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LGBT Puerto Ricans still reeling from Hurricane Maria

Federal government response has been sharply criticized



Residents of La Perla, an oceanfront neighborhood in San Juan, Puerto Rico, that suffered extensive damage during Hurricane Maria, have erected handwritten signs asking for water and other basic supplies. (Photo courtesy of Wilfred Labiosa/WAVES AHEAD)

LGBT Puerto Ricans who live in the D.C. area say their family and friends remain in a precarious situation nearly a month after Hurricane Maria devastated the U.S. commonwealth.

Lisbeth Meléndez Rivera, director of the Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s Latinx and Catholic Initiatives, on Monday told the Washington Blade that her parents who live in Caguas, which is about 20 miles south of the Puerto Rican capital of San Juan, still have no electricity at their home. Meléndez also said their water “comes and goes.”

Maria flooded her parents’ home and destroyed their deck and fence.

Meléndez told the Blade her parents have “been spending exorbitant amounts of money on propane for their generator, which” runs from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. She also said her mother told her a neighbor drilled holes into a large soda bottle, attached it to a broom stick and made a makeshift washing machine out of it.

“She’s very excited about this,” joked Meléndez.

Alec Rivera, who lives in Montgomery Village, Md., with his fiancé, told the Blade that most of his family lives in Mayagüez, Aguadilla, Cabo Rojo and Arecibo on Puerto Rico’s west and northwest coasts respectively. He also said he has relatives who live in Toa Alta, which is roughly 18 miles southwest of San Juan.

Rivera told the Blade that Maria “completely uprooted and damaged” the cistern at his great aunt’s house in Toa Alta. He said the hurricane largely spared his grandmother’s home, but electricity and cell phone service remains “spotty.”

Rivera told the Blade his cousin had a baby the day after Maria made landfall. He said she stayed in a hotel for more than a week after giving birth.

Situation ‘better’ in San Juan

Maria made landfall on Puerto Rico’s southeast coast on Sept. 20 with 155 mph winds. Hurricane Irma brushed the U.S. commonwealth on Sept. 7.

Puerto Rican officials say Maria’s death toll stands at 48, but this figure is expected to rise.

More than 80 percent of Puerto Ricans remain without electricity and nearly half of those who live in the U.S. commonwealth lack access to safe drinking water. Maria also caused significant damage to Puerto Rico’s transportation and communications infrastructure.

Victoria Rodríguez Roldán, who lives in D.C., is a plaintiff in a federal lawsuit that urges Puerto Rico to allow transgender people to change the gender marker on their birth certificates. She is also the director of the National LGBTQ Task Force’s Trans/Gender Non-Conforming Justice Project.

Rodríguez’s siblings and niece live in San Juan. She told the Blade on Monday that other members of her family live in Juncos, which is located between Caguas and Humacao in southeastern Puerto Rico.

“In San Juan the situation is much better,” said Rodríguez, noting the only way she has been able to communicate with her relatives in Juncos is via text message.

“I’ve managed to talk to most of them at this point,” she added. “There is no water or running water right now.”

Food and Friends donates to Puerto Rico HIV/AIDS group

Advocacy groups in Puerto Rico and in the U.S. mainland continue to provide assistance to LGBT Puerto Ricans in the wake of Maria.

A CenterLink campaign has raised nearly $20,000 for the LGBT Community Center of Puerto Rico in San Juan’s Hato Rey neighborhood. Food and Friends has pledged to donate at least $30,000 to Bill’s Kitchen, a San Juan-based organization that provides meals to Puerto Ricans with HIV/AIDS.

“We are taking care of many people,” Bill’s Kitchen Executive Director Sandy Torres told the Blade on Tuesday in a short email she sent from her iPhone. “LGTB people always suffer a lot more. That is no different with the hurricane.”

Wilfred Labiosa, co-founder of WAVES AHEAD, an organization that works with at-risk groups in Puerto Rico, told the Blade on Monday during a telephone interview from San Juan that he and other members of his group have been able to reach Caguas and other cities and towns across the island.

“Some communities we have been to, we are the only ones who have outreached,” he said.

