After more than 40 years of activism and three terms as mayor of Houston, Annise Parker has taken on a new leadership role as CEO of the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund and Institute.
The change in leadership for the organizations was announced Friday at the annual International LGBTQ Leaders Conference. Parker, 61, told the crowd times have changed since she began her activism in the 1970s, but too many LGBT people “still have to fear” many of the dangers LGBT people faced decades ago.
“We celebrate milestones,” Parker said. “My race was one. But when you’re checking off milestones, it means you have not reached the end of the journey, and we don’t reach the end of this journey until all those fears are swept away and until all of our communities — across the United States, across cultures, across ethnicities — everyone of us has an equal opportunity to succeed.”
In an interview with the Washington Blade on Friday at the conference, Parker said the focus of her work would be on supporting LGBT candidates ready to make a difference.
“But it’s not just about having candidates, it’s about making sure that those candidates are funded and the Victory Fund does a great job of vetting candidates,” Parker said. “You have to have a good candidate, but passion’s not enough. You have to demonstrate their viability, and their ability to be successful.”
Parker takes the reins of the Victory Fund and Institute after the organizations were led for two-and-a-half years by Aisha Moodie-Mills, whose tenure was marked by historic wins by transgender candidates in local races in 2017. Moodie-Mills has left the organization with the stated purpose of championing work as a progressive activist.
Based on her long history in the LGBT movement, Parker said she brings a “different mindset” than Moodie-Mills and will be focused on the candidates, not progressive activism.
“I bring a different energy, I bring a different focus. My focus is on the candidate, but that doesn’t mean that anything we’ve done has been wrong or misplaced or inappropriate,” Parker said. “We just bring different styles and interests.”
Parker said the Victory Fund and Institute would take on the Trump administration “whenever we feel it’s necessary,” but keep electing LGBT candidates as the focus.
“Because it’s clear that simply standing up and speaking out against President Trump doesn’t have an impact, the best way to blunt his ability to hurt us is to put people in office who can vote against his anti-gay policies,” Parker said.
Parker will stay in Houston as CEO of the Victory Fund and Institute, but plans to travel often for the organizations, and will regularly be in D.C. Her tenure as CEO begins Monday.
Read the full interview here:
Washington Blade: We’ve seen a lot of success with LGBT candidates in 2017, particularly with the transgender wins in local races. How do you plan on building on that success going forward?
Annise Parker: Being successful in political campaigns starts with the candidate, so we are just as proud of the turnouts for our candidate training, the expressions of interest from candidates all over the country in running out and seeking Victory Fund support, so continuing to tap into the passion that people have right now and helping channel that into the campaigns.
But it’s not just about having candidates, it’s about making sure that those candidates are funded and the Victory Fund does a great job of vetting candidates. You have to have a good candidate, but passion’s not enough. You have to demonstrate their viability, and their ability to be successful. And so, that process is an important piece.
But then, once you have the right candidate in right race, it’s about making sure they have the resources and I know a lot of what I’ll be focused on, as the board does, is making sure that our candidates have the funding they need.
What I’ve seen over this — not quite a year — now, but through 2017 is the energy across the country. LGBT candidates, candidates of color, candidates who are women who are stepping up saying, “Enough is enough.” I want to make a difference and I’m going to jump into races, and they’re not discouraged at all by the idea that it’s an uphill battle, or that from an objective perspective, doesn’t look like they can win there.
They’re in it to win, but they’re not afraid of losing. They want to get out there and make statements. It’s a great time to come and tap into that kind of energy.
So we’re going to do that, but the fundamentals of Victory Fund haven’t changed in a very long time.
Blade: I wanted to ask you about that because I know you talked in your speech about how hard it was to be part of an organization in 1975 compared to 2017.
Parker: Different and it’s not different.
We have made tremendous progress, but if you look at when I was an activist in the 70s and 80s, I used to debate homophobes all the time, and they used to talk about the gay agenda. Remember the gay agenda? And I used to laugh and say there was no gay agenda.
Over time, I finally realized that there was a gay agenda, and the gay agenda is fairly straight forward. We want to be able to go to school without being bullied, we want to be to work at jobs we love and earn a paycheck so we can pay taxes to this country, we want to be able to serve openly in the military, we want to be able to walk down any street in America in safety, we want to be able to marry the people we love, we want to be able to adopt and raise children. That’s the GLBT agenda.
Many of those things we have achieved, but what we see now is how easily they can be swept away when we have the wrong person in the White House and the wrong attitude in Congress. So we made progress, but we can take this giant step back if we don’t keep our eyes focused on moving forward.
Blade: But what I wanted to get at there is do you think it’s simply enough for candidates to be out about their sexual orientation and gender identity, or is there something more that’s needed in 2017 in order to make an impact?
