and if the law isn’t clear in this regard, then the people who are at risk of experiencing discrimination have no security, no effective protection by having a non-discrimination laws, because at any moment, as one makes their way through the commercial marketplace, you don’t know whether a particular business person is going to refuse to serve you.”

The upcoming arguments and decision in the 303 Creative case mark a return to LGBTQ rights for the Supreme Court, which had no lawsuit to directly address the issue in its previous term, although many argued the Dobbs decision put LGBTQ rights in peril and threatened access to abortion for LGBTQ people.

And yet, the 303 Creative case is similar to other cases the Supreme Court has previously heard on the providers of services seeking the right to deny services based on First Amendment grounds, such as Masterpiece Cakeshop and Fulton v. City of Philadelphia. In both of those cases, however, the court issued narrow rulings on the facts of litigation, declining to issue sweeping rulings either upholding non-discrimination principles or First Amendment exemptions.

Pizer, who signed one of the friend-of-the-court briefs in opposition to 303 Creative, said the case is “similar in the goals” of the Masterpiece Cakeshop litigation on the basis they both seek exemptions to the same non-discrimination law that governs their business, the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act, or CADA, and seek “to further the social and political argument that they should be free to refuse same-sex couples or LGBTQ people in particular.”

“So there’s the legal goal, and it connects to the social and political goals and in that sense, it’s the same as Masterpiece,” Pizer said. “And so there are multiple problems with it again, as a legal matter, but also as a social matter, because as with the religion argument, it flows from the idea that having something to do with us is endorsing us.”

One difference: the Masterpiece Cakeshop litigation stemmed from an act of refusal of service after owner, Jack Phillips, declined to make a custom-made wedding cake for a same-sex couple for their upcoming wedding. No act of discrimination in the past, however, is present in the 303 Creative case. The owner seeks to put on her website a disclaimer she won’t provide services for same-sex weddings, signaling an intent to discriminate against same-sex couples rather than having done so.

As such, expect issues of standing — whether or not either party is personally aggrieved and able bring to a lawsuit — to be hashed out in arguments as well as whether the litigation is ripe for review as justices consider the case. It’s not hard to see U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts, who has sought to lead the court to reach less sweeping decisions (sometimes successfully, and sometimes in the Dobbs case not successfully) to push for a decision along these lines.

Another key difference: The 303 Creative case hinges on the argument of freedom of speech as opposed to the two-fold argument of freedom of speech and freedom of religious exercise in the Masterpiece Cakeshop litigation. Although 303 Creative requested in its petition to the Supreme Court review of both issues of speech and religion, justices elected only to take up the issue of free speech in granting a writ of certiorari (or agreement to take up a case). Justices also declined to accept another question in the petition request of review of the 1990 precedent in Smith v. Employment Division, which concluded states can enforce neutral generally applicable laws on citizens with religious objections without violating the First Amendment.

Representing 303 Creative in the lawsuit is Alliance Defending Freedom, a law firm that has sought to undermine civil rights laws for LGBTQ people with litigation seeking exemptions based on the First Amendment, such as the Masterpiece Cakeshop case.

Kristen Waggoner, president of Alliance Defending Freedom, wrote in a Sept. 12 legal brief signed by her and other attorneys that a decision in favor of 303 Creative boils down to a clear-cut violation of the First Amendment.

“Colorado and the United States still contend that CADA only regulates sales transactions,” the brief says. “But their cases do not apply because they involve non-expressive activities: selling BBQ, firing employees, restricting school attendance, limiting club memberships, and providing room access. Colorado’s own cases agree that the government may not use public-accommodation laws to affect a commercial actor’s speech.”

Pizer, however, pushed back strongly on the idea a decision in favor of 303 Creative would be as focused as Alliance Defending Freedom purports it would be, arguing it could open the door to widespread discrimination against LGBTQ people.

“One way to put it is art tends to be in the eye of the beholder,” Pizer said. “Is something of a craft, or is it art? I feel like I’m channeling Lily Tomlin. Remember ‘soup and art’? We have had an understanding that whether something is beautiful or not is not the determining factor about whether something is protected as artistic expression. There’s a legal test that recognizes if this is speech, whose speech is it, whose message is it? Would anyone who was hearing the speech or seeing the message understand it to be the message of the customer or of the merchants or craftsmen or business person?”

