Dr. Mathilde Krim, a wealthy, straight, scientific researcher who devoted her life to fighting HIV/AIDS, died on Monday (Jan. 15, 2018) at her home in Kings Point, N.Y. at the age of 91.
“The board of trustees and staff of amfAR mourn the passing of our beloved Founding Chairman, Mathilde Krim, Ph.D. A pioneer in AIDS research and activism, Dr. Krim was at the forefront of scientific and philanthropic responses to HIV/AIDS long before the world fully understood its catastrophic global reach,” reads amfAR’s statement issued Tuesday morning.
“As amfAR’s founding chairman, and chairman of the board from 1990 to 2004, she was the heart and soul of the organization. She helped create it, supported it, kept it afloat more than once, and guided it with extraordinary dedication. She testified on Capitol Hill on several occasions, and was a driving force behind legislation that expanded access to lifesaving treatment and behind efforts to scale up federal funding for AIDS research. In August 2000, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom – the highest civilian honor in the United States,” the statement continued.
“Dr. Krim had such a profound impact on the lives of so many. While we all feel a penetrating sadness at the loss of someone we loved so deeply, it is important to remember how much she gave us and the millions for whom she dedicated her life. There is joy to be found in knowing that so many people alive today literally owe their lives to this great woman,” amfAR concluded.
New York-based Gay USA co-host and co-producer Andy Humm and longtime AIDS activist Peter Staley were the first to note Krim’s passing on their Facebook pages Monday night.
“My greatest AIDS hero died a few hours ago,” Staley wrote. “Dr. Mathilde Krim, founder of amfAR, warrior against homophobia and AIDS-related stigma, dedicated defender of science and public health, and mother-figure and mentor to countless activists, will leave a deep hole in the continued fight against AIDS — a fight she dedicated her life to. She was 91.”
“All honor to the great Dr. Mathilde Krim, founder of AmFAR (started as the AIDS Medical Foundation in 1983), who died today at 91–a giant in the fight against HIV and AIDS bringing both scientific and fundraising savvy and celebrities to the cause in the worst years of the AIDS pandemic. A tireless brilliant, calm, steady voice for healing, research, compassion and justice. Millions owe her their lives,” Humm wrote.
Krim’s passion to help people with AIDS was fueled by seeing newsreel footage as a teenager of the Nazi Holocaust during World War II. “What it did was to sensitize me against injustice. It’s really basically that—cruelty and injustice. And it’s a theme in my life,” Krim said in a 1990 interview.
”I volunteered for the [AIDS Medical Foundation] because I was incensed!” Krim said in a Nov. 1984 interview with the New York Times in her interferon laboratory at Sloan-Kettering Institute for Cancer Research, promoting the foundation’s first fundraiser—dinner and a fashion show headlined as Fashion Affair ’84. ”So many young men were dying, mostly intelligent and sophisticated young men, some of the city’s best products. And many would be dying abandoned or alone because they were afraid to contact their families.”
Krim’s life reads like a movie script with multiple odd juxtapositions—fashion, science, young gay men dying of AIDS while also being a “traditional wife” of a Hollywood studio head.
Krim was born Mathilde Galland in Cuomo, Italy in 1926. Her Swiss father was an agronomist and her mother, who was of Austrian descent, had grown up in Czechoslovakia. Her father moved the family to Geneva, Switzerland when she was 6.
As World War II started to break out in Europe, Krim heard stories about “sinister-sounding people called the Jews.”
At one point one summer, Krim worked as a gopher in the office of a lawyer who represented the United Jewish Appeal in Geneva. She saw the influx of Jewish refugees seeking asylum in Switzerland, only to be scoffed at and turned over to the Nazi-aligned Vichy French if they had no bank accounts.
“It made me sick. I was 16, 17, you know; one is impressionable. I was indignant. I decided, ‘Oh, no, I`m not going to live in a country that does this,’” she told an interviewer in 1990.
The epiphany came one day when she saw newsreel footage about the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps. “I went home and cried and told my parents. They said, ‘Oh, it may be exaggerated; it may not all be true.’ I kept crying; I was in a state of shock. And that lasted several days. To be young and to be unprepared for something like that-it was a terrible psychological shock,” Krim said. “I had never ever seen somebody die or dead, you know, and there I see human bones-most horrible pictures-being dumped from a truck into a hole in the ground, and this kind of thing.”