Parker: Yes and no.
It’s not enough to be a gay candidate. You have to be good at what you do. We have high expectations for our candidates, and that’s why we vet them, it’s why we look closely at their viability and the races they’re in. Not everybody who seeks a Victory Fund endorsement gets that Victory Fund endorsement.
But are we sending them out to be activists? No. We are sending them out to be who they are and represent their constituents and do the job they’ve been elected to do because when they do that, they make the really profound changes that we need to see that have been so transformative in America.
This latest anti-trans movement really, I think, unfortunately, wasn’t launched in Houston, but our HERO campaign [the 2015 campaign to preserve the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance] was where it really flowered. We had right-wing groups from all over the country, pouring money and resources in Houston. We had the right-wing ideologues coming through, the Mike Huckabees and Ted Cruzes coming though Houston and doing trans-bashing in Houston, and then they took it on the road to North Carolina and back to Texas with the statewide bathroom bill.
The difference in my more than 40 years of activism: No one in America can say they know no person who is gay or lesbian. Whether it’s simply they say, “Well, I know Ellen on TV,” whatever it is, they know someone, and very, very few people in America today can say they don’t know anyone, either in their family or their community who is gay.
But for too many Americans, transgender issues are unknown. They don’t know someone who is transgender; they don’t understand what the issues are, and they make them the other. And a lot of what we’re seeing is the arguments are the same arguments they used against us — us meaning the gay and lesbian part of the LGBT community — against the transgender community. Today, it’s the same arguments just slightly repackaged, but it’s all about taking something that is unknown and that you can create a fear around it and use it for either for political purposes or economic purposes.
And so, what is going to be so powerful, just as it took us a long time to get there for the gay and lesbian community, but this is a different era, and I think we’re going to make much faster progress, but what it’s going to take is our transgender brothers and sisters to get out there and speak for themselves, to go out as candidates and raise awareness.
And again, they don’t have to carry the flag for the community. They have to be out and they have to do a good job, and that’s what changes hearts and minds.
Blade: Let’s talk about the Victory Institute. Where do you envision that going as an organization, particularly the robust international program?
Parker: I started by saying the focus is on the candidates. We can’t win races if you don’t have the candidates, and that is the Victory Institute.
But we all understand we can turn this negative tide that’s coming out of Washington, we can firmly secure our rights here in America and we have to realize that agenda that I outlined, that still has to be won in all of these other countries around the world, and that we have a responsibility from our positions of relative privilege to make sure to support people who are doing the seminal work in those countries. It’s not about America; it’s about the LGBT community.
And some of the most horrific problems are going on in other places. When I was mayor of Houston, Houston has a huge international focus and I did a lot of trade missions. And everywhere I went, I made a practice of meeting with local LGBT leaders and women’s organizations, so I have met with lesbians in South Africa and transgender women in Indonesia, India and Brazil.
The tip of the spear right now is transgender issues. Their courage particularly in countries where it’s not — they’re not worried about walking down the street and having someone say something rude to them, they’re worried about walking down the street and having someone kill them. And we have to make sure that we stand together with them.
Blade: The anti-LGBT policies of the Trump administration are ongoing. To what extent will the Victory Fund and the Institute tackle that?
Parker: As an organization, our focus is on supporting candidates, but we are advocates for LGBT rights and issues, so with the other organizations in this space, we’ll stand up whenever we feel it’s necessary, but we also believe that the best way to blunt that — because it’s clear that simply standing up and speaking out against President Trump doesn’t have any impact, the best way to blunt his ability to hurt us is to put people in office who can vote against his anti-gay policies.
What I’ve seen over the last year, I actually did some extensive polling in Houston for other purposes, people in an odd way, they see Trump as a one-off. Trump is not the embodiment of the Republican Party for a lot of people. I know we like to think that that’s the case, those of us who are Democrats probably think that’s the case and we’re going to use that to demonize him, which doesn’t take much work, and use that to run. It’s not enough.
He’s Donald Trump, and there’s a core following that he has, but for most Americans, whether they love him or hate him, he’s over there, he’s a one-off, and it doesn’t translate into other down-ballot races.
Blade: That’s kind of what I wanted to get at with your vision for the Victory Fund and Institute. Would you say that they’re progressive organizations, or do they seek to advance LGBT people, LGBT rights regardless of political affiliation or ideology?
Parker: So that’s a really interesting question.
It’s clear that Aisha Moodie-Mills is very much a part of the progressive movement. I like to consider myself there as well, but as an organization our focus is completely bipartisan and it is about finding capable, qualified LGBT candidates, helping them get elected.
Now, capable and qualified, someone who’s LGBT but is ashamed of it, someone who’s LGBT and actively supports anti-gay legislative initiatives, we would not support that kind of candidate. So does that make us a progressive organization?
