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Trump fires all members of HIV/AIDS council without explanation

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Trump Pence, gay news, Washington Blade

President Trump has fired all members of the President’s Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

With no explanation, the White House has terminated members of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS amid widespread discontent with President Trump’s approach to the epidemic.

After six members of PACHA resigned in June, the White House on Wednesday terminated the remaining 16 members without explanation via a letter from FedEx.

Scott Schoettes, a Chicago-based HIV/AIDS activist and senior attorney for Lambda Legal, was one of the six who resigned in June over Trump’s inaction on HIV/AIDS and said on Twitter the remaining members were fired.

“No respect for their service,” Schoettes said. “Dangerous that #Trump and Co. (Pence esp.) are eliminating few remaining people willing to push back against harmful policies, like abstinence-only sex ed.”

Sources with knowledge of PACHA said many council members were fired even though additional time remained on their terms as advisers. The terminated members, sources said, were given the option to reapply after Tuesday.

Gabriel Maldonado, CEO of the Riverside, Calif.,-based LGBT and HIV/AIDS group Truevolution, was a remaining member of PACHA and confirmed they were fired, but said the “explanation is still unclear.”

“I can only speculate,” Maldonado said. “Like any administration, they want their own people there. Many of us were Obama appointees. I was an Obama appointee and my term was continuing until 2018.”

Maldonado said “ideological and philosophical differences” with the administration are a potential reason for the terminations.

As an example, Maldonado cited a recent Washington Post report the Centers for Disease Control is banned from using words like “diversity” and “transgender” in budget documents. The CDC director has denied those words are banned.

“I was co-chair of the disparities committee, so much of my advocacy and policy references surrounded vulnerable populations, addressing issues of diverse communities, specifically looking at the impacts of the LGBT community, namely, the disproportionate impact of HIV and AIDS to people of color, gay men, transgender women,” Maldonado said. “And a lot of those key vulnerable populations are not being prioritized in this administration.”

Maldonado added he intends to publish an open letter to the community about his termination on Friday.

Also among the terminated members was Patrick Sullivan, a professor of epidemiology at the Emory University Rollins School of Public Health.

“My reaction is that our focus should be on the policies that PACHA addresses,” Sullivan said. “These issues are critical to people’s health, and are critical to making new HIV infections rare. At PACHA’s last meeting in August, the Council urged the Administration to affirm the National HIV/AIDS Strategy through 2020. Doing this would be a great way for the administration to set the tone and lay out national roadmap of priorities for a new PACHA.”

Created in 1995, PACHA has provided advice starting in the Clinton administration and into the George W. Bush and Obama administrations on policy and research to promote effective treatment and prevention for HIV — maintaining the goal of finding a cure.

In September, Trump signed an executive order that renewed PACHA along with 31 other presidential bodies for an additional year.

Trump’s termination of council members isn’t the first time an administration cleaned house on PACHA. The Obama administration eliminated all of George W. Bush’s appointees before making new appointments.

Kaye Hayes, executive director of PACHA, affirmed the council members were terminated on Wednesday, but said there’s more to the story.

“They were also thanked for their leadership, dedication and commitment to the effort,” Hayes said. “Changing the makeup of federal advisory committee members is a common occurrence during Administration changes. The Obama administration dismissed the George W. Bush administration appointees to PACHA in order to bring in new voices. All PACHA members are eligible to apply to serve on the new council that will be convened in 2018.”

Jim Driscoll, a gay Nevada-based HIV/AIDS activist who supported Trump in 2016, said replacement of PACHA members “is standard practice” for a new administration.

“Now they need to find bonafide community people with appropriate expertise and the ability to adapt to the changed political circumstances,” Driscoll said. “It is fully understandable why a president would not want people who oppose his policies and might be happy to see him impeached serving as his HIV advisors. That would serve the needs of neither the president nor of people living with HIV-AIDS.”

But Maldonado said the termination of PACHA members during the Trump administration is only partially consistent with the Obama years.