”I grew up not really knowing what was going on in the camps,” Krim said in 1988, ”though I knew that there was a good deal of anti-Semitism in Europe. My parents were no worse than the others, but they were like the others.”
But the “idea that people of my society were responsible for what had happened—it was very shocking to me. And I became very interested in knowing who were those Jews whom everybody had been after. Because I heard those terrible stories, that they were exploiting others, and I wanted to see for myself.”
In 1945, Krim went to the University of Geneva and met Jews from British-controlled Palestine. ”They were totally different from what I was told,” she said. ”I thought, ‘My God, if anything, I want to be like them.’ ”
Mathilde converted to Judaism and started working with a militant anti-British underground movement called the Irgun, run by a radical Zionist named Menachem Begin. Mathilde helped smuggle weapons to Begin from old French Resistance sympathizers. (When Begin became Israeli prime minister years later, he would be Krim’s houseguest.)
During this time, Krim studied biology in Geneva and, in 1953, received her Ph.D. She also fell in love with fellow Jewish radical David Danon and took his medical courses when he was away. The couple married and moved to Israel in early 1953. “We were in perfect harmony as long as the world was against us. But as soon as the pressure was off, we divorced,” she said.
Krim became a junior researcher at the Weizmann Institute of Science and in 1956 was asked to give a tour to a honcho on the institute’s board of directors—New York movie executive Arthur Krim. They married in 1958 and moved to New York. Krim’s 7-year old daughter Daphna adjusted better than her mother. But eventually, Krim found a job at Cornell University Medical School where she studied virology, with the added benefit of being able to speak German, French, Italian, English, Hebrew and ”some Spanish.”
In 1962, Krim transferred to Sloan Kettering to pursue research into whether cancer might be caused by viruses. Her lawyer husband Arthur Krim, meanwhile, became chair of Orion Pictures and a prominent Democratic fundraiser and senior advisor to three Presidents—John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Jimmy Carter. Mathilde Krim was the gracious hostess in their art-filled townhouse on East 69th Street when a president or presidential contenders such as Walter Mondale held court or stayed over.
Her husband was also a big fan of Democrat intellectual Adlai Stevenson, which spurred the couple’s interest in the civil rights movement in the US and Africa. With her passion to fight injustice, Krim became a member of the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) and in 1966, joined the National Urban League. Meanwhile, from 1966 to 1968, Arthur Krim served as chair of the Democratic National Finance Committee.
By 1970, while writing a research report for a panel studying the history of cancer—a report that played a significant role in passage the National Cancer Act of 1971—Krim discovered an account of interferon, “a naturally occurring protein that seemed to ‘interfere’ with viruses, including those that caused tumors. Some experiments even indicated that interferon was effective against the tumors themselves,” according to the New York Times.
Krim was hooked on the possibility that interferon could lead to a more humane biological treatment for cancer, though other researchers were considerably less impressed, calling it ”imaginon,” accusing her of letting her heart rule her head. She was soon dubbed the Interferon Queen—a nicknamed she earned, using guile to get funding from the National Cancer Institute after being turned down. In 1975, she convinced the institute to sponsor an international conference on interferon and the night before she and her Hollywood-connected husband threw a party for 100 at their swank Manhattan townhouse.
”She more or less singlehandedly rescued the field from oblivion,” Martin S. Hirsch, an interferon expert at Massachusetts General Hospital, told the New York Times.
The institute gave her funding, as did the American Cancer Society, and by 1981, Krim had $6 million for her research, in addition to what she could raise from outside foundations and donors. Though touted as a possible cancer breakthrough, the research initially yielded mostly disappointments, treating only a rare form of leukemia. Her reputation as a detached scientist was questioned.
‘I probably could have done more if I had a husband less involved in things,” Krim told The New York Times in 1984. “Research is such a competitive life, and most of my colleagues are men who have wives who do everything at home. I know if I have to give a dinner for 100 people and be all dressed up and have my hair done, I can’t concentrate completely on my work.”
