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Mizer exits DOJ ‘incredibly proud’ of service as gay appointee

Obama lawyer defended trans protections in bathrooms, health care

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Ben Mizer, United States Department of Justice, gay news, Washington Blade
Ben Mizer, United States Department of Justice, gay news, Washington Blade

Ben Mizer was head of DOJ’s civil division. (Photo public domain)

The final weeks on the job for Ben Mizer, who until last week headed the U.S. Justice Department’s civil division, were extremely busy.

In a phone interview with the Washington Blade during the final hours of his job Thursday, the gay assistant attorney general said his division continued to win important victories on behalf of the American public. Among the achievements in the past couple weeks: A resolution with Volkswagon in which the company agreed to pay a $2.8 billion criminal penalty for cheating on emissions tests and other big settlements in equities and credit fees cases.

“So I think that we were able to the very end to do the best we could to protect the American people, including from financial fraud,” Mizer said.

Mizer, 40, was one of the more than 300 openly LGBT appointees in the Obama administration. The strides President Obama as well as U.S. attorneys general Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch made for LGBT rights made that particularly important for him.

“Certainly as an openly gay man, I have been incredibly proud to be an appointee of this administration and to work for Attorney General Holder and Attorney General Lynch because they have done so much to protect LGBT individuals in so many ways,” Mizer said.

A native of New Philadelphia, Ohio, Mizer started his tenure in 2015 as Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General of the Civil Division, the arm of the Justice Department that defends the federal government in court, which includes commercial issues such as fraud and debt collection. Prior to his tenure at the civil division, Mizer was counselor to former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and served in the Office of Legal Counsel. From 2008 to 2011, Mizer was Ohio solicitor general.

Among the cases in which Mizer represented the U.S. government was litigation defending the Obama administration’s position in favor of transgender rights. Mizer’s name can be found on briefs in defense of the Obama administration’s guidance barring discrimination against transgender students in schools, such as by denying them access to restrooms consistent with their gender identity, and the Department of Health & Human Services rule ensuring transgender people have access to health care, including gender reassignment surgery.

“Our job at the civil division is to defend administrative policies, to defend congressional statutes — whatever the statutes and policies might say as long as there are defenses to be made,” Mizer said. “And so, we discharge those obligations every day on behalf of Congress or on behalf of the president, or on behalf of executive agencies and I am sure that tradition will carry forward in the next administration.”

The civil rights division, not the civil division under Mizer, was responsible for U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s lawsuit against North Carolina over the anti-LGBT House Bill 2, a law that bars cities from enacting pro-LGBT non-discrimination ordinances and bars transgender people from using the restroom in schools and government buildings consistent with their gender identity.

Mizer said he “couldn’t speculate” about what would happen to transgender rights cases now that the Trump administration is running the Justice Department. Mizer also declined to comment on whether those cases had come up during conversations with the Trump transition team on the basis he couldn’t disclose information about any talks he had with them.

Prior to joining the civil division, Mizer recalled helping to advance LGBT rights after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2013 against the Defense of Marriage Act, an anti-gay law that barred federal recognition of same-sex marriage, and former President Obama directed Holder to ensure married same-sex couples receive federal benefits to the furthest extent of the law.

“I was proud to play a role when I was in the Office of Legal Counsel in helping to administer and implement the Windsor decision so that the federal government nimbly and quickly was able to make the Supreme Court’s decision a reality by affording benefits across the board to gay and lesbian married couples,” Mizer said.

But Mizer was eager to promote achievements from the civil division in cases other than LGBT rights, identifying as among the “signature accomplishments” efforts to protect consumers from dietary supplements and billed to help people, but, in fact, had no impact or weren’t good for them. Among the targets of the enforcement actions were USPlabs LLC, which sold products under names such as Jack3d and OxyElite Pro.

“I have friends who take workout dietary supplements because they think it’s going to make their workouts better and help their physique, when, in fact, some of those dietary supplements are actually quite dangerous to your health, so I’m proud of the work the division has done to pursue those manufacturers both civilly and criminally,” Mizer said.

Mizer also touted the civil division’s work in protecting from fraud the elderly, whom he said are often the targets of companies seeking to make a buck at the expense of others.