“It is common for appointees to be terminated and for folks to kind of want their own people in,” Maldonado said. “I think where the discrepancy comes in is why a year later, No. 1? Two, many of us, our terms were over earlier this year and we were sworn back in, and three were stayed on nearly four months after an executive order was signed continuing the council.”

In June, six members of PACHA resigned their posts in protest over what they called inaction from Trump on the global HIV/AIDS epidemic. An estimated 1.2 million people have HIV/AIDS in the United States and 37 million have the disease worldwide.

Chief among the reasons was the absence of leadership at the White House on HIV/AIDS. To date, the White House has yet to appoint a director of the Office of National AIDS Policy, which was one of the reasons the six members of PACHA resigned in June.

Trump’s fiscal year 2018 budget proposal also sought massive cuts to HIV/AIDS programs, including $150 million on HIV/AIDS programs at the Centers for Disease Control and more than $1 billion in cuts from global programs like the PEPFAR Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis & Malaria. The Republican-controlled Congress has thus far continued to fund these programs at previous levels.

Maldonado noted the PACHA terminations are taking place at the year’s end after the June resignations, which he said is “a little too coincidental.”

“The timing is a little bit unorthodox compared to what the Obama administration’s approach was,” Maldonado said.

Maldonado said he represented a younger demographic on PACHA as the only member under the age of 30, which he said is where the majority of new HIV infections are occurring, and as a young, black gay man.

“I just am coming to the acknowledgment that the traditional tactics of politicking and policy and strategy and negotiation, the kind of standard tools that we’re trying to use, that the status quo is no longer acceptable,” Maldonado said. “The tactics that we had are kind of obsolete, and now we need to craft new strategy to address the troubling and unsettling revelations, particularly around the silence and inaction that have taken place around HIV and AIDS.”

Since the resignations in June, Trump has made public statements on HIV/AIDS consisting of proclamations on National HIV Testing Day and World AIDS Day. Neither statement included an explicit mention of LGBT people, who have faced the brunt of the disease.

The White House deferred comment to the Department of Health & Human Services, which provided the statement from the PACHA executive director.

New appointments may be coming soon. The Blade reported in October gay Republicans familiar with HIV/AIDS issues and LGBT issues have been among those contacted by a Trump administration official for possible appointments to PACHA.

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New India Supreme Court chief justice seen as LGBTQ ally

D.Y. Chandrachud applauded activists during Aug. 31 speech

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Chief Justice D. Y. Chandrachud (Screenshot)

The struggle for equality in the world’s biggest democracy took a giant step forward in 2018 with the decriminalization of homosexuality, but the fight is not over.

Though homosexuality is now decriminalized in India, same-sex marriage is still not legalized. In other words, same-sex couples can love but cannot marry. The pain in the community is visible. Since same-sex marriage is not legally recognized, it affects a spectrum of rights available to heterosexual couples that include the transfer of property and access to medical facilities.

Several marriage equality cases have been filed in the Delhi High Court and in other courts across the country.

Two petitions filed by gay couples came to the India’s Supreme Court on Nov. 25 asking for recognition of same-sex marriage under the Special Marriage Act, 1954. A bench led by the new Chief Justice D. Y. Chandrachud issued a notice to the federal government and the attorney general and posted the matter for further hearing after four weeks.

Life Insurance Corporation of India (LIC), a public sector insurance company under India’s Finance Ministry, last month appeared to recognize a same-sex couple who lives in Kolkata. The arrival of the Supreme Court’s new chief justice is an additional ray of hope for the country’s LGBTQ and intersex community.

On many occasions, Chandrachud has signaled his support for the community. For instance, while speaking at the British High Commission in New Delhi, the Indian capital, on Aug. 31, Chandrachud said that decriminalization of homosexuality alone cannot achieve equality, and it must extend to “all spheres of life,” including home, workplace, and public places.

Chandrachud has been expressing his observations and opinions on the issue of LGBTQ rights in India, even when he was not the chief justice but a Supreme Court judge. Chandrachud, while speaking at the British High Commission event, which focused on the future of the country’s LGBTQ and intersex rights movement, said society owes a debt of gratitude to every individual who formed and continues to form a part of the struggle for equality.