We also build alliances. Many of our candidates are pro-choice, they have progressive political agendas and they build coalitions in order to get elected. It’s not as if there’s any place in America — well, maybe West Hollywood, who knows — where we are a majority, so it requires us to build coalitions.
And our LGBT candidates are masters of putting together strong coalitions across racial and ethnic lines, with labor, with environmental organizations and voters in order to put a winning package together, so by that definition, we are absolutely a progressive organization, but that’s not our focus.
Blade: Would you say you’d have a different approach than Aisha going forward, or is it building off what she did?
Parker: I think we have to reflect what’s happening in the world around us as an organization. I’m a generation of activists older than she. I have children older than she is — adopted children, children nonetheless — and I bring a different mindset.
I was an activist in the 70s and I have seen the changes and sort of the arc of our history. I bring a different energy, I bring a different focus. My focus is on the candidate, but that doesn’t mean that anything we’ve done has been wrong or misplaced or inappropriate. We just bring different styles and interests, and as I said, we have to have coalitions to get elected. Maybe someday the right will offer us opportunities for coalition building, but today all of our coalitions are going to be on the left and in progressive communities because the right has become so virulently anti-gay.
There are gay elected officials here who are Republicans and so stand up proudly within their party and never waver on our issues, and we need more of that.
Blade: In the past, the Victory Institute has sought to appoint LGBT people to the U.S. government. Will the Victory Institute continue that within the Trump administration? I’m aware of four Trump appointees who are LGBT. Would the Victory Institute support them?
Parker: Our goal is to put people into office where they can make a difference. It’s not very fertile ground to plow, but that doesn’t mean we’re not going to try to plow it.
Blade: And will you continue to support Republican candidates who are LGBT?
Parker: Yes. But they have to, obviously, support, as I have outlined, the LGBT agenda.
It’s not about political party, it’s about making sure we have candidates who can advocate, or just being present. There are times when I was in office in the 18 years that I was in office that I had to stand up and articulate LGBT issues, but I think I was just as effective those times when I was simply there with my wife and making sure that they had to deal with me on human basis.
And if you talk to the office holders in the room, you’ll find out that they all have those kinds of stories where they’ve managed to change the trajectory of a bill or made inroads in some way simply because they were there and fully present in all aspects of their life.
Blade: Let’s talk about the approach to the candidates Victory Fund endorses. I think one big issue, and you talked about this in your speech, is religious freedom and the tension that has with LGBT rights, rightly or wrongly.
Parker: No one has a right to discriminate against me. I mean, that’s what RFRA bills are. The right to discriminate. If you are given the right to discriminate against me because I’m gay or because I’m transgender, why is that any different from you having to discriminate against someone who happens to be black or who happens to be a religion you don’t agree with. We have to fight against these bills.
Blade: But what would be your advice to candidates who are confronted with this? I remember when you were mayor of Houston, this became an issue with the subpoena of the sermons and there was this big argument that was infringing upon these pastors’ religious liberty.
Parker: There was a big argument. It happened without me knowing about it. I didn’t think it was wrong, but I rescinded it simply because it created too much of a peripheral issue. But that had to do with litigation around HERO. It wasn’t anything to do with RFRA or the ability to discriminate. That actually was around the litigation.
Blade: But what would be your advice to candidates who are confronted by those who say your views are an assault on religious liberty?
Parker: We are all Americans, and one of the bedrock values of America is that we treat each other fairly and decently and that everyone should be afforded the full rights of being an American.
We have fought wars against people who targeted minority populations. In World War II, millions of Americans died to fight an enemy that was specifically targeting Jews, Gypsies and LGBT people. It is fundamentally un-American. It took us a long time to get it right. We had to go through segregation, but it is fundamentally un-American to say I don’t like you, I’m not going to serve you. Once you allow someone to do that, it’s impossible to draw the line again.
Blade: One other thing I wanted to ask you about, we mentioned the Trump administration, I’m very curious as to what your take is on the massive hurricanes we had in recent months and Houston was devastated by Hurricane Harvey. How would you evaluate the administration’s handling of the response?
Parker: And I had a great deal of fun with Ann Coulter and my hurricane weather control abilities.
His response to the hurricane?
Blade: How would you evaluate that?
Parker: Inadequate across the board, but mediocre in Texas and in Florida and absolutely embarrassing in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Blade: Why do you think there’s that discrepancy?
Parker: I think it’s all about his voting base. In Texas we’re also fighting against an incompetent state government that is not fully funding the recovery.