Despite the implications in the case for LGBTQ rights, 303 Creative may have supporters among LGBTQ people who consider themselves proponents of free speech.

One joint friend-of-the-court brief before the Supreme Court, written by Dale Carpenter, a law professor at Southern Methodist University who’s written in favor of LGBTQ rights, and Eugene Volokh, a First Amendment legal scholar at the University of California, Los Angeles, argues the case is an opportunity to affirm the First Amendment applies to goods and services that are uniquely expressive.

“Distinguishing expressive from non-expressive products in some contexts might be hard, but the Tenth Circuit agreed that Smith’s product does not present a hard case,” the brief says. “Yet that court (and Colorado) declined to recognize any exemption for products constituting speech. The Tenth Circuit has effectively recognized a state interest in subjecting the creation of speech itself to antidiscrimination laws.”

Oral arguments in the case aren’t yet set, but may be announced soon. Set to defend the state of Colorado and enforcement of its non-discrimination law in the case is Colorado Solicitor General Eric Reuel Olson. Just this week, the U.S. Supreme Court announced it would grant the request to the U.S. solicitor general to present arguments before the justices on behalf of the Biden administration.

With a 6-3 conservative majority on the court that has recently scrapped the super-precedent guaranteeing the right to abortion, supporters of LGBTQ rights may think the outcome of the case is all but lost, especially amid widespread fears same-sex marriage would be next on the chopping block. After the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against 303 Creative in the lawsuit, the simple action by the Supreme Court to grant review in the lawsuit suggests they are primed to issue a reversal and rule in favor of the company.

Pizer, acknowledging the call to action issued by LGBTQ groups in the aftermath of the Dobbs decision, conceded the current Supreme Court issuing the ruling in this case is “a terrifying prospect,” but cautioned the issue isn’t so much the makeup of the court but whether or not justices will continue down the path of abolishing case law.

“I think the question that we’re facing with respect to all of the cases or at least many of the cases that are in front of the court right now, is whether this court is going to continue on this radical sort of wrecking ball to the edifice of settled law and seemingly a goal of setting up whole new structures of what our basic legal principles are going to be. Are we going to have another term of that?” Pizer said. “And if so, that’s terrifying.”

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Kelley Robinson, a Black, queer woman, named president of Human Rights Campaign

Progressive activist a veteran of Planned Parenthood Action Fund

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Kelley Robinson (Screen capture via HRC YouTube)

Kelley Robinson, a Black, queer woman and veteran of Planned Parenthood Action Fund, is to become the next president of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s leading LGBTQ group announced on Tuesday.

Robinson is set to become the ninth president of the Human Rights Campaign after having served as executive director of Planned Parenthood Action Fund and more than 12 years of experience as a leader in the progressive movement. She’ll be the first Black, queer woman to serve in that role.

“I’m honored and ready to lead HRC — and our more than three million member-advocates — as we continue working to achieve equality and liberation for all Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer people,” Robinson said. “This is a pivotal moment in our movement for equality for LGBTQ+ people. We, particularly our trans and BIPOC communities, are quite literally in the fight for our lives and facing unprecedented threats that seek to destroy us.”

Kelley Robinson IS NAMED as The next human rights Campaign president

The next Human Rights Campaign president is named as Democrats are performing well in polls in the mid-term elections after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, leaving an opening for the LGBTQ group to play a key role amid fears LGBTQ rights are next on the chopping block.

“The overturning of Roe v. Wade reminds us we are just one Supreme Court decision away from losing fundamental freedoms including the freedom to marry, voting rights, and privacy,” Robinson said. “We are facing a generational opportunity to rise to these challenges and create real, sustainable change. I believe that working together this change is possible right now. This next chapter of the Human Rights Campaign is about getting to freedom and liberation without any exceptions — and today I am making a promise and commitment to carry this work forward.”

The Human Rights Campaign announces its next president after a nearly year-long search process after the board of directors terminated its former president Alphonso David when he was ensnared in the sexual misconduct scandal that led former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to resign. David has denied wrongdoing and filed a lawsuit against the LGBTQ group alleging racial discrimination.

