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Dems seek answers from Mattis on anti-trans military recommendations

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Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) is among the Democrats seeking answers from Defense Secretary James Mattis over his anti-trans military recommendations. (Image courtesy of YouTube)

The top congressional Democrats on defense issues are seeking answers from Defense Secretary James Mattis on his recommendations to President Trump against allowing transgender people in the military, which seemed to be based on junk science and were used by the administration to reaffirm its ban on their service.

In a joint letter to Mattis dated April 11, the quartet of Democrats say they were “surprised and disappointed” by Mattis’ conclusions against transgender service, which the White House made public late last month in an announcement renewing Trump’s ban.

“In our view, these recommendations contradict previous findings from the Department of Defense and the professional medical community,” the letter says. “As the president has empowered you to implement appropriate policies governing service by transgender individuals, we feel it imperative that we explore the factual bases behind your recommendations.”

The letter is signed by Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee; Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee; Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.). Both Speier and Gillibrand introduced bills in their respective chambers of Congress against Trump’s transgender military ban, but those measures also sought to codify Mattis’ review before it was completed.

“There are currently thousands of transgender individuals openly serving in the military with bravery and distinction,” the letter says. “There has been no indication that this has had an impact on overall readiness. All individuals who are willing and qualified should be able to volunteer to serve, regardless of their gender identity.”

The letter comes on the heels of objections to Mattis’ recommendations and Trump’s transgender ban from the American Medical Associations, which asserted the Pentagon “mischaracterized and rejected” medical research in its conclusions, as well as the American Psychological Association and two former U.S. surgeons general.

The conclusions Mattis reached are different from those during the Obama era under then-Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, who declared transgender people should be able to serve in the U.S. military after his own year-long review. Trump would later reverse this action.

Observing Mattis made his recommendations after he convened a “panel of experts” on transgender military service, the lawmakers pose six questions to the Pentagon about this review process.

1. Who was on the Panel of Experts?
2. Who did the Panel consult with?
3. Did the Panel consult with the American Psychiatric Association, American Psychological Association or American Medical Association or any other medical professionals with expertise in gender dysphoria?
4. In your view, what are the substantial risks associated with the accessions and retention of transgender persons? Can you please provide any examples that since June 30, 2016 these issues have arisen within the military and describe how the DOD or services handled these situations?
5. In your view, what are the specific issues that could undermine readiness, disrupt unit cohesion, and impose an unreasonable burden on the military? Can you please provide any examples that since June 30, 2016 these issues have arisen within the military and describe how the DOD or services handled these situations?
6. Were any government officials outside of DOD or the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) involved in the Report or your Memorandum to the president? If so, who were these officials and what was the basis for their involvement?

Additionally, the letter requests “the specific medical and scientific data that supported the conclusions contained in your memorandum.”

The administration has made conflicting statements on whether or not officials outside the Pentagon influenced the panel of experts. The White House told the Washington Blade the Pentagon made the conclusions “without regard to any external factors,” but Pentagon spokesperson Dana White said “it was a coordinated effort with the White House as well as the Department of Justice.”

Sources have told the Blade the military joint chiefs weren’t briefed before the Trump went public with the reaffirmation of his ban last month. A Pentagon spokesperson nonetheless said their representatives had input on the process leading to the Mattis recommendation.

Despite Mattis’ recommendations and Trump’s reaffirming of his transgender ban, the courts have banned the administration from enforcing it as a result of litigation from LGBT legal groups filed after Trump first announced via Twitter in July he’d ban transgender people from the military “in any capacity.”

A Pentagon spokesperson confirmed to the Washington Blade receipt of the letter from congressional Democrats, but had no immediate comment.

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Boris Johnson’s LGBTQ rights advisor visits D.C.

Nick Herbert praises efforts to evacuate LGBTQ Afghans

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Nick Herbert, a member of the British House of Lords who advises Prime Minister Boris Johnson on LGBTQ issues, speaks at the Victory Institute's 2021 International LGBTQ Leaders Conference in D.C. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s advisor on LGBTQ issues last week applauded his government’s efforts to help facilitate the successful evacuation of LGBTQ Afghans from the country.

“I’m very proud of the tremendous work that’s been done by the U.K. government,” Nick Herbert, a member of the British House of Lords, told the Washington Blade on Dec. 1 during an interview in D.C. “The U.K. has shown global leadership here.”

A group of 29 LGBTQ Afghans who Stonewall, Rainbow Railroad and Micro Rainbow evacuated from Afghanistan with the help of the British government arrived in the U.K. on Oct. 29. Herbert on Nov. 6 announced a second group of LGBTQ Afghans had reached the country.

“It took … a strong effort with different parts of government working together and the determination that this was really important and that people’s safety was at risk and also that we have a moral obligation to the communities affected,” said Herbert.

The Taliban entered Kabul, the Afghan capital, on Aug. 15 and regained control of the country.

A Taliban judge has said the group would once again execute people if it were to return to power in Afghanistan. Rainbow Railroad and Taylor Hirschberg, a researcher at the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health who is also a Hearst Foundation scholar, and others have been working to help evacuate LGBTQ Afghans from the country.