And this is my opinion. I’m not going to speak for the Victory Fund here because this is far afield of that. But having been an elected official at the local level, the Bush 43 administration learned after Katrina, and the Obama administration absolutely, Texas, Republican leadership, Rick Perry — I had a great working relationship with Rick Perry — they understood what was needed to recover from those kinds of storms, and you saw that in Sandy.
Now I think we have an administration that fundamentally doesn’t understand the role of the federal government in disaster recovery, doesn’t want to spend money on people who aren’t part of the president’s voting base and have had a tremendous amount of turnover in those positions, so actually have lost the expertise to know what to do, so it’s a three-fer, and it’s causing tremendous problems.
Texas voted for Trump.
Blade: Houston did not, though.
Parker: Houston did not. The big cities across Texas are all Democratic islands in a big, red sea, but Texas voted for Trump. 20 percent of the refining capacity is in Houston or just on the border of the city of Houston. You would think from a strategic standpoint that he’d be focusing on making sure that there’s a complete recovery across the energy industry base down there, but it’s not happening.
And Puerto Rico? They don’t vote. It’s an afterthought.
Blade: I want to go back to Texas and talk about Pigeon v. Turner. [A case in which the Texas Supreme Court questioned whether the Obergefell ruling guarantees same-sex spousal to city employees. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to review the decision of the Texas Supreme Court, which remanded its findings to lower state court.]
Parker: Actually, it was Piegon v. Parker. It’s referred to both ways, but yeah.
Blade: You mentioned that in your speech. How concerned are you about that litigation?
Parker: When you track what happened, the state Supreme Court refused to intervene, and then the lieutenant governor of the state of Texas, the governor and the right-wing leaders across the state put pressure on the elected state Supreme Court, and they re-evaluated and then sent it back down to the appellate court.
It’s transparent to everybody in the state that they bowed to political pressure. That said, the argument being made by the right is that the Supreme Court says you can have marriage, but you can’t have benefits. There’s no right to benefits. Well, that’s absurd. Ultimately, if we get all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, they’ll straighten it out.
But from a practical standpoint, even if we lose Pigeon v. Parker, Pigeon v. Turner, even if the city of Houston loses, there’s no impact because the mayor of Houston is going to continue to offer benefits. They possibly have a pyrrhic victory which says no you don’t have to offer benefits, and well say, no, we don’t have to offer them but we’re going to. Mayor Turner’s clear on that and we’ll go forward.
But I have no faith in the Texas Supreme Court. In fact, we have several really great candidates running statewide. One of our LGBT candidates is a local elected judge who’s running for the state Supreme Court for precisely this reason, that they are making these kinds of political decisions. But there’ll be no practical impact from it.
Blade: My last question is as someone how has been part of the movement for so many years, how would you evaluate the LGBT movement now? Is it stronger than it was, or is it more anemic?
Parker: Yes and no.
It’s stronger in the sense there’s so many more people, it’s broader and deeper and it’s really reflective of the vast diversity of our community across America, but it’s weaker in only one sense. And that is that we have made gains and there a lot of folks who felt we can lay our burden down, no, we got this, it’s going to go in the right direction, I can go do other things, I don’t have to show up and vote every time, I don’t have to send money to all these organizations, I don’t have to protest or write letters or do this. Yes you do.
So on the whole it is much stronger, but it’s different and the issues evolve, and how we have to address those issues evolved. And I’ll just close with we had a vote on Houston’s non-discrimination ordinance.
And to be clear, because the media gets this wrong all the time, we had no non-discrimination ordinance. We didn’t decide to add gender identity and sexual orientation. We had zero ordinance. So we wrote a comprehensive ordinance that included everybody, and when the citizens of Houston voted it down, we don’t have an ordinance that protects black people in Houston.
Everything about the anti-HERO vote was about men in women’s bathrooms, but what was interesting is the average age of voters was 68 years old. If the average age of voter in the city of Houston election had been 50, we would have won. If the average age of voter had been 35, they would have laughed it off the ballot.
I think we’re going to win the war. In fact, we’ve already won the war, but we lose a lot of battles between now and then, and we can’t take our foot off the pedal. All of the things we’ve been doing for the last 45 years since Stonewall basically throwing ourselves into the political process, showing up, voting, protesting when necessary, we still have to keep doing it.
It’s extremely frustrating, the HERO vote because of the low turnout. And young people, you absolutely got it, but they have to vote.
Note: This interview has been edited for length.
Equality Act, contorted as a danger by anti-LGBTQ forces, is all but dead
No political willpower to force vote or reach a compromise
Despite having President Biden in the White House and Democratic majorities in both chambers of Congress, efforts to update federal civil rights laws to strengthen the prohibition on discrimination against LGBTQ people by passing the Equality Act are all but dead as opponents of the measure have contorted it beyond recognition.