But in 1980, Krim’s attention was diverted by mysterious symptoms impacting patients of her research colleague, Dr. Joseph Sonnabend, who practiced medicine in Greenwich Village. Gay men were coming to him with enlarged lymph nodes, enlarged spleens and infections that failed to respond to treatment—and they had seriously compromised immune systems.
“Clearly, it was a biological infectious agent that was causing this disease and we also concluded that it must be sexually transmissible. My friend started using his medical practice as a source of clinical (blood) samples; he would send them around to experts to try to find another link, but nobody would figure out anything,” Krim later recalled. “In the spring of `81 Dr. Sonnabend came to tell us that some of his patients were dying, and our research activities were intensified.”
By then, Krim was the director of the interferon laboratory at Sloan-Kettering. “It was totally mind-blowing for a scientist who thinks she knows something to realize that, here in the middle of New York in the 20th century, a new disease could occur,” Krim said. “I personally didn’t believe for a minute that being gay could cause it. It was a scientific and medical puzzle that attracted my attention.”
Krim and Sonnabend worried that the mysterious disease was spreading but no one seemed to listen. The disease was killing those who “deserved it.”
Though her husband had gay friends, Krim told POZ Magazine, “I knew nothing about the gay community in 1981. Dr. Joseph Sonnabend sent me his patients, including Michael Callen, who told me what gay life was. That was quite an education! I was disgusted by the way society accused gay men of having created something terrible. When you think of it, the promiscuous life was caused by society—it didn’t allow gay men to get married or to have honest relationships. They had to hide.”
Krim’s compassion and hatred of injustice set in.
“In those early days, they were literally dying in the streets,” Krim told the Los Angeles Times in 2000. “[Gay men who had AIDS] lost their jobs, their apartments–their families turned away from them. It turned my stomach, it really impacted me and I decided this was something not to be tolerated.”
Unable to raise funding for their research, the colleagues decided to start their own organization in June 1983. The AIDS Medical Foundation (AMF) was co-founded by Krim—then 57 years old—Sonnabend, Nobel-prize winning scientist Dr. David Baltimore, singer, Sonnabend patient and AIDS activist Michael Callen (co-founder with fellow Sonnabend patient Richard Berkowitz of the People with AIDS Coalition), and respected philanthropist Mary Lasker.
The foundation was created to serve as a “scientific venture capitalist” to give provide seed money to researchers and scientists with promising AIDS-related projects that had been turned down for government grants. They wanted to be the AIDS version of the American Cancer Society. Arthur Krim kicked in the first $100,000 and within 90 days, Mathilde Krim had raised an additional $550,000. She also continued her interferon research, oversaw AMF operations, visited hospitals and clinics, and hosted fundraisers. Nothing was easy with efforts hampered by stigma. The AIDS Medical Foundation could not even list its full name in the lobby index in the Helmsley Building at 230 Park Avenue, having to list its office as A.M. Foundation.
Working together wasn’t easy, either. When Callen and Berkowitz wrote the first risk-reduction pamphlet under Sonnabend’s oversight entitled “How to Have Sex in an Epidenic: One Approach” espousing condom use, they approached Krim about publishing the safe sex guide through AMF. However, POZ founder Sean Strub writes in his book Body Counts, “Krim balked, fearing the frank language about anal sex was too risqué and would turn off potential donors. She did agree to let the foundation serve as a fiscal pass-through, so donations to print it would be tax-deductible.”
It was a serious concern, with donors from large corporations and Wall Street investment houses buying into the mythology of homosexuality.
”They felt that this was a disease that resulted from a sleazy life style, drugs or kinky sex—that certain people had learned their lesson and it served them right,” Krim told the New York Times in 1988.
”That was the attitude, even on the part of respectable foundations that are supposed to be concerned about human welfare.”
It sounded like the anti-Semitic propaganda she heard about Jews from the Nazis and Nazi sympathizers. ”I thought we had to enlarge our board and diversify—load it with straight people so that it’s not one more gay organization,” she said. To that end, she brought on board Elizabeth Kummerfeld, whose husband, Donald D. Kummerfeld, was president of Magazine Publishers of America. They set about planning for a $150-a-ticket November 1984 fashion show at the Tower Gallery, 45 West 18th Street, for which 50 designers, including Pauline Trigere, Bill Blass, Zandra Rhodes, Adolfo Galanos and Calvin Klein, and other designers agreed to donate dresses and gowns. The show as narrated by Arlene Francis, followed by an auction and a buffet planned by Craig Claiborne. Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter, a friend of the Krims, attended.