Labiosa told the Blade a trans woman was not given access to a cell phone to call her relatives in Arecibo when other people at the shelter in which she is “living” had access to one.

“She was left behind,” said Labiosa. “That was solved in a few hours, but that’s the treatment.”

He also said some trans Puerto Ricans are leaving the island in order to receive hormone treatment.

Trump criticism sparks outrage

Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico less than 16 months after a gunman killed 49 people inside the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla. Nearly half of those who died during the massacre — which was the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history until a gunman killed 58 people during a country music festival in Las Vegas on Oct. 1 — were LGBT Puerto Ricans.

Third Millennium Park, San Juan, Puerto Rico, gay news, Washington Blade

Six flags with each color of the rainbow fly in Third Millennium Park in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on July 6, 2016. A memorial to the victims of the Pulse nightclub massacre is also inside the park. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

President Trump sparked widespread outrage last month when he attacked San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz in a series of tweets after she criticized his administration’s response to Maria. LGBT Puerto Ricans with whom the Blade spoke for this story also mocked Trump for throwing rolls of paper towels to a crowd at a church in Guaynabo on Oct. 3.

“It’s going to take a federal government that is willing to acknowledge we are Americans, that Puerto Rico is part of the United States, that we are equal basically and a federal government that is willing to give Puerto Rico the ability to negotiate it’s debt in its current situation and to acknowledge this is American soil and part of American responsibility and be willing to do the same response that is going on in Florida, Texas and so forth,” Rodríguez told the Blade as she discussed the federal government’s response to Maria.

Meléndez was more direct, noting a friend lives near the church in which Trump threw the rolls of paper towels.

“She said her neighbors were pissed,” Meléndez told the Blade. “She lives in a town that is pretty conservative and pretty pro-statehood. Even then, they were like. I need water. I don’t need you to throw paper towels at me.”

Caribbean activists launch relief efforts

St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands and the French island of Guadeloupe suffered significant damage from Maria before it made landfall in Puerto Rico. The hurricane caused widespread destruction in Dominica when it passed over the island nation on Sept. 18.

Irma caused widespread destruction in Barbuda, St. Barts, St. Martin, Anguilla, the U.S. and British Virgin Islands and Turks and Caicos less than two weeks earlier.

The hurricane damaged an LGBT community center in Santo Domingo, Cuba, when it made landfall on the island’s north central coast on Sept. 9 with 160 mph winds. Irma caused significant damage in the Florida Keys when it made another landfall east of Key West, Fla., on Sept. 11 as a Category 4 hurricane.

Hurricane Irma damaged a portion of the Centro Comunitario de Cultura, an LGBT community center in Santo Domingo, Cuba. The activists who operate the community center continue to seek clothes and other items to help the area’s LGBT residents recover from the hurricane that devastated Cuba’s north central coast in September. (Photo courtesy of Victor Manuel Dueñas/Centro Comunitario de Cultura)

Lavonne Wise, an LGBT rights advocate who works for the Women’s Coalition of St. Croix, which provides assistance to survivors of sexual and domestic violence, lives with her partner in Frederiksted on the island’s west coast.

Wise on Tuesday told the Blade during a telephone interview the island is “greening up again,” but the ground remains saturated from heavy rain.

She said there has been “progress” in St. Croix, noting the federal government’s response to the hurricanes in the Virgin Islands has been vastly better than in Puerto Rico. Wise nevertheless said she and her partner have not had power at their home since Irma brushed St. Croix six weeks ago.

“It’s going to be a long road,” said Wise.

Maykel González, a Cuban LGBT activist and journalist who lives in Sagua la Grande, which is on the island’s north central coast, said he has been unable to report from Irma-damaged areas because “the police threatened me.” He said he has nevertheless been able to speak with some of the areas LGBT residents.

“This is the worst disaster of this type through which they have lived,” González told the Blade. “Some of them have suffered damages to their roofs.”

“In Sagua la Grande there is transsexual prostitution in the area around the train station,” he added, referring to sex workers who worked in the area before Irma. “They have returned to ‘work.’”