Political willpower is lacking to find a compromise that would be acceptable to enough Republican senators to end a filibuster on the bill — a tall order in any event — nor is there the willpower to force a vote on the Equality Act as opponents stoke fears about transgender kids in sports and not even unanimity in the Democratic caucus in favor of the bill is present, stakeholders who spoke to the Blade on condition of anonymity said.
In fact, there are no imminent plans to hold a vote on the legislation even though Pride month is days away, which would be an opportune time for Congress to demonstrate solidarity with the LGBTQ community by holding a vote on the legislation.
If the Equality Act were to come up for a Senate vote in the next month, it would not have the support to pass. Continued assurances that bipartisan talks are continuing on the legislation have yielded no evidence of additional support, let alone the 10 Republicans needed to end a filibuster.
“I haven’t really heard an update either way, which is usually not good,” one Democratic insider said. “My understanding is that our side was entrenched in a no-compromise mindset and with [Sen. Joe] Manchin saying he didn’t like the bill, it doomed it this Congress. And the bullying of hundreds of trans athletes derailed our message and our arguments of why it was broadly needed.”
The only thing keeping the final nail from being hammered into the Equality Act’s coffin is the unwillingness of its supporters to admit defeat. Other stakeholders who spoke to the Blade continued to assert bipartisan talks are ongoing, strongly pushing back on any conclusion the legislation is dead.
Alphonso David, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said the Equality Act is “alive and well,” citing widespread public support he said includes “the majority of Democrats, Republicans and independents and a growing number of communities across the country engaging and mobilizing every day in support of the legislation.”
“They understand the urgent need to pass this bill and stand up for LGBTQ people across our country,” David added. “As we engage with elected officials, we have confidence that Congress will listen to the voices of their constituents and continue fighting for the Equality Act through the lengthy legislative process. We will also continue our unprecedented campaign to grow the already-high public support for a popular bill that will save lives and make our country fairer and more equal for all. We will not stop until the Equality Act is passed.”
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), chief sponsor of the Equality Act in the Senate, also signaled through a spokesperson work continues on the legislation, refusing to give up on expectations the legislation would soon become law.
“Sen. Merkley and his staff are in active discussions with colleagues on both sides of the aisle to try to get this done,” McLennan said. “We definitely see it as a key priority that we expect to become law.”
A spokesperson Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who had promised to force a vote on the Equality Act in the Senate on the day the U.S. House approved it earlier this year, pointed to a March 25 “Dear Colleague” letter in which he identified the Equality Act as one of several bills he’d bring up for a vote.
Despite any assurances, the hold up on the bill is apparent. Although the U.S. House approved the legislation earlier this year, the Senate Judiciary Committee hasn’t even reported out the bill yet to the floor in the aftermath of the first-ever Senate hearing on the bill in March. A Senate Judiciary Committee Democratic aide, however, disputed that inaction as evidence the Equality Act is dead in its tracks: “Bipartisan efforts on a path forward are ongoing.”
Democrats are quick to blame Republicans for inaction on the Equality Act, but with Manchin withholding his support for the legislation they can’t even count on the entirety of their caucus to vote “yes” if it came to the floor. Progressives continue to advocate an end to the filibuster to advance legislation Biden has promised as part of his agenda, but even if they were to overcome headwinds and dismantle the institution needing 60 votes to advance legislation, the Equality Act would likely not have majority support to win approval in the Senate with a 50-50 party split.
The office of Manchin, who has previously said he couldn’t support the Equality Act over concerns about public schools having to implement the transgender protections applying to sports and bathrooms, hasn’t responded to multiple requests this year from the Blade on the legislation and didn’t respond to a request to comment for this article.
Meanwhile, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who declined to co-sponsor the Equality Act this year after having signed onto the legislation in the previous Congress, insisted through a spokesperson talks are still happening across the aisle despite the appearances the legislation is dead.
“There continues to be bipartisan support for passing a law that protects the civil rights of Americans, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity,” said Annie Clark, a Collins spokesperson. “The Equality Act was a starting point for negotiations, and in its current form, it cannot pass. That’s why there are ongoing discussions among senators and stakeholders about a path forward.”
Let’s face it: Anti-LGBTQ forces have railroaded the debate by making the Equality Act about an end to women’s sports by allowing transgender athletes and danger to women in sex-segregated places like bathrooms and prisons. That doesn’t even get into resolving the issue on drawing the line between civil rights for LGBTQ people and religious freedom, which continues to be litigated in the courts as the U.S. Supreme Court is expected any day now to issue a ruling in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia to determine if foster care agencies can reject same-sex couples over religious objections.
For transgender Americans, who continue to report discrimination and violence at high rates, the absence of the Equality Act may be most keenly felt.
Mara Keisling, outgoing executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, disputed any notion the Equality Act is dead and insisted the legislation is “very much alive.”