“Elderly people receive a lot of notifications telling them to send in $50 and they’ll win a BMW, or they’ll win an amulet, or some other kind of prize,” Mizer said. “And those are…schemes that disarm vulnerable people of thousands of dollars a year. And so, I’m incredibly proud of the work that we’ve done to shut down those kinds of fraudulent operations.”

One outstanding issue for the U.S. Justice Department under the Obama administration for LGBT rights was declaring provisions under federal law such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 barring discrimination on the basis of sex also prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

In 2014, former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder issued a memo declaring the Justice Department has determined the ban on sex discrimination under Title VII applies to transgender people, but the administration never said anything about whether the law makes illegal bias against gay, lesbian and bisexual people.

Mizer said he didn’t have any updates on the Justice Department’s interpretation of the law as the Obama administration came to a close.

“That’s not something I’m able to comment on other than to say your understanding of the department’s position as you described is correct, but I don’t have anything else to say about that right now,” Mizer said.

Pressed on what it would have taken for the Justice Department to articulate the view that anti-gay bias is prohibited under current law, Mizer said such an interpretation would have to come from the attorney general.

“I think all I can say is that, as you noted, Attorney General Holder in I believe it was 2014 announced that the department was changing its interpretation of Title VII as it applies to transgender individuals,” Mizer said. “If the department were to make change in its litigating position with respect to discrimination against gays and lesbians under Title VII, I believe that that is a determination that would also be made by the…attorney general, whoever that might be.”

What’s next for him? Mizer said he doesn’t have future career plans set and will take time off before making a decision.

“I leave tomorrow morning for Mexico and I’m going to take time off to relax and travel before I make any determinations about exactly what my next job will be,” Mizer said.

D’Arcy Kemnitz, executive director of the LGBT Bar Association, said Mizer’s tenure as an openly gay person running the Justice Department’s civil division was significant.

“Every time an openly LGBT individual is elevated to a position of power within an administration, we see growth in our movement,” Kemnitz said. “Allowing an openly gay man to head the civil division of the DOJ indicates a trust and an acceptance of our larger community that is necessary in the fight for equality.”

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Bill to ban conversion therapy dies in Puerto Rico Senate committee

Advocacy group describes lawmakers as cowards

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Puerto Rico Pulse nightclub victims, gay news, Washington Blade

 

A Puerto Rico Senate committee on Thursday killed a bill that would have banned so-called conversion therapy on the island.

Members of the Senate Community Initiatives, Mental Health and Addiction Committee voted against Senate Bill 184 by an 8-7 vote margin. Three senators abstained.

Amárilis Pagán Jiménez, a spokesperson for Comité Amplio para la Búsqueda de la Equidad, a coalition of Puerto Rican human rights groups, in a statement sharply criticized the senators who opposed the measure.

“If they publicly recognize that conversion therapies are abuse, if they even voted for a similar bill in the past, if the hearings clearly established that the bill was well-written and was supported by more than 78 professional and civil entities and that it did not interfere with freedom of religion or with the right of fathers and mothers to raise their children, voting against it is therefore one of two things: You are either a hopeless coward or you have the same homophobic and abusive mentality of the hate groups that oppose the bill,” said Pagán in a statement.

Thursday’s vote comes against the backdrop of continued anti-LGBTQ discrimination and violence in Puerto Rico.

Six of the 44 transgender and gender non-conforming people who were reported murdered in the U.S. in 2020 were from Puerto Rico.

A state of emergency over gender-based violence that Gov. Pedro Pierluisi declared earlier this year is LGBTQ-inclusive. Then-Gov. Ricardo Rosselló in 2019 signed an executive order that banned conversion therapy for minors in Puerto Rico.

“These therapies lack scientific basis,” he said. “They cause pain and unnecessary suffering.”

Rosselló issued the order less than two weeks after members of the New Progressive Party, a pro-statehood party  he chaired at the time, blocked a vote in the Puerto Rico House of Representatives on a bill that would have banned conversion therapy for minors in the U.S. commonwealth. Seven out of the 11 New Progressive Party members who are on the Senate Community Initiatives, Mental Health and Addiction Committee voted against SB 184.