Kelley Robinson, Planned Parenthood, Cathy Chu, SMYAL, Supporting and Mentoring Youth Advocates and Leaders, Amy Nelson, Whitman-Walker Health, Sheroes of the Movement, Mayor's office of GLBT Affairs, gay news, Washington Blade
Kelley Robinson, seen here with Cathy Chu of SMYAL and Amy Nelson of Whitman-Walker Health, is the next Human Rights Campaign president. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)
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Former Ambassador Daniel Baer explains it all on Ukraine crisis

Expert downplays strategic thinking behind Putin’s move

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Daniel Baer, United States Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, gay news, Washington Blade
Daniel Baer served as U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security & Cooperation in Europe. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Daniel Baer, who worked on LGBTQ human rights and transatlantic issues as one of several openly gay U.S. ambassadors during the Obama administration, answered questions from the Washington Blade on Ukraine as the international crisis continues to unfold.

Topics during the interview, which took place weeks ago on Jan. 27, included Putin’s motivation for Russian incursions, the risk of outright war, predictions for Russia after Putin and how the crisis would affect LGBTQ people in Ukraine.

Baer was deputy assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor and U.S. ambassador to the Organization of Security & Cooperation in Europe.

The full interview follows:

Washington Blade: What’s your level of engagement with this affair? Are you doing any consulting work? Is the administration reaching out to you at all?

Daniel Baer: I actually think the White House is doing a pretty good job of recognizing that they need to not only have press conferences, but also talk to other people who are trying to figure out how to be constructive critics, idea generators from the outside.

Blade: OK, so you’re being solicited and engaging on this issue. My next question for you is why do you think Putin is doing this at this time?

Baer: So, I guess taking a step back from the whole thing, one of the things about a problem like this is that everybody is searching for the right answer assuming that there is a like comfortable or compelling or intellectually accurate answer, and I actually think we’re just in a really hard moment.

I don’t know why he’s doing it now. And in fact, I think that one of the puzzles that we haven’t solved yet is that all the things that he says are the reasons that he’s doing it — that he feels encirclement by NATO, … or that the situation in Ukraine is untenable — none of those things have changed. Setting aside the fact that they’re spurious, it’s not like there’s been some new move in the last 12 months that has precipitated [a reaction] on any of those fronts that you can say, “Oh, well, he’s responding to the recent meeting where Ukraine was offered membership in NATO, or he’s responding to a change in government in Ukraine that it’s clearly anti-Russia, or any other move that we’ve done.” The explanation just doesn’t hold water, and so I think we need to look for alternative ones.

The best I can come up with is actually just a broad — it doesn’t actually explain this particular moment, but I think you could look at the timing of his life. He has, I don’t know, 10 years left. And during those 10 years, it’s unlikely that Russia is going to grow more powerful; it’s much more likely that it’s going to become at least relatively and probably nominally less powerful. And so, if you’re unhappy with the status quo, and you feel like you’re a declining power, and you don’t have endless time, there’s no time like the present. And you’ll make up whatever reasons you need to in order to justify it.

I also think there’s a tendency on our part to attribute far more “strategery” to Putin than there necessarily is. I mean, he’s a bully and a thug. I think the whole Putin’s playing chess and we’re playing checkers is actually completely inverted. We’re in our own heads that there’s some kind of nuanced position that would mollify him. He’s just a gangster and he’s taking a punch because he has one. And I don’t think it gets much more complicated than that. And so, I guess the answer to why he’s doing this now, because the international conditions are such that he feels like the United States is focused domestically, the Ukrainians are not moving forward with succeeding to build — they’re kind of in stasis on building a European state— and he has, you know, he has the space to take a punch, so he’s contemplating doing it, or he’s already decided to do it. And he’s just extracting as much as possible before he takes it.

Blade: That leads me to my next question: What is your judgement of the risk of out and out war?

Baer: I don’t know because I have two hypotheses that cut both ways. One is that I think Putin is vastly underestimating the degree of resistance. On the other hand, I think that nothing short of domination is satisfactory. And so, I don’t know. I guess I think there’s a 90 percent chance that he does something, and I think there’s a 75 percent chance that what he does is not an all out invasion or ground invasion, at least not at first, but rather something that is aimed at confusing us. So some sort of hybrid or staged or false flag kind of attack in tandem with a political coup in Kiev, where he works to install a more Russia-loyal leader.

The thing with the ground invasion is that Russian soldiers’ moms are one of the only, like, powerful political forces in civil society in Russia. I just don’t see any way that a ground invasion doesn’t involve massive Russian casualties, even if they will be dominant. The people who are going to impose the consequences on him will be the Ukrainians, not the rest of us, and he should not invade, and if he does, we should, frankly, work hard to make it as painful and difficult for him as possible.