“We remain optimistic despite misinformation from the opposition,” Keisling said. “NCTE and our movement partners are still working fruitfully on the Equality Act with senators. In fact, we are gaining momentum with all the field organizing we’re doing, like phone banking constituents to call their senators. Legislating takes time. Nothing ever gets through Congress quickly. We expect to see a vote during this Congress, and we are hopeful we can win.”
But one Democratic source said calls to members of Congress against the Equality Act, apparently coordinated by groups like the Heritage Foundation, have has outnumbered calls in favor of it by a substantial margin, with a particular emphasis on Manchin.
No stories are present in the media about same-sex couples being kicked out of a restaurant for holding hands or transgender people for using the restroom consistent with their gender identity, which would be perfectly legal in 25 states thanks to the patchwork of civil rights laws throughout the United States and inadequate protections under federal law.
Tyler Deaton, senior adviser for the American Unity Fund, which has bolstered the Republican-led Fairness for All Act as an alternative to the Equality Act, said he continues to believe the votes are present for a compromise form of the bill.
“I know for a fact there is a supermajority level of support in the Senate for a version of the Equality Act that is fully protective of both LGBTQ civil rights and religious freedom,” Deaton said. “There is interest on both sides of the aisle in getting something done this Congress.”
Deaton, however, didn’t respond to a follow-up inquiry on what evidence exists of agreeing on this compromise.
Biden has already missed the goal he campaigned on in the 2020 election to sign the Equality Act into law within his first 100 days in office. Although Biden renewed his call to pass the legislation in his speech to Congress last month, as things stand now that appears to be a goal he won’t realize for the remainder of this Congress.
Nor has the Biden administration made the Equality Act an issue for top officials within the administration as it pushes for an infrastructure package as a top priority. One Democratic insider said Louisa Terrell, legislative affairs director for the White House, delegated work on the Equality Act to a deputy as opposed to handling it herself.
To be sure, Biden has demonstrated support for the LGBTQ community through executive action at an unprecedented rate, signing an executive order on day one ordering federal agencies to implement the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last year in Bostock v. Clayton County to the fullest extent possible and dismantling former President Trump’s transgender military ban. Biden also made historic LGBTQ appointments with the confirmation of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Rachel Levine as assistant secretary of health.
A White House spokesperson insisted Biden’s team across the board remains committed to the Equality Act, pointing to his remarks to Congress.
“President Biden has urged Congress to get the Equality Act to his desk so he can sign it into law and provide long overdue civil rights protections to LGBTQ+ Americans, and he remains committed to seeing this legislation passed as quickly as possible,” the spokesperson said. “The White House and its entire legislative team remains in ongoing and close coordination with organizations, leaders, members of Congress, including the Equality Caucus, and staff to ensure we are working across the aisle to push the Equality Act forward.”
But at least in the near-term, that progress will fall short of fulfilling the promise of updating federal civil rights law with the Equality Act, which will mean LGBTQ people won’t be able to rely on those protections when faced with discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
D.C. bill to ban LGBTQ panic defense delayed by Capitol security
Delivery of bill to Congress was held up due to protocols related to Jan. 6 riots
A bill approved unanimously last December by the D.C. Council to ban the so-called LGBTQ panic defense has been delayed from taking effect as a city law because the fence installed around the U.S. Capitol following the Jan. 6 insurrection prevented the law from being delivered to Congress.
According to Eric Salmi, communications director for D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who guided the bill through the Council’s legislative process, all bills approved by the Council and signed by the D.C. mayor must be hand-delivered to Congress for a required congressional review.
“What happened was when the Capitol fence went up after the January insurrection, it created an issue where we physically could not deliver laws to Congress per the congressional review period,” Salmi told the Washington Blade.
Among the bills that could not immediately be delivered to Congress was the Bella Evangelista and Tony Hunter Panic Defense Prohibition and Hate Crimes Response Amendment Act of 2020, which was approved by the Council on a second and final vote on Dec. 15.
Between the time the bill was signed by Mayor Muriel Bowser and published in the D.C. Register under procedural requirements for all bills, it was not ready to be transmitted to Congress until Feb. 16, the Council’s legislative record for the bill shows.
Salmi said the impasse in delivering the bill to Congress due to the security fence prevented the bill from reaching Congress on that date and prevented the mandatory 60-day congressional review period for this bill from beginning at that time. He noted that most bills require a 30 legislative day review by Congress.
But the Evangelista-Hunter bill, named after a transgender woman and a gay man who died in violent attacks by perpetrators who attempted to use the trans and gay panic defense, includes a law enforcement related provision that under the city’s Home Rule Charter passed by Congress in the early 1970s requires a 60-day congressional review.
