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DeVos meets with LGBT groups over trans student protections

Education sec’y hears from families affected by withdrawal of Obama-era guidance

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A trio of LGBT advocates met with Betsy DeVos over withdrawing guidance protecting trans students. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Representatives from a trio of LGBT organizations and families with transgender kids met Wednesday with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos in the aftermath of the Justice and Education Departments revoking Obama-era guidance assuring transgender students access to the bathroom consistent with their gender identity.

Mara Keisling, executive director of National Center for Transgender Equality, said the meeting came about as a result of the Trump administration rescinding the guidance, which informed discriminating against transgender students would violate Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.

“They made an arbitrary, political, ideological decision to hurt trans youth, so we wanted to talk to them about enforcing the law that they’re statutorily required to enforce,” Keisling said.

The meeting was set up as a result of efforts by Equality Michigan, which is the state LGBT group for DeVos’ home state of Michigan and where she once served as head of the Michigan Republican Party. According to Equality Michigan, the Education Department informed the organization on Friday she had agreed to the meeting.

Stephanie White, executive director of Equality Michigan, said her organization sought out the meeting to convey the “profound negative consequences” of the withdrawal of the guidance protecting transgender students.

“We also ensured that the secretary heard from transgender students and their parents directly about the impact of discrimination and harassment at school,” White said. “We wanted her to understand that these are life and death issues for transgender young people across the country and that we will not waver or compromise in our commitment to ensuring that every student, regardless of their gender identity, is provided with equal protection and opportunity to thrive.”

In a statement, DeVos said she’s “grateful for the opportunity” to speak with families and LGBT rights supporters “about their concerns, thoughts, fears and suggestions.”

“Every school and every school leader has a moral responsibility to protect all students and ensure every child is respected and can learn in an accepting environment,” DeVos said. “I remain committed to advocating for and fighting on behalf of all students. Today’s meeting was compelling, moving and welcomed, and part of an ongoing dialogue with families and students throughout the country.”

Discussion consisted of two consecutive meetings — one between DeVos and transgender families, the other between DeVos and representatives from LGBT groups — which each lasted about an hour, sources familiar with the meeting said. Those in attendance at the latter meeting, according to sources, included DeVos and four Education Department officials as well representatives from GLSEN, the National Center for Transgender Equality and Equality Michigan.

Eliza Byard, executive director of GLSEN, said in a statement LGBT groups addressed the immediate consequences of withdrawing the guidance and “ways that she might be able to mitigate the pain, fear, and confusion that decision has caused.”

“Above all, we ensured that DeVos heard – directly from us – that we will not budge or compromise when it comes to the full support and protection that all of our children, including LGBTQ youth, deserve from this administration, from the Department of Education and from its Office for Civil Rights,” Byard said.

The meeting, Keisling said, yielded no firm policy commitments. Nonetheless, Keisling said it was “a good first meeting” because “it’s always good when people are willing to sit down and talk, when people are willing to be told that what they did was really bad.”

“Right now, we’re limited in what we can do with the federal government, but this was one thing we could do,” Keisling said. “We could bring families, and that was really the important thing here. I think so many people were just outraged that they took a policy that had taken a decade or more to craft and do the groundwork, and then just threw it out in less a week of Attorney General Sessions being in office. He came into office and immediately started shooting at trans people, and she was only in office a couple weeks more than that.”

Transgender rights supporters insist that even without an affirmative ruling from the Supreme Court, the prohibition on sex discrimination under Title IX based on legal precedent bars schools from discriminating against transgender students or denying them access to the restroom consistent with their gender identity.

According to media reports in the Washington Post and the New York Times, DeVos objected to rescinding the non-discrimination guidance for transgender students before ultimately agreeing to allow it to happen. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions needed her consent to move forward because the guidance was issued jointly by both their departments and President Trump had to intercede, forcing DeVos to accept the revocation of the guidance or else resign, the Times reported.

Keisling said DeVos didn’t say anything about objections she had to withdrawing the guidance because the meeting wasn’t focused on the process getting there, but protecting transgender students going forward.

“I’ve heard the rumors, too, that she was against and Sessions for it, but the bottom line is she signed,” Keisling said. “He signed it, she signed it, so it doesn’t really matter to me whether she wanted to sign it because she signed it.”

The meeting, Keisling said, was with DeVos as opposed to Sessions or White House officials because the Obama-era guidance came from the Education Department and the Education Department would be responsible for putting it back in place.

“That’s where the guidance is, that’s who has to enforce Title IX and that’s who allegedly cares about students,” Keisling said, adding she was unsure if any effort was made for LGBT groups to meet with Sessions.

None of the LGBT groups issued any notice the meeting would take place prior to the time it happened, although the Education Department did include a notice on DeVos’ weekly schedule she’d meet with “Equality Michigan leadership and parents” in a closed press meeting. After the meeting GLSEN issued a general news statement, followed by the National Center for Transgender Equality.

Keisling said not issuing a public notice prior to the DeVos meeting is consistent with the practice of her organization, which she said typically doesn’t promote meetings with administration officials.

“We’re there to actually get work done, not to have a photo op,” Keisling said. “I wouldn’t have wanted this to be a photo op. In fact, I probably wouldn’t have gone if this was a photo op. We’re not in the business of making people feel better after they do something bad, so that wasn’t about it. This was about having her listen to families.”

A controversial figure who’s reviled by many in the LGBT community, DeVos has faced criticism before and after the time of her confirmation, encountering in her few first days in office protesters, including a gay refugee from Afghanistan turned citizen, who followed her until she entered her vehicle during a visit to a D.C. public school.

Cathy Renna, a GLSEN spokesperson, referred to DeVos’ public schedule when asked why the organization issued no statement about the meeting prior to the time it took place. White said the organization has a general practice of not issuing notices for meetings.

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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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