Blade: What will that look like?

Baer: I think we should at that point continue — we shouldn’t pause, we should continue to send the defensive equipment and backfill as much as possible their ability from an equipment basis to resist.

Blade: So if we were to look at a model for past U.S. engagements. I’m thinking Greece under President Truman, which was so successful that nobody really knows about it, I don’t think. Is there any model we should be looking toward, or not looking toward?

Baer: No, I guess. I’m not sure there’s any good historical model because obviously, any of them you can pick apart. I do think that one thing that has gotten lost in a lot of the analysis — and this goes back to Putin being a gangster thug, and not being such a genius — is there’s a moral difference between us. The reason why Putin gets to control the dialogue is because he’s willing to do things that we aren’t willing to do — as gangsters are, as hostage-takers are — and so yes, they get to set the terms of what we discussed, because we’re not holding hostages. We’re trying to get hostages released. And the hostage-taker has an upper hand and asymmetry because they are willing to do something that is wrong.

We shouldn’t lose the kind of moral difference there. Nor should we lose sight of the fact that Ukraine is being menaced. And I’m not saying it’s our obligation [to intervene militarily], certainly not our obligation. They aren’t a treaty ally. We have neither a political obligation nor a moral one to necessarily risk our own lives, our own soldiers in defense of Ukraine. But if Ukraine wants to defend themselves, there’s a strong moral case to be made that anything, short of risking our own lives, is something that is morally good. We generally believe that self-defense from lethal threat is a reasonable moral cause and assisting others in defending themselves is too — I think there’s a lot of back and forth that get glossed over whether that’s a provocation or whatever, and I want to say to people stand back, look at this: we’ve got one party that is attacking another. And the question is, does the other have a right to defend itself? Yes. And if they have a right to defend themselves, and they also have a right to have whatever assistance people will offer them in defending themselves.

That doesn’t mean that they get to demand that we show up and fight in the trenches with them, of course, and I don’t think there’s any serious people who are recommending that but it’s a good thing to help them. It’s not like a technical thing. It’s a good thing to help

Blade: Getting into that moral background, one thing I want to ask you was about the significance of what would happen in this concept of democracy versus autocracy. First of all, how much is Ukraine a functional democracy, in the sense that if we’re defending Ukraine, we are defending a democracy, and what signal do you think it would send if that Ukrainian government fell to Russian autocracy?

Baer: I think the institutions of government that the Ukrainian people have are not worthy of the Ukrainian people’s own demonstrated commitment …

They are not worthy of the Ukrainian people’s own demonstrated commitment to the idea of democratic institutions. So the answer is today’s Ukrainian government is a mixed bag and it’s very hard to build, on the rot of a Russian fiefdom, a functioning democracy, so I think it’s a mixed bag. I don’t want to sound like I’m minimizing [the changes], or that they’ve completely bungled an easy project. It was always going to be a hard project, and it was never going to be linear.

But I think that what we’ve seen from the Ukrainian people — by which I mean not Ukrainian people, but people of Ukraine — is that there is a broad part of society that a) does not want to live under a Russian thumb and b) sees its future in kind of European style democracy. And so I think that if there was, there’s no question that the Russian attack would be in part about subjugating the people of Ukraine and forcing them to live under some sort of new Russian satellite. And I think that there’s little space for serious argument that that’s something that the people of the country wish to have.

Blade: But I’m just kind of getting at — you’re kind of minimizing that this is a strategic move by Putin, but if he were to successfully dominant Ukraine it becomes a Russian satellite isn’t that saying like, “Well, ha ha West, you thought the Cold War was over and there’s going to be just be a unipolar world in the future but no, we’re gonna we have this we’re back and we’re gonna create a multipolar world for the future.”

Baer: Yeah, I mean, my answer to the Russians who always raise the multipolar world to me is, “Fine, it’s going to be a multipolar world. What makes you think that Russia is one of the poles?” Poles by definition draw people to them, they are compelling and a pole attracts, magnetically or otherwise, and there is nothing attractive about the model that Russia is pursuing. And if the only way that you can be a pole is by subjugating, to force your neighbors, you are proving that you are not one.

I think the benefits for Russia are far smaller than Putin thinks and I think the consequences for the rest of the world of allowing a violation of international order to go forward are much larger than many people recognize.

