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Washington Blade reporter ejected from DOJ Pride event

Similar celebrations open to media during Obama years

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Washington Blade reporter Chris Johnson was ejected from the DOJ Pride event at the Justice Department.

A Washington Blade reporter was ejected from an event Wednesday at the U.S. Justice Department observing June as Pride month — among the last of the events hosted by LGBT affinity groups for federal workers. Similar celebrations under the Obama administration were open to the media.

Dozens of employees — among them LGBT attorneys within the Justice Department and federal law enforcement officials — attended the event, which was titled “Solidarity through Pride” and held in the Great Hall of the Justice Department building.

Representing the Justice Department was acting Assistant Attorney General for National Security Dana Boente, an Obama administration hold-over who also serves as U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia.

“Whatever an individual’s background, Americans come together to support one another,” Boente said. “In this country, we know that our unity makes us stronger. We’re united in our respect for the rule of law and the preservation of the freedoms of all of us. Americans understand that in this country liberty means liberty for all. Freedom belongs not to any one race, gender or orientation.”

Boente also invoked the shooting at the congressional baseball practice earlier this month in which House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) was severely wounded. Lesbian Capitol Police officer Crystal Griner, who was on the scene and helped take down the attacker but was wounded herself, is a hero, Boente said.

“Officer Griner is rightly a hero of the LGBT community; she is also a hero for the entire country,” Boente said.

Under U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Boente said a top priority would be “combatting the rise of violent crime” and the Justice Department was already taking steps to pursue that goal.

At about that point in Boente’s remarks, a Justice Department official approached and said the Blade had to be escorted out because the DOJ Pride event was closed to the press. The Blade complied.

The closed-press rule for the event is unusual. The Blade attended and covered DOJ Pride events as a member of the press numerous times during the Obama administration — under both former U.S. Attorneys General Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch.

The Blade was also allowed under the Trump administration to cover a Pride event for LGBT service members and civilians at the Pentagon with full cooperation of officials. Washington Blade Editor Kevin Naff delivered the keynote address last week at the Small Business Administration’s Pride event.

Naff criticized the decision to close the event to media outlets.

“These events have historically been open to the media and this action at DOJ today is an unfortunate break with tradition,” Naff said. “Holding Pride celebrations behind closed doors violates the very spirit of such events and we urge all government agencies to let the sun shine in.”

A Justice Department official responded to Blade inquiries about the DOJ Pride event via email shortly before it began and said the event would be closed to press, but by that time — less than 30 minutes before the event was set to begin — the Blade was already entering the event after being informed second-hand the event was cleared by public affairs. The email was unseen until after the Blade was escorted out.

As Buzzfeed reported, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions spoke positively about the DOJ Pride event on video when an intern asked him about it last week during another event.

“We are going to have a pride group, in this very room, I think next week, I believe it is, and so that’s perfectly appropriate, and we will protect and defend and celebrate that — and protect the rights of all transgender persons,” Sessions said.

Sessions has a long anti-LGBT history as a U.S. senator from Alabama. Along with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, he revoked guidance to schools assuring transgender students have access to the bathroom consistent with their gender identity.

Set to deliver keynote addresses at the DOJ Pride event — and unseen by the Blade — were Michelle Benecke, executive director for management integration for the Immediate Office of the Undersecretary for Management at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and Sultan Shakir, executive director of the D.C.-based youth group SMYAL, or Supporting & Mentoring Youth Advocates & Leaders.

Set to deliver the closing remarks was Granette Trent, assistant director for affirmative employment on the Equal Employment Opportunity Staff at the Justice Management Division.

Attending in person to receive the Gerald B. Roemer Community Service Award — and with a newly dyed green streak in his hair — was Gavin Grimm, the transgender student suing his Gloucester County high school for not allowing him to use the restroom consistent with his gender identity.

Attorneys at the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division were set to the receive the James R. Douglass Award for litigation started under the Obama administration in favor of transgender rights.