Funding for Sonnabend’s research and perhaps a clinic was imperative. “We need such a clinic,” Krim told the New York Times in 1984, ”because it’s a place where patients can come without fear of discrimination. We deal with a population afraid of discriminatory practices, and that is not only gay men but drug users as well.”
The AIDS situation as ”very worrisome,” she continued. ”It’s not going to remain in the high- risk groups. All the evidence shows the disease is spreading in all directions, but people just aren’t worried anymore.”
At the same time, on the other side of the country in Los Angeles, pioneering AIDS researcher and immunologist Dr. Michael Gottlieb, was working with actress Elizabeth Taylor to create a foundation using $250,000 in start-up funding contributed by the late actor Rock Hudson, close friend of Taylor’s and a patient of Gottlieb’s. Krim called them about joining their efforts in the summer of 1985.
“Elizabeth Taylor and others were forming a like-minded organization on the West Coast, and I went out to visit her. She invited me to her house, and was immediately interested in working together, so we joined our organizations to form the American Foundation for AIDS Research,” Krim said in a 2015 interview. “From then on, Elizabeth dedicated herself to doing public speaking and even testifying in front of Congress.”
‘It was a shotgun marriage,” Gottlieb told Vanity Fair in 1992, a marriage of necessity between science and show business.
“It did occur to me that having AmFAR on the East and West coasts might dilute it,” Taylor said. “Then I realized that Mathilde is a very powerful lady with a background that couldn’t have been more suitable. So it seemed like a very large and powerful decision.”
Mathilde Krim is “a smart woman and one of the most powerful I’ve ever met,” says Bill Misenhimer, who became amFAR’s first executive director, told the magazine. “You don’t fight her because she always wins. And AIDS is her life.”
“We complement each other very well,” Krim told VF, shrugging off questions about clashes. “I have a professional education in biology and medicine, and because I’m not a public figure I can work at the desk long hours. I mind the shop. Elizabeth contributes to projecting an image of the organization. She deals with the public very well.”
That was a quick lesson learned for the new national organization when Taylor appeared at the second amFAR fashion show in 1985 in Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York City. “We’d dutifully set in place security protection, but we didn’t make sufficient arrangements,” Krim recalled. “We didn’t realize she’d be mobbed by the crowd. She was atop a staircase with all the paparazzi and the public pushing behind—they almost threw her down.”
While Krim was gaining momentum with AMF, she was being unfavorably scrutinized at Sloan-Kettering by new president Paul A. Marks.
”I was told very clearly that I should tone down my visibility,” Krim told the NYT in 1988. ”He didn’t want his institute to become known as an AIDS hospital. Bad blood developed and at one point I decided, ‘This is enough.’”
(A spokesperson told the NYT that Sloan-Kettering continued to contribute to research on AIDS and interferon therapy.)
Krim left Sloan-Kettering in 1985 and subsequently became an associate research scientist at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt. But she was finished as a research scientist. In 2000, the Los Angeles Times noted that her besmirched, dogged research into interferon were vindicated: “Interferon has proved effective in inducing remissions in hairy-cell leukemia, and now is used to treat a long list of serious maladies: bladder cancer, renal cell cancer, hepatitis C, malignant melanoma, multiple myeloma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and Kaposi’s sarcoma.”
Serving as AmFAR’s board chair suited her. ”I came to the conclusion that it’s better if I stay on the outside and help people inside the labs,” she said. ”I’m not such a genius that somebody else cannot do what I was doing. And these would be people who cannot do what I can.”
But Krim was able to use that scientific knowledge to challenge important issues that others took as fact. One of the most critical examples was in 1986—before ACT UP—when she took on the medical establishment over the testing of AZT. Per protocol, half the test subjects were given placebos, which Krim concluded would mean the placebo group could possible die by the time the effectiveness of the drug was determined. Though not a cure and saddled with harmful side effects, at least AZT could extend the dying person’s life for a few months.