Blade: But that was their approach when they were the Soviet Union. They were subjugating the Eastern Bloc through Russian force. They did have, in theory, the concept of their worldview of you know, of socialism, or whatever you want to put it charitably, was going to be the right way to go. Is there really that much of a difference?

Baer: Yeah, however disingenuous it was, they did have an ideology . So you’re right, that was a key distinction. The other thing is that the Soviet Union in relative size — its economy and population etc. — was much larger than Russia is today. And Russia is shrinking, and its economy is less diverse than the Communist one was. I think it’s a delusion to think that they’re going to kind of rebuild an empire, even if yes, because of their willingness to do awful things, they could potentially for a time politically control through violence, their neighbors. I just don’t — in a multipolar world, I don’t see Russia being one of the poles, at least not on its current path.

Blade: How would you evaluate the U.S. diplomatic approach to this issue?

Baer: There’s been very clear over-the-top effort to include the Europeans at every step — meetings with them before each meeting and after each meeting, to force conversations into fora that are more inclusive and stuff like that. And I think that Secretary Blinken is rightly recognizing the need to kind of play a role of kind of keeping everybody on the side while we test whether diplomacy whether there’s anything to do, whether there’s any promise with diplomacy.

I think there’s kind of, sometimes kind of, two camps in U.S. foreign policy circles. One is like: We should give the Russians what they want because it just doesn’t matter that much. War is much worse than anything that we would give them. And another is that we can’t give them an inch and we have to punch them in the face whenever we can. And I think both of those are kind of knee-jerk positions that have become a bit religious for people and neither of them is paying attention to the practical challenge that’s in front of the administration, which is like this guy’s threatening to invade and we need to identify whether there’s any opportunity for a functional off ramp, and that doesn’t mean we do that in a vacuum and ignore the long-term consequences, but our problem is not a religious one, it’s a practical one. And I think they’re doing a pretty good job of threading the needle on that and being not too far forward and not too far back.

Blade: Do you see any significant daylight between the United States and Europe?

Baer: No, I mean, no more than the minimum that is possible. There’s a lot of talk about Germany these days. Look, I think some of the things they say are not particularly helpful, but I don’t actually think that in the long run, if Putin invaded, I don’t think that they would hold up sanctions or anything like that. So I think they’re on our side, even if they’re talking out of both sides, in some cases.

Blade: I am wise to the fact that this is a nuclear power. It might be a little old school, but could escalation get that far?

Baer: There can’t be war. There can’t be war between NATO and Russia. It should be avoided. Obviously, there can be, but it should be avoided.

Blade: How committed do you think President Biden is to protecting Ukraine?

Baer: Reasonably so. I think he’s enough of an old school trans-Atlantist that he understands that this isn’t just about Ukraine.

Blade: I was wondering because he had those comments from his press conference about “minor incursion” and I’m just wondering if you’re reading anything into that or not.

Baer: No, I think that was that was a — I think broadly speaking, everything he says is in line with the kind of view that you would expect. And of course, one sentence can catch [attention]. That wasn’t what he meant. What he meant was that he didn’t want to draw a “red line” that would prejudge policy in response to something short of the most extreme scenario.

I think it is a good caution to not obsess over a single sentence and to look at the broad considered policy statements.

Blade: What do you think if you were looking for developments, like what would you be looking out for is significant in terms of where we are going to be going in the near future? This is one thing to keep an eye out for but is there anything else that you are kind of looking out for in terms of the near future?

Baer: I guess I would look out for whether or not the United States joins meetings of the so-called Normandy Format, which is the France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia grouping, which has so far been unsuccessful, but I think can only be successful as the United States joins it, but the Russians, I think have misgivings with the idea of our joining it.

Blade: I’m not at all familiar with that. What makes this forum particularly so —

Baer: So it was started in the summer in like June of 2015, on the margins of some meeting between Merkel and Hollande. The French and the Germans are very committed to the idea that they might be able to mediate peace between Ukraine and Russia. It was supposed to implement the Minsk Agreement, and it just hasn’t been productive so far. I don’t think that the Russians will do anything — I don’t think the Ukrainians feel comfortable negotiating anything without the Americans at the table. And I don’t think the Russians feel like anything is guaranteed without the Americans at the table. So I just, I’m fine with France and Germany taking the lead, but I think the U.S. has to be there.