“There is a chance it goes into effect any day now, just given the timeline is close to being up,” Salmi said on Tuesday. “I don’t know the exact date it was delivered, but I do know the countdown is on,” said Salmi, who added, “I would expect any day now it should go into effect and there’s nothing stopping it other than an insurrection in January.”
If the delivery to Congress had not been delayed, the D.C. Council’s legislative office estimated the congressional review would have been completed by May 12.
A congressional source who spoke on condition of being identified only as a senior Democratic aide, said the holdup of D.C. bills because of the Capitol fence has been corrected.
“The House found an immediate workaround, when this issue first arose after the Jan. 6 insurrection,” the aide said.
“This is yet another reason why D.C. Council bills should not be subject to a congressional review period and why we need to grant D.C. statehood,” the aide said.
The aide added that while no disapproval resolution had been introduced in Congress to overturn the D.C. Evangelista-Hunter bill, House Democrats would have defeated such a resolution.
“House Democrats support D.C. home rule, statehood, and LGBTQ rights,” said the aide.
LGBTQ rights advocates have argued that a ban on using a gay or transgender panic defense in criminal trials is needed to prevent defense attorneys from inappropriately asking juries to find that a victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity or expression is to blame for a defendant’s criminal act, including murder.
Some attorneys have argued that their clients “panicked” after discovering the person against whom they committed a violent crime was gay or transgender, prompting them to act in a way they believed to be a form of self-defense.
In addition to its provision banning the LGBTQ panic defense, the Evangelista-Hunter bill includes a separate provision that strengthens the city’s existing hate crimes law by clarifying that hatred need not be the sole motivating factor for an underlying crime such as assault, murder, or threats to be prosecuted as a hate crime.
LGBTQ supportive prosecutors have said the clarification was needed because it is often difficult to prove to a jury that hatred is the only motive behind a violent crime. The prosecutors noted that juries have found defendants not guilty of committing a hate crime on grounds that they believed other motives were involved in a particular crime after defense lawyers argued that the law required “hate” to be the only motive in order to find someone guilty of a hate crime.
Salmi noted that while the hate crime clarification and panic defense prohibition provisions of the Evangelista-Hunter bill will become law as soon as the congressional review is completed, yet another provision in the bill will not become law after the congressional review because there are insufficient funds in the D.C. budget to cover the costs of implementing the provision.
The provision gives the D.C. Office of Human Rights and the Office of the D.C. Attorney General authority to investigate hate related discrimination at places of public accommodation. Salmi said the provision expands protections against discrimination to include web-based retailers or online delivery services that are not physically located in D.C.
“That is subject to appropriations,” Salmi said. “And until it is funded in the upcoming budget it cannot be legally enforced.”
He said that at Council member Allen’s request, the Council added language to the bill that ensures that all other provisions of the legislation that do not require additional funding – including the ban on use of the LGBTQ panic defense and the provision clarifying that hatred doesn’t have to be the sole motive for a hate crime – will take effect as soon as the congressional approval process is completed.
D.C. man charged with 2020 anti-gay death threat rearrested
Defendant implicated in three anti-LGBTQ incidents since 2011
A D.C. man arrested in August 2020 for allegedly threatening to kill a gay man outside the victim’s apartment in the city’s Adams Morgan neighborhood and who was released while awaiting trial was arrested again two weeks ago for allegedly threatening to kill another man in an unrelated incident.
D.C. Superior Court records show that Jalal Malki, who was 37 at the time of his 2020 arrest on a charge of bias-related attempts to do bodily harm against the gay man, was charged on May 4, 2021 with unlawful entry, simple assault, threats to kidnap and injure a person, and attempted possession of a prohibited weapon against the owner of a vacant house at 4412 Georgia Ave., N.W.
Court charging documents state that Malki was allegedly staying at the house without permission as a squatter. An arrest affidavit filed in court by D.C. police says Malki allegedly threatened to kill the man who owns the house shortly after the man arrived at the house while Malki was inside.
According to the affidavit, Malki walked up to the owner of the house while the owner was sitting in his car after having called police and told him, “If you come back here, I’m going to kill you.” While making that threat Malki displayed what appeared to be a gun in his waistband, but which was later found to be a toy gun, the affidavit says.
Malki then walked back inside the house minutes before police arrived and arrested him. Court records show that similar to the court proceedings following his 2020 arrest for threatening the gay man, a judge in the latest case ordered Malki released while awaiting trial. In both cases, the judge ordered him to stay away from the two men he allegedly threatened to kill.
An arrest affidavit filed by D.C. police in the 2020 case states that Malki allegedly made the threats inside an apartment building where the victim lived on the 2300 block of Champlain Street, N.W. It says Malki was living in a nearby building but often visited the building where the victim lived.
