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DeVos still won’t say federal law bars anti-LGBT discrimination

Education secretary insists schools must follow federal law

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Betsy DeVos, gay news, Washington Blade

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos wouldn’t say charter schools are barred from anti-LGBT discrimination. (Blade photo by Michael Key)

Weeks after facing criticism for refusing to speak out in congressional testimony against anti-LGBT discrimination in charter schools, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos still won’t say federal law prohibits them from discriminating against LGBT students.

DeVos on Tuesday referred generally to rules under federal law in a testy exchange on whether she’d speak out against anti-LGBT discrimination in charter schools with Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), who said the statute in this area is “somewhat foggy.”

Although DeVos acknowledged charter schools aren’t eligible for U.S. government money if they violate federal laws against discrimination, she dodged when asked specifically if charter schools under her plan would be able to discriminate against LGBT students.

“I said it before and I’ll say it again that schools that receive federal funds must follow federal law,” said DeVos, who’s promoting a Trump administration plan that calls for a $250 million increase in school voucher funds.

When Merkley insisted federal law is foggy and pressed DeVos again on whether anti-LGBT discrimination would be allowed under her proposal, she said, “On areas where the law is unsettled, this department is not going to be issuing decrees. That is a matter for Congress and the courts.”

Merkley interrupted to seek clarification, but DeVos would only repeat her deference to Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court when the law is unclear.

Visibly frustrated, Merkley said he interprets DeVos’ response to mean “where it’s unsettled, such discrimination will continue to be allowed under your program,” adding if that interpretation is incorrect, she should make a correction in the record.

Asked the same question as it pertains to discrimination against students on the basis of religion, DeVos’ response was no different.

“Again, for schools that receive federal funds, federal law must be followed,” DeVos said.

When Merkley demanded DeVos answer the question as it pertains to religious discrimination against students, she said, “Schools that receive federal funds will follow federal law. Period.”

The Oregon Democrat rebuked DeVos for a response he said is too vague.

“You’re refusing to answer the question,” Merkley said. “I think that’s very important for the public to know that today the secretary of education before this committee refused to affirm that she would put forward a program that bans discrimination based on LGBTQ status of students or bans discrimination based on religion.”

DeVos protested Merkley’s characterization of her words, denying her response indicated any support for allowing discrimination in charter schools.

“Sir, that’s not what I said,” DeVos said. “That’s not what I said. Discrimination in any form is wrong. I don’t support discrimination in any form.”

Merkley asked for a yes-or-no answer on whether DeVos’ program bans discrimination, the education secretary replied, “What program are you talking about?” Merkley said it was her charter and private school grant proposals, prompting DeVos to repeat her previous response.

“As I said before, and let me say it again, schools that receive federal funds need to follow federal law. Period,” DeVos said.

Interrupting DeVos, Merkley concluded, “You said the same thing 10 times without answering the question at all.”

Although she wouldn’t say federal law bars discrimination against LGBT students, DeVos’ general repudiation of discrimination in any form is different from an earlier exchange with Rep. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.). At the time, DeVos wouldn’t denounce discrimination in any capacity when asked about anti-LGBT or racial discrimination in charter schools.

Denouncing DeVos for her response was Sarah Kate Ellis, CEO of GLAAD, who said in a statement the secretary’s words were leaving LGBT students out in the cold.

“By once again turning a blind eye to LGBTQ students who experience discrimination in school, Secretary DeVos continues to prove why she was the wrong choice to lead our nation’s education system,” Ellis said. “DeVos once claimed she was an LGBTQ ally, but has now supported back to back policies that would erase LGBTQ students from classrooms. If she wants to be known as more than an anti-LGBTQ activist the time is now to reverse course.”

Federal law doesn’t explicitly ban anti-LGBT discrimination, but it does bar sex discrimination. Courts are increasingly interpreting those laws to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. That’s likely what Merkley meant when he said existing federal law on the issue is “somewhat foggy.”

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin for any school accepting federal funds, and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex for any school accepting federal funds. There is an exemption in Title IX for religious schools, but not for charter or secular private schools.

The Obama administration had issued guidance making clear Title IX precludes schools from barring transgender students from the restroom consistent with their gender identity, but DeVos along with U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions revoked it at the start of the Trump administration. Media reports indicated DeVos resisted that move and she later met with LGBT groups and transgender students at the Education Department.

Vanita Gupta, CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil & Human Rights, said she’s “glad to hear” DeVos opposes discrimination, but called for action.

“Words alone are insufficient,” Gupta said. “She must use her authority as secretary to make that prohibition and those protections for students real. The department must also proactively support schools to prevent discrimination and intervene when the law is broken. This can’t just be about talk; students need and deserve action.”