“Perhaps, we need a little more than love,” highlighted Chandrachud at the New Delhi event while calling for structural change in society to let the LGBTQ community live a life of autonomy and dignity.

The Supreme Court in 2018 struck down the law decriminalizing homosexuality. Chandrachud was on the Supreme Court in 2018 when it decriminalized homosexuality between consenting adults and recognized sexual autonomy as a basic right of individuals.

“While the decision in Navtej was momentous, we have a long way to go. The Beatles famously sang ‘All you need is love, love; Love is all you need.’ At the risk of ruffling the feathers of music aficionados everywhere, I take the liberty to disagree with them and say – perhaps, we need a little more than love,” highlighted Chandrachud. “At the heart of personal liberty lies the freedom to choose who we are, to love whom we will, and to live a life that is true to our most authentic selves, not only without the fear of persecution but in full-hearted joy and as equal citizens of this country.”

Navtej Singh Johar v. Union of India was the historical judgment that struck down the criminalization of homosexuality in India.

“The accomplishment of this simple yet crucial task would breathe life into the decision in Navtej,” said Chandrachud. “It is not merely the black letter of the law that these changes must take place in, but in the heart and soul of every Indian. Heteronormativity — in every sense of the word — must give way to a plurality of thought and of existence.”

Chandrachud in August said that justice can quickly be undone if people do not continue with the right discourse to safeguard the interests of marginalized groups. Chandrachud also highlighted in the same event that the decriminalization of homosexuality is not sufficient for members of the LGBTQ community to realize their rights. He was referring to the withdrawal of an advertisement of Karva Chauth featuring same-sex couples.

Karva Chauth is the Indian festival celebrated by Hindus in northern India in which wives keep a day-long fast for their husbands and perform rituals for the long life and well-being of their husbands.

The advertisement showed female couples celebrating Karva Chauth, and faced backlash over the internet and immediately firm withdrew it. Meanwhile, the marriage equality case the Supreme Court heard on Nov. 25 and Chandrachud’s position as chief justice has brought renewed hope among LGBTQ and intersex activists and the broader community.

“It is heartening that D.Y Chandrachud was recently appointed as the Chief Justice of India. His opinions on abortion, privacy, women’s entry into the Sabarimala temple, adultery, and gay rights (to name a few) have been progressive and brought about much-needed change,” said Kanav Narayan Sahgal, communications manager at Nyaaya, Vidhi Center for Legal Policy. “With an uncooperative central government, and a largely conservative society, the ball is now in the hands of the Supreme Court.”

Ankush Kumar is a freelance reporter who has covered many stories for Washington and Los Angeles Blades from Iran, India and Singapore. He recently reported for the Daily Beast. He can be reached at [email protected]. He is on Twitter at @mohitkopinion

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Inside the battle over Republican Senate votes for Respect for Marriage Act

Some advocates for religious liberty joined forces with LGBTQ groups to play a vital role in passage of the Respect for Marriage Act

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A mass same-sex marriage ceremony on June 21, 2013. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

The U.S. Senate passed the Respect for Marriage Act on Tuesday 61-36, clearing the threshold required to secure a filibuster-proof majority by just one vote, thereby sending the bill on its way to becoming law.

The landmark legislation’s path out of the evenly divided upper chamber was, until that 60th “yea” vote, far from clear. Tuesday’s passage of the Respect for Marriage Act marked the third time this month in which a few Republican senators held the keys to its fate.

Before and just after Thanksgiving break, the Senate managed to avoid having to debate amendments to the bill proposed by some conservative members of the Republican caucus who felt the bipartisan addition of supplemental protections for religious liberties was insufficient.

Success on the first procedural move was won with a margin of just two Republican senators who voted with their Democratic colleagues. The second, with only one.

Had the Senate chosen instead to consider these amendments, the Respect for Marriage Act could easily have been defeated, with time running out to pass legislation before the new Congress is seated in January, at which point control of the House will flip from blue to red.