“Victim 1 continued to state during an interview that it was not the first time that Defendant 1 had made threats to him, but this time Defendant 1 stated that if he caught him outside, he would ‘fucking kill him.’” the affidavit says. It quotes the victim as saying during this time Malki repeatedly called the victim a “fucking faggot.”
The affidavit, prepared by the arresting officers, says that after the officers arrested Malki and were leading him to a police transport vehicle to be booked for the arrest, he expressed an “excited utterance” that he was “in disbelief that officers sided with the ‘fucking faggot.’”
Court records show that Malki is scheduled to appear in court on June 4 for a status hearing for both the 2020 arrest and the arrest two weeks ago for allegedly threatening to kill the owner of the house in which police say he was illegally squatting.
Superior Court records show that Malki had been arrested three times between 2011 and 2015 in cases unrelated to the 2021 and 2020 cases for allegedly also making threats of violence against people. Two of the cases appear to be LGBTQ related, but prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney’s Office did not list the cases as hate crimes.
In the first of the three cases, filed in July 2011, Malki allegedly shoved a man inside Dupont Circle and threatened to kill him after asking the man why he was wearing a purple shirt.
“Victim 1 believes the assault occurred because Suspect 1 believes Victim 1 is a homosexual,” the police arrest affidavit says.
Court records show prosecutors charged Malki with simple assault and threats to do bodily harm in the case. But the court records show that on Sept. 13, 2011, D.C. Superior Court Judge Stephen F. Eilperin found Malki not guilty on both charges following a non-jury trial.
The online court records do not state why the judge rendered a not guilty verdict. With the courthouse currently closed to the public and the press due to COVID-related restrictions, the Washington Blade couldn’t immediately obtain the records to determine the judge’s reason for the verdict.
In the second case, court records show Malki was arrested by D.C. police outside the Townhouse Tavern bar and restaurant at 1637 R St., N.W. on Nov. 7, 2012 for allegedly threatening one or more people with a knife after employees ordered Malki to leave the establishment for “disorderly behavior.”
At the time, the Townhouse Tavern was located next door to the gay nightclub Cobalt, which before going out of business two years ago, was located at the corner of 17th and R Streets, N.W.
The police arrest affidavit in the case says Malki allegedly pointed a knife in a threatening way at two of the tavern’s employees who blocked his path when he attempted to re-enter the tavern. The affidavit says he was initially charged by D.C. police with assault with a dangerous weapon – knife. Court records, however, show that prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney’s Office lowered the charges to two counts of simple assault. The records show that on Jan. 15, 2013, Malki pleaded guilty to the two charges as part of a plea bargain arrangement.
The records show that Judge Marissa Demeo on that same day issued a sentence of 30 days for each of the two charges but suspended all 30 days for both counts. She then sentenced Malki to one year of supervised probation for both charges and ordered that he undergo alcohol and drug testing and undergo treatment if appropriate.
In the third case prior to the 2020 and 2021 cases, court records show Malki was arrested outside the Cobalt gay nightclub on March 14, 2015 on multiple counts of simple assault, attempted assault with a dangerous weapon – knife, possession of a prohibited weapon – knife, and unlawful entry.
The arrest affidavit says an altercation started on the sidewalk outside the bar when for unknown reasons, Malki grabbed a female customer who was outside smoking and attempted to pull her toward him. When her female friend came to her aid, Malki allegedly got “aggressive” by threatening the woman and “removed what appeared to be a knife from an unknown location” and pointed it at the woman’s friend in a threatening way, the affidavit says.
It says a Cobalt employee minutes later ordered Malki to leave the area and he appeared to do so. But others noticed that he walked toward another entrance door to Cobalt and attempted to enter the establishment knowing he had been ordered not to return because of previous problems with his behavior, the affidavit says. When he attempted to push away another employee to force his way into Cobalt, Malki fell to the ground during a scuffle and other employees held him on the ground while someone else called D.C. police.
Court records show that similar to all of Malki’s arrests, a judge released him while awaiting trial and ordered him to stay away from Cobalt and all of those he was charged with threatening and assaulting.
The records show that on Sept. 18, 2015, Malki agreed to a plea bargain offer by prosecutors in which all except two of the charges – attempted possession of a prohibited weapon and simple assault – were dropped. Judge Alfred S. Irving Jr. on Oct. 2, 2015 sentenced Malki to 60 days of incarnation for each of the two charges but suspended all but five days, which he allowed Malki to serve on weekends, the court records show.
The judge ordered that the two five-day jail terms could be served concurrently, meaning just five days total would be served, according to court records. The records also show that Judge Irving sentenced Malki to one year of supervised probation for each of the two counts and ordered that he enter an alcohol treatment program and stay away from Cobalt.
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