”People who are on their last legs should get anything they want,” she said. ”We should just make sure we’re not killing them with it.”
Krim testfied before Congress that she opposed placebos in “double-blind” drug trials for people with full-blown AIDS. She lost out to two powerful opponents—National Cancer Institute top AIDS drug expert Samuel Broder and NIH AIDS research coordinator Anthony S. Fauci. But she eventually helped convince the NIH two years later to stop using placebos and to use AZT as the control instead. Additionally, Broder joined AmFAR’s scientific advisory committee, helping determine who gets grants.
One of amFAR’s biggest nights was the appearance of President Ronald Reagan, who had been invited by Taylor to speak at the benefit where Surgeon General Koop was among the honorees. It was Reagan’s second term in office and he had not yet addressed the AIDS epidemic. The benefit was the night before the third international conference on AIDS in Washington.
”He and his advisers must have thought that this was a good opportunity to appear in public in front of people who would behave reasonably well,” Krim told the New York Times in 1988.
A Presidential speechwriter talked to AmFAR’s president Mervyn F. Silverman, who suggested that Reagan stress compassion and avoid the controversial systematic testing for the AIDS virus.
”The President said some of the right things, but he chose to mention testing,” Krim said. ”So that was the undoing of the rest of his speech. Even in our audience some people resented it, and he was in fact hissed, which was not the polite thing to do. But he should have known better.”
In fact, that May 31, 1987 speech contained harsh words reflective of his religious right domestic policy base. As of April 1987, the Centers for Disease Control reported 33,997 cases of AIDS in the US, with 19,658 deaths, no cure and the pall of stigma hanging over the country.
“If a person has reason to believe that he or she may be a carrier, that person has a moral duty to be tested for AIDS; human decency requires it. And the reason is very simple: Innocent people are being infected by this virus, and some of them are going to acquire AIDS and die,” Reagan said. “I’ve asked the Department of Health and Human Services to determine as soon as possible the extent to which the AIDS virus has penetrated our society and to predict its future dimensions.”
He said the AIDS immigration ban, testing for all federal prisoners, and possibly testing of veterans, “in addition to the testing already underway in our military and foreign service.”
“[Reagan’s speechwriters] didn’t know anything about AIDS, so we wrote the first half of the speech, where Reagan talked about compassion, justice, care — all the right things,” Krim told Vanity Fair. “We asked them to please not talk about mandatory testing, because it was not recommended scientifically, legally, or medically. We said it would elicit a furious reaction from the public. But one of Reagan’s advisers revised the speech and put it in.”
“The president mentioned mandatory testing and people jumped out of their seats. Then they started heckling him, so I jumped up and said, ‘Don’t be rude. This is your president and he is our guest,’” Taylor told the magazine.
Krim stuck with amFar until 2005 when she stepped down as founding chair, having helped build the organization into a prominent private supporter of AIDS research. Michael Musto wrote in POZ magazine, “As Dr. Mathilde Krim ‘a.k.a. the Mother of AIDS advocacy’ passes the amfAR torch to classy designer Kenneth Cole, her once-great institution may claim it’s not losing a legend but gaining a brand name. But can its new leader see past the bottom line to make amfAR not only fashionable but relevant again?”
amfAR would argue they are exceedingly relevant with their latest grants to three young scientists working on new HIV treatments and “leveraging vaccine research to help cure HIV.”
Krim does not leave this earth a saint—she disagreed with Taylor about going international, for instance, a debate Taylor won with the organization being renamed the Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR, versus amFAR). To date amfAR has raised and invested an estimated $517 million for thousands of programs, according to the New York Times obituary on Krim.
And Taylor was not the only one with whom Krim disagreed, especially over political issues. In 1990, New York Mayor David N. Dinkins asked Krim about naming a city health commissioner. Krim recommended Indiana’s commissioner, Dr. Woodrow A. Myers Jr., who advocated names-reporting and possible quarantining of people with AIDS. Krim and others thought about it, stepped back, then re-endorsed Myers, then withdrew the endorsement. Myers was eventually appointed anyway and Krim was out in the cold.
“I think she’s exceptionally naïve politically,” playwright Larry Kramer told The Times. “We are all very angry with her, so far as one can ever get angry with Mathilde, because we love her so.”