Merkley is lead sponsor in the Senate of the Equality Act, comprehensive legislation that would make explicit a ban on anti-LGBT discrimination in every area of civil rights law, including education.

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United Nations

UN Security Council urged to focus on LGBTQ, intersex rights

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield chaired Monday meeting

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The United Nations (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

UNITED NATIONS — U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield on Monday chaired a meeting at the United Nations that focused on the integration of LGBTQ and intersex rights into the U.N. Security Council’s work.

The U.S. Mission to the U.N. co-sponsored the meeting along with Albania, Brazil, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, France, Greece, Japan, Malta, Switzerland, the U.K. and the LGBTI Core Group, a group of U.N. countries that have pledged to support LGBTQ and intersex rights.

Thomas-Greenfield announced four “specific steps the U.S. will take to better integrate LGBTQI+ concerns into the U.N. Security Council’s daily work.”

• A regular review of the situation of LGBTQ and intersex people in conflict zones on the Security Council’s agenda that “includes regularly soliciting information from LGBTQI+ human rights defenders.

• Encouraging the U.N. Secretariat and other U.N. officials to “integrate LGBTQI+ concerns and perspectives in their regular reports” to the Security Council.

• A commitment “to raising abuses and violations of the human rights of LGBTQI+ people in our national statements in the Security Council.”

• A promise to propose, “when appropriate, language in Security Council products responding to the situation of LGBTQI+ individuals.”

“We are proud of these commitments,” said Thomas-Greenfield during Monday’s meeting. “They are just the beginning.”

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield speaks outside the U.N. Security Council on March 20, 2023. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Victor Madrigal-Borloz, the independent U.N. expert on LGBTQ and intersex issues, provided a briefing on LGBTQ and intersex rights around the world. 

“My mandate is based on one single fact: Diversity and sexual orientation and gender identity is a universal feature of humanity,” he said. “For too long, it has been made invisible in national level contributions to peace and security, including policies and programs and in the political and programmatic action of the United Nations.” 

María Susana Peralta of Colombia Diversa — an LGBTQ and intersex advocacy group in Colombia that participated in talks between the country’s government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia that led to an LGBTQ-inclusive peace agreement then-President Juan Manuel Santos and then-FARC Commander Rodrigo “Timochenko” Londoño signed in 2016 — and Afghan LGBT Organization Director Artemis Akbary also took part in the meeting.

Peralta said Colombia’s peace agreement “has created a standard by which other countries can use,” but noted the country’s Special Justice for Peace has yet to prosecute anyone who committed human rights abuses based on sexual orientation or gender identity during the war.

Akbary noted the persecution of LGBTQ and intersex people in Afghanistan has increased since the Taliban regained control of the country in 2021. Akbary also said LGBTQ and intersex Afghans cannot flee to Iran and other neighboring countries because of criminalization laws.

“The whole world is watching as the rights of LGBTQ people are systematically violated in Afghanistan,” said Akbary. “LGBTQ people on the ground in Afghanistan need and deserve protection.”

Representatives of U.N. delegations from France, Brazil, Albania, Japan, Ecuador, Switzerland, the U.K., Malta, Colombia, South Africa, Ireland, Germany, the Netherlands and the European Union spoke in favor of the integration of LGBTQ and intersex rights into the Security Council’s work.

“A person’s actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression or sex characteristics often increases the risk of of becoming the target in conflict and crisis situations,” said Luis Guilherme Parga Cintra of Brazil.

British Ambassador to the U.N. General Assembly Richard Crocker made a similar point.

“We know the conflicts have disproportionate impact on marginalized communities: Women and girls, persons with disabilities, members of ethnic and religious minority groups,” he said. “It is only right the Security Council is discussing this issue today.”

Ambassador Karlito Nunes, who is Timor-Leste’s permanent U.N. representative, read a statement in support of the Security Council discussions about LGBTQ and intersex issues. Representatives from China, Russia and Ghana who spoke said the Security Council is not the appropriate place to discuss them.

“Sexual orientation is an individual choice of every individual,” said the Russian representative.

The meeting took place less than 13 months after Russia launched its war against Ukraine. 

A Russian airstrike on March 1, 2022, killed Elvira Schemur, a 21-year-old law school student who volunteered for Kharkiv Pride and Kyiv Pride, while she was volunteering inside the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv’s regional administration building. Activists with whom the Washington Blade has spoken said LGBTQ and intersex people who lived in Russia-controlled areas of the country did not go outside and tried to hide their sexual orientation or gender identity because they were afraid of Russian soldiers.