One recipient of the award was the Civil Rights Division team that challenged North Carolina anti-LGBT House Bill 2 (which has since been withdrawn under Sessions after Gov. Roy Cooper replaced HB2 with a different law LGBT advocates say is still discriminatory). The other was the Civil Rights Division team that sued Southeastern Oklahoma State University for allegedly discriminating against a transgender professor.

Singing the National Anthem at the event was Garrick Jordan, a member of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington. The emcee was Robert Koch, vice president of DOJ Pride and attorney for the appellate section of the Civil Rights Division.

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Russia

U.S. official meets with Brittney Griner

Consular visit took place on May 19

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A mugshot of WNBA star Brittney Griner, who was arrested on drug charges in the country after Russian officials say cannabis oil was found in her luggage. (Russian television screenshot)

A U.S. consular official on May 19 visited detained WNBA star Brittney Griner in Russia.

State Department spokesperson Ned Price on Friday told reporters during a virtual briefing the officer “found her continuing to do as well as could be expected under these exceedingly challenging circumstances.” The officer met with Griner two days after U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan said Russian officials had denied consular visits with her three times this month.

“Our message is a clear and simple one,” said Price. “We continue to insist that Russia allow consistent and timely consular access to all U.S. citizen detainees. One-off visits are not sufficient, and we will continue to call on Moscow to uphold its commitments under the Vienna Convention for consistent and timely access as well.”

Griner — a center for the Phoenix Mercury and a two-time Olympic gold medalist who is a lesbian and married to her wife — was taken into custody at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February. Russian officials said customs inspectors found hashish oil in her luggage.

The State Department has determined Russia “wrongfully detained” Griner. 

A Russian court on May 13 extended her detention for another month. The Women’s National Basketball Players Association, a union that represents WNBA players, has endorsed a petition that urges the Biden administration to “prioritize” Griner’s release.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, on May 14.

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Latin America

U.S. announces more funding to fight HIV/AIDS in Latin America

Jill Biden made announcement on Saturday in Panama

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Former Panamanian first lady Lorena Castillo and UNAIDS in 2017 launched a campaign to fight discrimination against Panamanians with HIV/AIDS. Panama will receive $12.2 million in new PEPFAR funding to further combat the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Latin America. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

First lady Jill Biden on Saturday announced the U.S. will provide an additional $80.9 million to the fight against HIV/AIDS in Latin America.

Biden during a visit to Casa Hogar el Buen Samaritano, a shelter for people with HIV/AIDS in Panama City, said the State Department will earmark an additional $80.9 million for President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief-funded work in Latin America. A Panamanian activist with whom the Washington Blade spoke said LGBTQ people were among those who met with the first lady during her visit.

Pope Francis visited the shelter in 2019.

“I’m glad we have the opportunity to talk about how the United States and Panama can work together to combat HIV,” said the first lady.

Michael LaRosa, the first lady’s spokesperson, noted Panama will receive $12.2 million of the $80.9 million in PEPFAR funding.

“This funding, pending Congressional notification, will support expanded HIV/AIDS services and treatment,” said LaRosa.

UNAIDS statistics indicate an estimated 31,000 Panamanians were living with HIV/AIDS in 2020. The first lady’s office notes the country in 2020 had the highest number of “newly notificated cases of HIV/AIDS” in Central America.

The first lady visited Panama as part of a trip that included stops in Ecuador and Costa Rica.

The Summit of the Americas will take place next month in Los Angeles. The U.S. Agency for International Development and PEPFAR in April announced they delivered more than 18 million doses of antiretroviral drugs for Ukrainians with HIV/AIDS.

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Politics

Republican Pa. governor nominee opposes LGBTQ rights

Former President Trump backed state Sen. Doug Mastriano

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Pennsylvania State Sen. Doug Mastriano (Screenshot/NBC News)

Republican leadership in the Keystone State are expressing quiet alarm over the emergence of radical-right state senator who secured his place as the party’s nominee in the race against Democratic nominee for governor, Josh Shapiro, who is himself currently serving as the commonwealth’s attorney general.