And there was a meeting of this group in Paris yesterday, and which the U.S. was supportive of, and so I’m watching to see whether or not the United States gets added in some ad hoc way, whether there are future meetings. I guess the reason I would watch it, if the U.S. were to join future meetings that would signal to me that it’s actually there’s some diplomacy happening there.

That’s meant to be focusing mainly on the existing Russian invasion, the occupation of the Donbas, so that’s not about the threat of the new invasion, but it would be interesting to me if there was forward movement on other parts of Ukraine. The announcement of the American ambassador is one. I think that last week movement of troops into Belarus was a game changer for the U.S., because there are all kinds of new implications if you’re using a third country as your launchpad for war, and so it complicates things and it also looks more serious if you’re starting to deploy to third countries and stuff like that. So I think that was that last week, you noticed a difference in the U.S. tone and tenor in response to that.

So things like that. But in general, like what I would do and I don’t think people always catch this is because there’s a boiling frog aspect to it. There are statements coming out from the White House or State Department. Almost every day on stuff related to this and like last week, there was a noticeable change in the tenor as the U.S. became less, I think more pessimistic about the prospects of diplomacy and those I don’t have anything better to look for in those statements as tea leaves, in terms of what the U.S. assessment is of the prospects of the escalation are, so it’s bad.

Blade: Right. That’s very sobering.

There’s a lot of talk, and I’ve just been seeing some like about in terms of, there’s like comparisons to Afghanistan and making sure that all Americans are able to get out of Ukraine. Is that comparing apples to oranges?

Baer: Yes.

Blade: And could you unpack that a little bit? I mean, I can kind of guess the reasons why. How is that apples to oranges?

Blade: Well, the level of development in Ukraine in terms of infrastructure and transport and stuff like that is not comparable to Afghanistan. I think it would be– if there were a Russian invasion–you would definitely want to, obviously, for safety reasons, it’s not safe to be in a war zone, so you would want people to be able to evacuate and you’d have to plan for that.

A major concern [in Afghanistan] was also that there were tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of locals who had worked for the Americans. The Americans that are in Ukraine are not a departing occupying power. There’s just not the same footprint there — the Americans are in Ukraine or there as business people or young [people working on] democracy assistance or whatever. And it’s just it’s a different context.

Blade: Why do you think the Russians put up with Putin? I mean, this is a country that was a world power and I would think has some economic potential just given its sheer size, first of all, and they do have oil to offer people. So why aren’t the Russians like angry at him for obstructing their participation in the global order as opposed to just putting up with him for years and years and years.

Baer: Successful instrumentalisation of cynicism. The lack of a belief in an alternative will keep you from fighting for it.

Blade: That’s pretty succinct.

Baer: I mean, I don’t think there’s any question that the people of Russia could be better off or different in terms of kitchen table issues, and ease of navigating the world, prospects for their future for their children’s future. The amount of money that Putin has invested into military modernization that Russia can ill afford, while he’s cut pensions and social services and health care. It’s just it’s objectively true that the average Russian person would be better served by a different leader. But he’s done a very good job of effectively selling off the country for profit and persuading people through repression and propaganda that there is no alternative.

Blade: And Putin won’t be around forever. Once he finally goes, is an alternative going to emerge, or will it be the next guy in Putin’s mold?

Baer: I think it’s far from clear that what comes after Putin isn’t worse and bloody. Regimes like this don’t reliably have stable transitions.

Blade: Wow, okay.

Baer: Yeah, we shouldn’t… we should be careful about wishing… wishing for his demise.

Blade: That’s good to know. It’s kind of a frightful note for me to end my questions. But actually before I sign off, there’s one more thing too because I do kind of want to talk about the intersection about your old job in democracy and human rights and then a Venn diagram of that with your experience in Eastern Europe in particular. Do you have a sense of what’s at stake for LGBTQ people in Ukraine or if they’re in more danger right now than they would be otherwise?

Baer: That’s a good question. I mean, my knee jerk reaction is yes. That — as mixed of a picture as Ukraine has been in the last seven years, or eight years — there have been meaningful steps forward, and certainly, in terms of visibility.

I guess, in the sense that Ukraine is better than Russia today, if you’re gay, if Russia is going to occupy or control Ukraine we can expect that it will get worse because it will become more like Russia.

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