The Jamaica-based Caribbean Vulnerable Communities Coalition, which provides healthcare and other services to people with HIV/AIDS and other vulnerable groups in the Caribbean, and the Center for Integrated Training and Research, a Dominican Republic-based HIV/AIDS service organization known by the acronym COIN, are working to provide assistance to the hurricanes’ LGBT victims. The Eastern Caribbean Alliance for Diversity and Equality, a St. Lucia-based group, has also been working to help them.

Kenita Placide, the group’s executive director, told the Blade on Tuesday during a Skype interview from St. Lucia that four advocates from Dominica lost their mother during Maria. She also said the hurricane destroyed other activists’ homes on the island.

“Some of them have no where to stay,” said Placide.

Placide told the Blade that two activists from Dominica were able to travel to St. Lucia last week and attend a women’s conference the Eastern Caribbean Alliance for Diversity and Equality organized.

She said activists from Dominica have been able to bring empty suitcases they can fill with donated clothes and other items that United and Strong, a St. Lucian advocacy group, and her organization have received. Placide told the Blade the Eastern Caribbean Alliance for Diversity and Equality has also been able to top-off cell phones in Dominica once her organization receives the numbers.

“It was better to send items,” she said, referring specifically to Dominica. “The country doesn’t have many things to buy, so it’s actually a better to send things to them in country.”

Placide also told the Blade that people with HIV who live on the hurricane-impacted islands are also not able to access their medications.

“It’s definitely an issue. Even the tracing of the said persons are also very difficult because a lot of people are misplaced right now,” she said. “A lot of people lost all this medication and all access during the hurricane.”

Gay, lesbian 2018 Caribbean cruises scheduled

Trekr Adventures, a D.C.-based company that organizes sailing trips around the world, earlier this year organized an all-LGBT racing team in the 2017 BVI Spring Regatta in the British Virgin Islands.

Josh Seefried, co-founder of Trekr Adventures, told the Blade on Monday the company has raised more than $1,000 that it has given to two recovery funds in the archipelago. He said people from the British Virgin Islands who were at the Annapolis Boat Shows earlier this month described “complete devastation,” but added those who travel to them asked how they can support the recovery efforts.

Jim Cone, the vice president of marketing for Atlantis Events, which operates a number of gay cruises throughout the Caribbean, told the Blade on Monday the company is working with Alturi, an organization that seeks to promote further engagement on LGBT and intersex issues, and other groups “to provide much-needed relief to residents of the Caribbean, including San Juan” in Puerto Rico.

A cruise that is scheduled to leave Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on Jan. 20 will stop in San Juan; Labadee, Haiti, and St. Maarten. A second cruise that is scheduled to depart from San Juan on March 18 will stop in Barbados, St. Lucia, Martinique and St. Martin.

Cone told the Blade the cruise will dock in St. Martin as opposed to St. Barts because of “extensive pier damage” in the French island’s capital of Gustavia.

“We have confirmed that at this time, both our Caribbean cruises should be able to operate their full itineraries as scheduled,” he said.

A spokesperson for Olivia Cruises, a travel company that caters to lesbians, on Tuesday declined to comment.

The company’s website notes a Caribbean cruise that will mark its 45th anniversary will leave Fort Lauderdale on April 2. San Juan and St. Croix are among the destinations that are listed.

San Juan, Puerto Rico, gay news, Washington Blade

San Juan City Hall in July 2016. Gay and lesbian cruise ships are scheduled to dock in the Puerto Rican capital next year. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)


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Honoring the legacy of New Orleans’ 1973 UpStairs Lounge fire

Why the arson attack that killed 32 gay men still resonates 50 years later



Fifty years ago this week, 32 gay men were killed in an arson attack on the UpStairs Lounge in New Orleans. (Photo by G.E. Arnold/Times-Picayune; reprinted with permission)

On June 23 of last year, I held the microphone as a gay man in the New Orleans City Council Chamber and related a lost piece of queer history to the seven council members. I told this story to disabuse all New Orleanians of the notion that silence and accommodation, in the face of institutional and official failures, are a path to healing.  