State Sen. Doug Mastriano, who represents Cumberland, Adams, Franklin and York Counties in the South Central Pennsylvania area bordering Maryland, was not seen as a truly viable candidate in the primary race to be the party standard-bearer until he was endorsed by former President Trump.

Pennsylvania’s gubernatorial race has serious implications for the outcome of the 2024 presidential election cycle as well. The commonwealth is a strategic swing state and the occupant of the governor’s chair in Harrisburg will lend considerable influence to a final vote count.

Mastriano is a polarizing figure within the state’s Republican Party.

The retired U.S. Army colonel has campaigned at political events that included QAnon adherents, he espoused a political agenda that embraced Trump’s Big Lie about the 2020 election, rejected measures taken to protect Pennsylvanians including masks in the coronavirus pandemic, holding an anti-vaccine “Medical Freedom Rally” rally on the state Capitol steps days after declaring his candidacy for the GOP governor’s primary race, and also mixing in messaging of Christian nationalism.

He also supports expanding gun rights in Pennsylvania and in the state Senate sponsored a bill to ban abortion once a heartbeat is detected.

NBC News noted that Mastriano pledged in his election night address that on the first day of his administration he would crack down on “critical race theory,” a catchall term Republicans have used to target school equity programs and new ways of teaching about race, transgender rights and any remaining COVID-19 vaccine requirements.

“CRT is over,” Mastriano declared. “Only biological females can play on biological females’ teams,” he added, and “you can only use the bathroom that your biology and anatomy says.”

His anti-LGBTQ views have long been part of his personal portfolio. The Washington Post reported that 21 years ago while attending the Air Force’s Air Command and Staff College in 2001, then-Maj. Mastriano wrote his master’s thesis on a hypothetical “left-wing ‘Hitlerian putsch'” that was caused by “the depredations of the country’s morally debauched civilian leaders.” Among those “depredations,” in his words, was the “insertion of homosexuality into the military.”

As the Post reported, his paper shows “disgust for anyone who doesn’t hold his view that homosexuality is a form of ‘aberrant sexual conduct.'”

The paper is posted on an official Defense Department website and lists Mastriano as the author at a time when he said he received a master’s degree from the school.

This is not the only instance of Mastriano professing anti-LGBTQ beliefs. 

In 2018, he stated his belief that LGBTQ couples should not be allowed to adopt a child. During an interview with 103.7 FM, when asked “should LGBTQ couples, i.e. two moms or two dads, be allowed to adopt?” Mastriano answered, “No.” [This takes place at the 16:00 mark.]

NBC News interviewed David La Torre, a Republican and former adviser to fellow gubernatorial candidate Jake Corman.

“As far as what a Pennsylvania government would look like with Mastriano in charge, quite frankly, it’s just not something I’m ready to think about at this point,” La Torre said, adding that while there are many unknowns, the dynamic between Mastriano and the state General Assembly, currently controlled by Republicans, would be one to watch. 

“All I know is this — he will govern as governor like he campaigned,” he said. “He would govern with a sledgehammer and expect Republicans to fall in line. And it would be one of the more fascinating tugs of war we’ve seen in Harrisburg.”

Dave Ball, chairman of the Washington County GOP, told NBC News that Mastriano’s victory was “a shame” for the party, the product of “a phenomenon that I truly don’t understand.” But any misgivings won’t stop Ball from working toward the ultimate goal: taking back the governor’s mansion, saying it’s a must-win race. (The two-term incumbent, Tom Wolf, a Democrat, is term-limited.)

As if telegraphing the battles to come should he take the governor’s chair, Politico reported: “Our biggest problem,” said Mastriano on Steve Bannon’s “War Room: Pandemic” podcast on Tuesday, “is going to be these feckless RINO-type Republicans here that will not allow us to have a fighter as governor. But we’re going to beat them and they’re going to lose power, and they’re going to be put to shame.”

Mastriano lists agenda as governor during Pa. GOP nominee victory speech:

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