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YEAR IN REVIEW 2017: Edith Windsor, Jim Graham among notable 2017 LGBT deaths

Robert Osborne, Liz Smith, ‘True Blood’s’ Nelsan Ellis also died this year

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Edie Windsor, Capital Pride parade, gay news, Washington Blade, LGBT deaths 2017

Edie Windsor served as one of the Grand Marshals of the 2017 Capital Pride parade. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Many acclaimed LGBT people died in 2017 from the world of politics, the entertainment industry and beyond. They include:

Acclaimed British actor Alec McCowen died, at 91, on Feb. 6 at his London home.  He was renowned for playing Mark in the one-man show “St. Mark’s Gospel.” 

Max Ferra, founding director of New York City’s INTAR Hispanic American Arts Center, died at 79 on February 4 in Miami.  The Center nurtured numerous Latino playwrights, including Pulitzer Prize winner Nilo Cruz, Lisa Loomer and Milcha Sanchez-Scott. Ferra left Cuba, his native country, in 1958.  “There were a bunch of young Latino playwrights coming of age who were writing plays in English that had a Hispanic essence,” he told the “New York Times, “but there was no arena for them.”

Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne, a lifelong aficionado of Old Hollywood and its movies, died at 84 on March 6 in his Manhattan home. During his 25 years at TCM, he told viewers intriguing stories about stars from Bette Davis to Audrey Hepburn. “I love those people,” Osborne told “CBS Sunday Morning.” “These were people that once ruled the world.”

Robert Osborne (Photo courtesy TCM)

George Weinberg, the psychotherapist who coined the term homophobia in the 1960s, died on March 20 in New York City at 87 of cancer. “As long as gay people suffer from homophobic acts, the word (homophobia) will remain crucial to our humanity,” Weinberg wrote in the Huffington Post.

Gilbert Baker, creator of the rainbow flag, known as the “gay Betsy Ross,” died at 65 at his New York City home on March 31. The first rainbow flags were unveiled during the San Francisco 1978 gay pride parade. “We … watched and saw the flags, and their faces lit up,” gay rights activist Clive Jones told the New York Times. “It needed no explanation. People knew immediately that it was our flag.”

William M. Hoffman, who wrote the groundbreaking play “As Is” during the height of the AIDS epidemic and the libretto for John Corigliano’s opera “The Ghosts of Versailles,” died at 78 of cardiac arrest in the Bronx on April 29.   

Gay attorney Jim Graham, who was elected to four terms on D.C. Council, died at 71 on June 11 at George Washington Hospital following complications from an intestinal infection. “LGBT activists … say he played a key role in advancing the city’s fight against HIV/AIDS during the early years of the epidemic while serving as executive director of Whitman-Walker from 1984-1999,” the Blade reported.

Queer actor Nelsan Ellis, who played Lafayette Reynolds, a gay cook, on the HBO vampire series “True Blood” died at 39 on July 8 of heart failure due to alcohol withdrawal. Ellis waged a long battle with alcohol and drug addiction.

Tony Award-winning producer Stuart J. Thompson died at 62 from complications of esophageal cancer in Manhattan on Aug. 17. He produced and served as general manager to more than 70 Broadway, Off Broadway and national touring productions.

Gay Republican operative Arthur J. Finkelstein, who helped boost the careers of conservative Republicans from James. L. Buckley to Jesse Helms, died at 72, from metastasized lung cancer on Aug. 18 at his Ipswich, Mass., home. He “sells his talents to lawmakers who would outlaw his family’s very existence,” a New York Times columnist said of Finkelstein in 1996.

Gay novelist Mark Merlis died on Aug. 15 at 67 from pneumonia associated with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis at a Philadelphia hospital. In his debut 1996 novel “American Studies” and three subsequent works, Merlis wrote sensitively about the joy, turmoil and pride of American 20th century gay life.

Kate Millett, the queer, groundbreaking second wave feminist writer, whose iconic 1970 book “Sexual Politics, transformed our cultural understanding of gender roles, died at 82 from cardiac arrest while on vacation in Paris with her spouse Sophie Keir. When “Sexual Politics” came out, the New York Times called the work “the Bible of women’s Lliberation.”

Marriage equality icon Edith (Edie) Windsor died at 88 in Manhattan on Sept. 12.  In her landmark case the Supreme Court for the first time granted federal recognition to same-sex married couples. The Windsor decision struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibited same-sex couples from receiving the 1,138 federal benefits available to heterosexual married couples. “I had the privilege to speak with Edie a few days ago, and to tell her one more time what a difference she made to the country we love,” former President Barack Obama said.

Gossip column doyenne Liz Smith, died on Nov. 12 at 94 at her Manhattan home. For decades, Smith on New York City TV and in the tabloids (from the Daily News to the New York Post) regaled viewers and readers with tidbits about the lives of the rich and famous. She had relationships withe men and women, including archaeologist Iris Love.

Drag pageant impresario Jack Doroshow died at 78 in Manhattan. As drag queen Flawless Sabrina, Doroshow began organizing shows in 1959. “The Queen,” a documentary about his 1967 Town Hall show in New York, is a queer cultural touchstone.

Actor Jim Nabors, known for playing Gomer Pyle on the CBS TV shows “The Andy Griffith Show” and “Gomer Pyle: U.S.M.C.,” died at 87 on Nov. 30 at his home in Honolulu. Stan Cadwallader, his husband, said he had been in ill health for more than a year. Nabors said that he “never made a big secret” about being queer, but he didn’t officially come out until he married Cadwallader in 2013.