The story I related to them began on a typical Sunday night at a second-story bar on the fringe of New Orleans’ French Quarter in 1973, where working-class men would gather around a white baby grand piano and belt out the lyrics to a song that was the anthem of their hidden community, “United We Stand” by the Brotherhood of Man. 

“United we stand,” the men would sing together, “divided we fall” — the words epitomizing the ethos of their beloved UpStairs Lounge bar, an egalitarian free space that served as a forerunner to today’s queer safe havens. 

Around that piano in the 1970s Deep South, gays and lesbians, white and Black queens, Christians and non-Christians, and even early gender minorities could cast aside the racism, sexism, and homophobia of the times to find acceptance and companionship for a moment. 

For regulars, the UpStairs Lounge was a miracle, a small pocket of acceptance in a broader world where their very identities were illegal. 

On the Sunday night of June 24, 1973, their voices were silenced in a murderous act of arson that claimed 32 lives and still stands as the deadliest fire in New Orleans history — and the worst mass killing of gays in 20th century America. 

As 13 fire companies struggled to douse the inferno, police refused to question the chief suspect, even though gay witnesses identified and brought the soot-covered man to officers idly standing by. This suspect, an internally conflicted gay-for-pay sex worker named Rodger Dale Nunez, had been ejected from the UpStairs Lounge screaming the word “burn” minutes before, but New Orleans police rebuffed the testimony of fire survivors on the street and allowed Nunez to disappear.

As the fire raged, police denigrated the deceased to reporters on the street: “Some thieves hung out there, and you know this was a queer bar.” 

For days afterward, the carnage met with official silence. With no local gay political leaders willing to step forward, national Gay Liberation-era figures like Rev. Troy Perry of the Metropolitan Community Church flew in to “help our bereaved brothers and sisters” — and shatter officialdom’s code of silence. 

Perry broke local taboos by holding a press conference as an openly gay man. “It’s high time that you people, in New Orleans, Louisiana, got the message and joined the rest of the Union,” Perry said. 

Two days later, on June 26, 1973, as families hesitated to step forward to identify their kin in the morgue, UpStairs Lounge owner Phil Esteve stood in his badly charred bar, the air still foul with death. He rebuffed attempts by Perry to turn the fire into a call for visibility and progress for homosexuals. 

“This fire had very little to do with the gay movement or with anything gay,” Esteve told a reporter from The Philadelphia Inquirer. “I do not want my bar or this tragedy to be used to further any of their causes.” 

Conspicuously, no photos of Esteve appeared in coverage of the UpStairs Lounge fire or its aftermath — and the bar owner also remained silent as he witnessed police looting the ashes of his business. 

“Phil said the cash register, juke box, cigarette machine and some wallets had money removed,” recounted Esteve’s friend Bob McAnear, a former U.S. Customs officer. “Phil wouldn’t report it because, if he did, police would never allow him to operate a bar in New Orleans again.” 

The next day, gay bar owners, incensed at declining gay bar traffic amid an atmosphere of anxiety, confronted Perry at a clandestine meeting. “How dare you hold your damn news conferences!” one business owner shouted. 

Ignoring calls for gay self-censorship, Perry held a 250-person memorial for the fire victims the following Sunday, July 1, culminating in mourners defiantly marching out the front door of a French Quarter church into waiting news cameras. “Reverend Troy Perry awoke several sleeping giants, me being one of them,” recalled Charlene Schneider, a lesbian activist who walked out of that front door with Perry.

(Photo by G.E. Arnold/Times-Picayune; reprinted with permission)

Esteve doubted the UpStairs Lounge story’s capacity to rouse gay political fervor. As the coroner buried four of his former patrons anonymously on the edge of town, Esteve quietly collected at least $25,000 in fire insurance proceeds. Less than a year later, he used the money to open another gay bar called the Post Office, where patrons of the UpStairs Lounge — some with visible burn scars — gathered but were discouraged from singing “United We Stand.” 