Particularly in the days leading up to this week’s votes, lobbyists with a wide spectrum of views on the Respect for Marriage Act were laser focused on winning over members of the small camp of GOP senators who were on the fence or, perhaps, relatively tepid in their support for (or opposition to) the bill.

Tim Schultz (Photo courtesy of the 1st Amendment Partnership)

Among the parties representing special interests engaged in ongoing discussions with Senate Republicans was Tim Schultz, president of the 1st Amendment Partnership (1AP), a nonprofit group focused on education and public engagement to promote and protect religious freedom. Schultz’s work on behalf of the organization includes some lobbying activity.

Speaking with the Washington Blade by phone on Tuesday before the final vote was held, Schultz said the key to winning support from these Republican senators was to show them how the Respect for Marriage Act does not threaten – and in some respects, may in fact strengthen – protections for religious liberty.

Other GOP senators opposed to the bill cited different reasons, arguing for example that it is unnecessary or improper for the legislature to preempt the fallout of a potential future U.S. Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage.

Schultz noted that unlike the conservative lawmakers whose primary focus was on religious freedoms, these other objections raised by Senate Republicans were mostly brought forth by members who were never going to vote in favor of the Respect for Marriage Act in the first place. In some cases, they believed the landmark cases establishing marriage equality as a fundamental right in the United States were wrongly decided, which is a non-starter.

“The lawmakers who have been the margin of victory [in key votes] have cared a lot about religious protections,” Schultz said. They are sincere in their efforts to understand precisely whether and how religious liberties might be affected by passage of the Respect for Marriage Act, he said. “They are serious in their efforts to try to get their arms around those questions.”

The primary arguments happening in the Senate “have been held by [Republican Senators] who all have a broad conception of religious freedom,” Schultz said. “So, the question has been, ‘is this sufficient? Or should we demand quite a bit more?'”

Engaging these GOP lawmakers, he said, often involved “trying to get the senators accurate information, including responses from faith groups and scholars.” This sometimes required addressing and dispelling arguments against the legislation “point by point,” Schultz added.

Schultz said it was an amusing twist to lock horns over the Respect for Marriage Act with other groups that promote and fight for religious liberties, organizations with which he has some deep and longstanding relationships.

“It’s weird, because I am a professional religious freedom advocate and I share their conception of religious liberty. But I think their analysis of this bill is incorrect. So, it’s been a bit strange to be having an argument among folks who, otherwise, I agree with.”

Strange bedfellows?

The bill’s passage through the Senate could be read as a signal of the efficacy of a model of government relations by which LGBTQ groups in some circumstances can reach mutually beneficial compromises with organizations that are concerned with religious liberty, Schultz said.

Compromise was also the goal for the bipartisan coalition of lawmakers in the House and Senate who sponsored, co-sponsored, or otherwise championed the Respect for Marriage Act.

Writing the legislation within bounds of universally accepted constitutional precepts, part of their aim was to lessen the likelihood that it might face a successful legal challenge. The other primary reason for backing a narrowly construed bill: greater chances of securing the support necessary from congressional Republicans to get it passed.

But the Respect for Marriage Act was conservative in focus, if not in effect, from the jump. It was meant to address the very specific consequences and fallout for same-sex couples that would result if the U.S. Supreme Court’s conservative supermajority opts to overturn or substantially weaken the two landmark rulings that established marriage equality as a constitutional right in America.

Practically speaking, however, compromise did not come at a cost. “This will be the biggest federal legislative victory for gay rights since the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Schultz said. (Incidentally, that hard-won victory also happened during a lame duck session, following the 2010 midterm elections.)

Though some groups acknowledged its limitations, the Respect for Marriage Act was publicly backed by a diverse swath of LGBTQ civil rights and legal advocacy organizations, including: the Human Rights Campaign, the National Center for Transgender Equality, GLSEN, PFLAG National, GLAAD, Equality California, the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund, and Lambda Legal, the Interfaith Alliance, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, LGBTQ Victory Fund, and the National LGBTQ Task Force.