But in 2000, Krim received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Clinton for her decades of AIDS-related work. And the National Portrait Gallery accepted two photographic portraits of Krim into its permanent collection in recognition of her leadership in the fight against HIV/AIDS—portraits by leading American photographers Annie Leibovitz and Joyce Tenneson.
”Everybody thinks of at least one person whom he has lost or is afraid for,” Krim told the New York Times in 1988. ”And I am no different. I have my little list.”
And now it’s Mathilde Krim who is on the list of AIDS heroes who have died.
“Dr. Krim was a close friend and mentor, and I am deeply saddened by this news. She dedicated her life to understanding the science behind the epidemic, and was a force to mobilize research around the globe that helped to save millions of lives and reduce the stigma attached to HIV/AIDS,” Elton John, Founder of the Elton John AIDS Foundation (EJAF). “The legacy of Dr. Krim’s deep commitment to ending HIV/AIDS will live on in the advocacy, action, and compassion of those that follow her lead. We would not be where we are today without her, and we must continue to work tirelessly to further understand and prevent the disease. My thoughts are with her family at this time, she was a true hero.”
“For over three decades, I have witnessed one of the most remarkable women in my lifetime fight against the plague of HIV/AIDS,” longtime LGBT rights activist/author David Mixner, who was honored by amfAR. “Dr. Krim was there when no one else would even touch us. There was not one day in the fight against this epidemic that she wasn’t working by our side. Dr. Mathilde Krim was a true legend, heroine and a dear friend.”
“We have lost an inspirational, tireless, and catalytic leader of our movement,” said Mark Harrington, Treatment Action Group’s Executive Director. “Dr. Krim understood the gravity of the epidemic, in its earliest and darkest days, and was driven by her own remarkable intelligence, fierce commitment to civil rights and social justice, extraordinary social and political networks, and true grit to galvanize funders, scientists, policy leaders, and activists toward a single cause: ending HIV and AIDS as a threat to humanity.”
“I genuinely believe that we wouldn’t be where we are today without Dr. Krim’s brilliance, determination, and mobilization,” said Tim Horn, Deputy Executive Director of HIV & HCV Programs at TAG. “Beyond her unparalleled contributions to HIV/AIDS research fundraising and awareness, she was an interminable source of strength, support, and wisdom for countless activists over the years.”
“TAG has lost a matriarch of our family, a leader in our movement, and a steadfast supporter of our work,” said Barbara Hughes, President of TAG’s Board of Directors. “We mourn Dr. Krim’s passing and join amfAR and so many leaders in the fight against HIV/AIDS in remembering her work and life.”
“Matilda Krim was a pioneering legend. Her compassion and foresight at the very beginning of the epidemic played a crucial role in mobilizing support to fight the battle against AIDS,” says Michael Weinstein, president of AIDS Healthcare Foundation.
“Even though Mathilde has been gone for a while from any active Public role, it does feel like the end of an era,” says Sean Strub, founder of POZ Magazine and out HIV-positive mayor of Milford, Pennsylvania.
“Mathilde used her resources, curiosity, tenacity and heart to provide leadership and build support to fund AIDS research at a time when few of her peers were willing to do so. The history of the epidemic is intertwined with her own; she was persistent, unflappable and prescient.”
“I became aware of Mathilde Krim around 1988, while I was working as the staff writer for the National AIDS Network, a coalition of community-based AIDS service organizations in Washington, D.C. By then Dr. Krim was already legendary in the HIV-AIDS community,” says John-Manuel Andriote, author of Victory Deferred: How AIDS Changed Gay Life in America. “It’s hard to overstate the importance of Dr. Krim and Elizabeth Taylor’s “mainstream” (and heterosexual) cachet in helping to ratchet down the fear and stigma associated with what then was a deadly new illness perceived as mainly afflicting gay men.”
“As an HIV positive man who has been living with the virus for over 13 years, I know that I would not be alive today without the efforts of Dr. Mathilde Krim,” says out New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson. “I met her during my first trip to New York City, at age 18. Little did I know the important role she would play in my life. My thoughts and prayers go to the family and friends of Dr. Krim. Her legacy will live on in the countless lives she saved.”
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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