New Orleans cops neglected to question the chief arson suspect and closed the investigation without answers in late August 1973. Gay elites in the city’s power structure began gaslighting the mourners who marched with Perry into the news cameras, casting suspicion on their memories and re-characterizing their moment of liberation as a stunt. 

When a local gay journalist asked in April 1977, “Where are the gay activists in New Orleans?,” Esteve responded that there were none, because none were needed. “We don’t feel we’re discriminated against,” Esteve said. “New Orleans gays are different from gays anywhere else… Perhaps there is some correlation between the amount of gay activism in other cities and the degree of police harassment.” 

(Photo by H.J. Patterson/Times-Picayune; reprinted with permission)

An attitude of nihilism and disavowal descended upon the memory of the UpStairs Lounge victims, goaded by Esteve and fellow gay entrepreneurs who earned their keep via gay patrons drowning their sorrows each night instead of protesting the injustices that kept them drinking. 

Into the 1980s, the story of the UpStairs Lounge all but vanished from conversation — with the exception of a few sanctuaries for gay political debate such as the local lesbian bar Charlene’s, run by the activist Charlene Schneider. 

By 1988, the 15th anniversary of the fire, the UpStairs Lounge narrative comprised little more than a call for better fire codes and indoor sprinklers. UpStairs Lounge survivor Stewart Butler summed it up: “A tragedy that, as far as I know, no good came of.” 

Finally, in 1991, at Stewart Butler and Charlene Schneider’s nudging, the UpStairs Lounge story became aligned with the crusade of liberated gays and lesbians seeking equal rights in Louisiana. The halls of power responded with intermittent progress. The New Orleans City Council, horrified by the story but not yet ready to take its look in the mirror, enacted an anti-discrimination ordinance protecting gays and lesbians in housing, employment, and public accommodations that Dec. 12 — more than 18 years after the fire. 

“I believe the fire was the catalyst for the anger to bring us all to the table,” Schneider told The Times-Picayune, a tacit rebuke to Esteve’s strategy of silent accommodation. Even Esteve seemed to change his stance with time, granting a full interview with the first UpStairs Lounge scholar Johnny Townsend sometime around 1989. 

Most of the figures in this historic tale are now deceased. What’s left is an enduring story that refused to go gently. The story now echoes around the world — a musical about the UpStairs Lounge fire recently played in Tokyo, translating the gay underworld of the 1973 French Quarter for Japanese audiences.

When I finished my presentation to the City Council last June, I looked up to see the seven council members in tears. Unanimously, they approved a resolution acknowledging the historic failures of city leaders in the wake of the UpStairs Lounge fire. 

Council members personally apologized to UpStairs Lounge families and survivors seated in the chamber in a symbolic act that, though it could not bring back those who died, still mattered greatly to those whose pain had been denied, leaving them to grieve alone. At long last, official silence and indifference gave way to heartfelt words of healing. 

The way Americans remember the past is an active, ongoing process. Our collective memory is malleable, but it matters because it speaks volumes about our maturity as a people, how we acknowledge the past’s influence in our lives, and how it shapes the examples we set for our youth. Do we grapple with difficult truths, or do we duck accountability by defaulting to nostalgia and bluster? Or worse, do we simply ignore the past until it fades into a black hole of ignorance and indifference? 

I believe that a factual retelling of the UpStairs Lounge tragedy — and how, 50 years onward, it became known internationally — resonates beyond our current divides. It reminds queer and non-queer Americans that ignoring the past holds back the present, and that silence is no cure for what ails a participatory nation. 

Silence isolates. Silence gaslights and shrouds. It preserves the power structures that scapegoat the disempowered. 

Solidarity, on the other hand, unites. Solidarity illuminates a path forward together. Above all, solidarity transforms the downtrodden into a resounding chorus of citizens — in the spirit of voices who once gathered ‘round a white baby grand piano and sang, joyfully and loudly, “United We Stand.” 

(Photo by Philip Ames/Times-Picayune; reprinted with permission)

Robert W. Fieseler is a New Orleans-based journalist and the author of “Tinderbox: the Untold Story of the Up Stairs Lounge Fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation.”

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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



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



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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