A Pride commemoration in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on Sept. 25, 2022. (Photo courtesy of Sphere Women’s Association)

The Security Council’s first-ever LGBTQ-specific meeting, which focused on the Islamic State’s persecution of LGBTQ Syrians and Iraqis, took place in 2015. Then-U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power, who is now director of the U.S. Agency for International Development, and then-International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission Executive Director Jessica Stern, who is now the special U.S. envoy for the promotion of LGBTQ and intersex rights, are among those who participated.

Stern, along with U.S. Reps. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) and Ritchie Torres (D-N.Y.), attended the meeting alongside OutRight International Executive Director Maria Sjödin, among others.

Jessica Stern, the special U.S. envoy for the promotion of LGBTQ and intersex rights abroad, center, speaks outside the U.N. Security Council on March 20, 2023. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

The Security Council in June 2016 formally condemned the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla. The U.N. Human Rights Council a few months later appointed Vitit Muntarbhorn as the first independent U.N. expert on LGBTQ and intersex issues. (Madrigal-Borloz succeeded Muntarbhorn in 2018.)

Then-U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Kelly Knight Craft and then-U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell in 2019 during a U.N. General Assembly meeting hosted an event that focused on efforts to decriminalize consensual same-sex sexual relations around the world. 

President Joe Biden in 2021 signed a memo that committed the U.S. to promoting LGBTQ and intersex rights abroad as part of the Biden-Harris administration’s overall foreign policy. Then-State Department spokesperson Ned Price later told the Washington Blade the decriminalization of consensual same-sex sexual relations is one of the White House’s five priorities as it relates to the promotion of LGBTQ and intersex rights overseas.

The U.S., the U.K., France, China and Russia are the Security Council’s five permanent members. Albania, Brazil, Ecuador, Gabon, Ghana, Japan, Malta, Mozambique, Switzerland and the United Arab Emirates are the 10 non-permanent members.

Ghana and the United Arab Emirates are two of the dozens of countries in which consensual same-sex sexual relations remain criminalized. 

“Today’s meeting was an important first step toward further concrete actions the Security Council, and all parts of the U.N., can take to integrate LGBTQI+ human rights, experiences, and perspectives into their day-to-day work,” Thomas-Greenfield told the Blade in a statement after Monday’s meeting. “We’re proud of the four commitments we made today, and we will keep working to make sure this topic remains on the Council’s agenda.”

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World

Pope Francis: Gender ideology is ‘one of the most dangerous colonizations’ in the world

Argentina newspaper published interview with pontiff on March 10

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Pope Francis (Photo by palinchak via Bigstock)

Pope Francis earlier this month said gender ideology is “one of the most dangerous ideological colonizations” in the world today.

“Gender ideology, today, is one of the most dangerous ideological colonizations,” Francis told La Nación, an Argentine newspaper, in an interview that was published on March 10. “Why is it dangerous? Because it blurs differences and the value of men and women.”

“All humanity is the tension of differences,” added the pontiff. “It is to grow through the tension of differences. The question of gender is diluting the differences and making the world the same, all dull, all alike, and that is contrary to the human vocation.”

The Vatican’s tone towards LGBTQ and intersex issues has softened since since Francis assumed the papacy in 2013.

Francis publicly backs civil unions for same-sex couples, and has described laws that criminalize homosexuality are “unjust.” Church teachings on homosexuality and gender identity have nevertheless not changed since Francis became pope.

Francis told La Nación that he talks about gender ideology “because some people are a bit naive and believe that it is the way to progress.” The Catholic News Agency further notes Francis also said these people “do not distinguish what is respect for sexual diversity or diverse sexual preferences from what is already an anthropology of gender, which is extremely dangerous because it eliminates differences, and that erases humanity, the richness of humanity, both personal, cultural, and social, the diversities and the tensions between differences.”

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Maryland

Md. House of Delegates approves transgender rights bill

State Medicaid program would be required to cover gender-affirming treatment

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Md. state Sen. Mary Washington (D-Baltimore City) speaks at a press conference for the Trans Health Equity Act in Annapolis, Md., on Feb. 14, 2023. (Washington Blade photo by Linus Berggren)

The Maryland House of Delegates on Saturday approved a bill that would require the state’s Medicaid program to cover gender-affirming treatment for transgender people.

House Bill 283, or the Trans Health Equity Act, passed by a 93-37 vote margin. The measure now goes before the Maryland Senate.

“Proud that the MD House of Delegates passed the Trans Health Equity Act with such a strong majority,” tweeted state Del. Anne Kaiser (D-Montgomery County), who introduced HB 283.

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