“It’s appalling. It’s shameful that the senators didn’t have the strength and the courage that our LGBTQ youth have, and it’s to be brave and to defend our dignity and our humanity as people who live on this island,” said Pedro Julio Serrano, founder of Puerto Rico Para [email protected], a Puerto Rican LGBTQ rights group, in a video. “It’s disgraceful that the senators decided to vote down this measure that would prevent child abuse.”

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Undocumented LGBTQ immigrants turn to Fla. group for support

Survivors Pathway is based in Miami

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Survivors Pathway works with undocumented LGBTQ immigrants and other vulnerable groups in South Florida. (Photo courtesy of Francesco Duberli)

 

MIAMI – The CEO of an organization that provides support to undocumented LGBTQ immigrants says the Biden administration has given many of his clients a renewed sense of hope.

“People definitely feel much more relaxed,” Survivors Pathway CEO Francesco Duberli told the Washington Blade on March 5 during an interview at his Miami office. “There’s much hope. You can tell … the conversation’s shifted.”

Duberli — a gay man from Colombia who received asylum in the U.S. because of anti-gay persecution he suffered in his homeland — founded Survivors Pathway in 2011. The Miami-based organization currently has 23 employees.

Survivors Pathway CEO Francesco Duberli at his office in Miami on March 5, 2021. (Washington Blade photo by Yariel Valdés González)

Duberli said upwards of 50 percent of Survivors Pathway’s clients are undocumented. Duberli told the Blade that many of them are survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking and victims of hate crimes based on their sexual orientation and gender identity.

“Part of the work that we have done for years is for us to become the bridge between the communities and law enforcement or the justice system in the United States,” said Duberli. “We have focused on creating a language that helps us to create this communication between the undocumented immigrant community and law enforcement, the state attorney’s office and the court.”

“The fear is not only about immigration,” he added. “There are many other factors that immigrants bring with them that became barriers in terms of wanting to or trying to access the justice system in the United States.”

Duberli spoke with the Blade roughly a week after the Biden administration began to allow into the U.S. asylum seekers who had been forced to pursue their cases in Mexico under the previous White House’s “Remain in Mexico” policy.

The administration this week began to reunite migrant children who the Trump administration separated from their parents. Title 42, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rule that closed the Southern border to most asylum seekers and migrants because of the coronavirus pandemic, remains in place.

Duberli told the Blade that Survivors Pathway advised some of their clients not to apply for asylum or seek visa renewals until after the election. Duberli conceded “the truth of the matter is that the laws haven’t changed that much” since Biden became president.

Survivors Pathway has worked with LGBTQ people in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody in South Florida. American Civil Liberties Union National Political Director Ronald Newman in an April 28 letter it sent to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas called for the closure of the Krome North Service Processing Center in Miami, the Glades County Detention Center near Lake Okeechobee and 37 other ICE detention centers across the country.

The road leading to the Krome North Service Processing Center in Miami on June 7, 2020. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Survivors Pathway responded to trans woman’s murder in 2020

Survivors Pathway has created a project specifically for trans Latina women who Duberli told the Blade don’t know they can access the judicial system.

Duberli said Survivors Pathway works with local judges and police departments to ensure crime victims don’t feel “discriminated, or outed or mistreated or revictimized” because of their gender identity. Survivors Pathway also works with Marytrini, a drag queen from Cuba who is the artistic producer at Azúcar, a gay nightclub near Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood.

Marytrini and Duberli are among those who responded to the case of Yunieski “Yuni” Carey Herrera, a trans woman and well-known activist and performer from Cuba who was murdered inside her downtown Miami apartment last November. Carey’s boyfriend, who had previously been charged with domestic violence, has been charged with murder.

“That was an ongoing situation,” noted Duberli. “It’s not the only case. There are lots of cases like that.”

Duberli noted a gay man in Miami Beach was killed by his partner the same week.

“There are lots of crimes that happen to our community that never gets to the news,” he said. “We got those cases here because of what we do.”

Yunieski “Yuni” Carey Herrera was murdered in her downtown Miami apartment in November 2020. (Photo courtesy of social media)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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