Jim Nabors (Photo courtesy CBS Television Distribution)

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State Department

State Department travel advisory warns of potential anti-LGBTQ violence

FBI issued similar warning this week

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(Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress)

The State Department on Friday issued a worldwide travel advisory that warns of potential violence against LGBTQ people and LGBTQ-specific events.

“Due to the potential for terrorist attacks, demonstrations, or violent actions against U.S. citizens and interests, the Department of State advises U.S. citizens overseas to exercise increased caution,” reads the advisory. “The Department of State is aware of the increased potential for foreign terrorist organization-inspired violence against LGBTQI+ persons and events and advises U.S. citizens overseas to exercise increased caution.”  

The advisory further urges U.S. citizens to:

  • Stay alert in locations frequented by tourists, including Pride celebrations and venues frequented by LGBTQI+ persons.
  • Enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) to receive information and alerts and make it easier to locate you in an emergency overseas.
  • Follow the Department of State on Facebook and Twitter.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Homeland Security Investigations earlier this week issued a similar advisory.

The advisory notes June 12 will mark eight years since the massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla.

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The White House

White House acknowledges IDAHOBiT, reiterates support for global LGBTQ rights

WHO on May 17, 1990, declassified homosexuality as a mental illness

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Pride flags fly from an apartment's terrace in Warsaw, Poland, on April 11, 2024. The International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia commemorates the World Health Organization's declassification of homosexuality as a mental illness. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

The Biden-Harris administration on Friday used the annual International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia to reiterate its support of LGBTQ and intersex rights around the world.

“On the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia, my administration stands in support and solidarity with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI+) people around the world as they seek to live full lives, free from violence and discrimination,” said President Joe Biden in a statement. “This is a matter of human rights, plain and simple.” 

“The United States applauds those individuals and groups worldwide working to defend the rights of LGBTQI+ people wherever they are under threat,” he added. “We are grateful for the contributions that LGBTQI+ people make every day across our nation.”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken echoed Biden.

“On this day, we reflect upon the violence and discrimination lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI+) persons worldwide suffer and re-commit ourselves to opposing these acts,” said Blinken in his own statement. “This year, like every year, we state unequivocally: LGBTQI+ persons deserve recognition of their universal human rights and human dignity.” 

IDAHOBiT commemorates the World Health Organization’s declassification of homosexuality as a mental disorder on May 17, 1990.

Blinken in his statement notes LGBTQ and intersex people around the world “continue to face insidious forms of stigma and discrimination.”

Dominica last month became the latest country to decriminalize consensual same-sex sexual relations. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni in May 2023 signed his country’s Anti-Homosexuality Act that, among other things, contains a death penalty provision for “aggravated homosexuality.”

“Even as more countries make meaningful advancements towards full equality; LGBTQI+ persons continue to be sentenced to death for daring to live their sexual orientation or gender identity, subjected to coercive conversion ‘therapies’ and ‘normalization’ surgeries, discriminated against while receiving health services, restricted from exercising fundamental freedoms, and denied the dignity of same-sex partnership and fulfillment of family,” said Blinken. 

“As we reflect upon the injustices that LGBTQI+ persons and their allies endure, we must not forget that today is fundamentally a day of action,” he added. “On this day and every day, the United States stands with LGBTQI+ persons around the world. We will continue to advocate for the rights of LGBTQI+ persons not just because we have a moral imperative to do so, but because it helps to strengthen democracy, bolster national security, and promote global health and economic development.”

The Tonga Leitis Association is among the myriad LGBTQ and intersex rights groups around the world that acknowledged IDAHOBiT.

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Federal Government

Biden-Harris administration takes major step toward reclassifying marijuana

New regulations could lessen criminal penalties for cannabis

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President Joe Biden discusses his administration's move toward reforming drug policy on cannabis (Screen capture: X)

The U.S. Department of Justice on Thursday took a major step toward loosening the federal government’s regulation of marijuana by issuing a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to the Drug Enforcement Administration, which outlines a proposal to reclassify it under the federal Controlled Substances Act.

The move comes pursuant to the Biden-Harris administration’s April 30 announcement of plans to recategorize cannabis as a Schedule III substance, which could substantially lessen the criminal penalties for those convicted of using, possessing, selling, distributing, or cultivating the drug.

A 60-day public comment period will begin after the NPRM is published on the Federal Register, along with a concurrent review of the proposed regulatory reforms by an administrative law judge assigned by the DEA.

Since the CSA was passed in 1971, cannabis has been listed under Schedule I, the category reserved for drugs that are considered to be the most dangerous and lacking any currently accepted medical use in the U.S.

In a press release, a senior administration official noted that “marijuana is currently classified higher than fentanyl and meth – the drugs driving our Nation’s overdose epidemic.”

President Joe Biden posted a video on X in which he said the proposal to house cannabis under the Schedule III regulatory regime constitutes “an important move towards reversing longstanding inequities.”

“Today’s announcement builds on the work we’ve already done to pardon a record number of federal offenses for simple possession of marijuana,” the president said. “It adds to the action we’ve taken to lift barriers to housing, employment, small business loans, and more for tens of thousands of Americans.”

“Look folks no one should be in jail for merely using or possessing marijuana,” Biden said. “Period.”

The president added, “Far too many lives have been upended because of a failed approach to marijuana and I’m committed to righting those wrongs. You have my word on it.”

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