The Respect for Marriage Act faced a tumultuous road to passage through Congress

In July, the House passed the Respect for Marriage Act with a decisive margin, picking up 47 Republican “yeas” for a total of 267 votes in favor of the bill (with 157 members, all Republican, voting no).

At the time, there was little to no concern expressed publicly by GOP lawmakers in either chamber over the Respect for Marriage Act’s threat to religious liberties, Schultz said. He added that this may be explained, at least to some extent, by members’ focus on the then-upcoming Nov. 8 midterm elections.   

After Congress reconvened with Republicans poised to take control of the House next year, the Biden administration and congressional Democratic leadership had made clear that the Respect for Marriage Act would be a top priority for the brief legislative session before the next Congress is seated in January.

“By the Monday after election week, people started focusing again,” Schultz said. “It was game time.”

Logistically, it was a heavy lift for Congress. Lawmakers had just a few weeks to pass legislation and cobble together end-of-year must-pass spending packages.

Democratic congressional leadership were under pressure from President Biden to allocate more funding for COVID-19 and aid to Ukraine, proposals that both faced resistance from their Republican colleagues. The Senate was way behind on the National Defense Authorization Act, another must-pass bill to fund the military that happens to also require a lengthy review process. And finally, momentum was building behind the bipartisan legislative proposal to revise the Electoral Count Act.

For the key GOP senators, all other considerations were secondary to religious liberty

As the Senate vote neared, campaigns by special interest groups were dialed up, including by opponents of the bill, which ranged from extreme anti-LGBTQ organizations deemed hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center to conservative think tanks with close ties to Capitol Hill.

Liberty Counsel President Matt Staver made the outrageous argument that the protections for same-sex couples provided in the Respect for Marriage Act would lead to “pedophilic marriages,” perpetuating the dangerous lie that queer people are linked to child sexual abuse.

Fortunately, “the crazy stuff you see online doesn’t penetrate into how senators talk about and think about this stuff,” Schultz said. “They are concerned with substantive objections” to the Respect for Marriage Act.

And while there was some discussion of the deadly Nov. 19 shooting at an LGBTQ nightclub in Colorado Springs, the tragedy did not play a major part in GOP senators’ deliberations over passage of the Respect for Marriage Act, Schultz said – perhaps partly because much of the substantive talks had already happened with the Senate vote just days away.

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FDA to loosen restrictions on blood donations by gay, bi men

“While today’s reports of an overdue move from the FDA is an important step, our community and leading medical experts will not stop advocating for the FDA to lift all restrictions against qualified LGBTQ blood donor candidates, said GLAAD President Sarah Kate Ellis

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(Photo from Bigstock)

The Food and Drug Administration is reportedly drafting guidelines to ease restrictions on blood donations by gay and bisexual men by removing the required one-year period of sexual abstinence for those in exclusively monogamous relationships.

New rules can be expected in coming months as the agency is now finalizing an individualized risk assessment questionnaire to determine eligibility, sources briefed on the matter told The Wall Street Journal.

According to an FDA spokesperson, potential donors who have had anal intercourse with a new sexual partner within the past three months would likely be asked to wait an additional three months before donating.

The FDA issued a blanket ban on blood donation from all men who have sex with men amid the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. Since then, the agency has narrowed those restrictions only twice.

Gay and bisexual men who abstained from sex for a year or longer were permitted to donate blood with a 2015 policy change. Then, faced with severe blood shortages during the COVID-19 pandemic, the FDA shortened the required abstinence period to three months.

GLAAD responded to Wednesday’s news of the FDA’s planned issuance of new guidelines with a statement that praised the move – while stressing that any restriction on blood and plasma donation by gay and bisexual men “is rooted in stigma, not science.”

“While today’s reports of an overdue move from the FDA is an important step, our community and leading medical experts will not stop advocating for the FDA to lift all restrictions against qualified LGBTQ blood donor candidates,” said GLAAD President Sarah Kate Ellis.

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