Advocacy groups continue to urge the Biden administration to do more to help LGBTQ Afghans who remain in Afghanistan.

Herbert noted the British government has committed to grant asylum to 10,000 Afghans under the country’s “Operation Warm Welcome” that seeks “to ensure the Afghans who stood side by side with us in conflict, their families and those at highest risk who have been evacuated, are supported as they now rebuild their lives in the U.K.” Herbert stressed this program will “prioritize” LGBTQ people and other at-risk groups in Afghanistan.

“This shows the power of working together and governments working in partnership with NGOs to achieve something,” he told the Blade. “I fully recognize there were lots of citizens who remained in Afghanistan, and so nevertheless, I think it was very heartening to see that those Afghan citizens who are most at risk were brought to the center.”

Herbert said he expects more LGBTQ Afghans will be “brought to safety,” but he declined to provide a specific number.

Johnson raised LGBTQ rights crackdown with Hungarian prime minister

Herbert spoke with the Blade before he participated in the Victory Institute’s International LGBTQ Leaders Conference that took place in-person at the JW Marriott in D.C. from Dec. 2-4.

Johnson in May appointed Herbert as his LGBTQ rights advisor.

Herbert is the first person who officially advises a British prime minister on LGBTQ issues. The former House of Commons member also co-founded the Global Equality Caucus, a group of LGBTQ elected officials around the world who work to fight discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Herbert throughout the interview noted his government continues to champion LGBTQ rights.

The British government on World AIDS Day pledged more than £23 million ($30.5 million) in additional funding to efforts that seek to “achieve zero new HIV infections, AIDS and HIV related deaths in England” by 2030. The British government also announced it would move to allow people with HIV/AIDS to serve in the country’s armed forces.

“It’s a legacy discriminatory policy that has no basis in sound science any longer,” said Herbert, referring to the policy against people with HIV/AIDS in the British military. “It’s entirely safe for people to serve, and we think they should be free to do so.”

A public comment period on a bill that would ban so-called conversion therapy in England and Wales is underway.  Herbert also expressed concern over the increasing backlash over efforts to expand rights to transgender people in the U.K.

“I’m troubled by the debate,” he said. “I recognize that … this is a that a complicated issue where you have an assertion of conflicting rights. But I don’t think it’s acceptable to see some of the sort of angry exchanges of language that has been seen over the course of the last few months.”

“It’s very damaging,” added Herbert.

Herbert noted to the Blade that Johnson rose Hungary’s anti-LGBTQ crackdown with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán when the two men met in May in London. Herbert also highlighted the British government in June will host a global LGBTQ rights conference that will coincide with London Pride’s 50th anniversary.

“The prime minister, by the way, has always been very ready to raise these issues, both when foreign secretary and now as prime minister, which is why I think he wants to hold this conference on the agenda,” said Herbert.

“We have to stand together with other countries to express our concern about what is happening,” he added. “We also must take a strong stance against culture wars, and I think governments joining in culture wars results in harm to citizens.”

U.K. has ‘historic responsibility’ for anti-LGBTQ laws in former colonies

Consensual same-sex sexual relations remain criminalized in dozens of countries around the world, and many of them are former British colonies.

Then-Prime Minister Theresa May in 2018 said she “deeply” regrets colonial-era criminalization laws the U.K. introduced. Herbert spoke with the Blade two days after the Botswana Court of Appeals upheld a 2019 ruling that decriminalized consensual same-sex sexual relations in the country.

“We want to work with our partners in encouraging countries to try to change those laws,” Herbert told the Blade.

He stressed the British government has “to guard against any idea that we’re being so neocolonial,” while adding the U.K. has a “historic responsibility for these laws and their legacy.”

“The position we approach (with) this is one of respect where we, along with other countries, are encouraging decriminalization,” said Herbert. “We want to work with countries that will work with us to support them in that journey. We have to recognize that all countries have been on a journey.”

Herbert noted to the Blade that homosexuality was criminalized in the U.K. when he was born.

“We need to remember that other countries are different points of the journey, but it doesn’t all happen at once. And they have to make their own decisions on this and we have to encourage them to support them to do,” he said. “I don’t think that this is a case of Britain lecturing, certainly not a case of dictating. It’s a question of encouraging.”

Herbert also questioned the use of sanctions against countries that enact anti-LGBTQ laws.

The British government late last year sanctioned three Chechen officials who are responsible for the anti-LGBTQ crackdown in the semi-autonomous Russian republic that continues. Herbert described these sanctions as “justified,” but said the British government has “to be careful of blunt instruments that may backfire.”

“There can be different ways to make our feelings known and to encourage countries to do the right thing,” he said.

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Howard County activists and allies hit back at censorship, hate

More than 100 people attended ‘We ARE the People’ rally

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(Photo by Bob Ford)

A diverse crowd of 100 to 200 folks gathered at the Columbia Lakefront on Saturday to attend a rally to push back against censorship in the county’s public schools as well as homophobia and transphobia emanating from a group of conservative parents.

The rally called “We ARE the People” was organized in response to the comments and actions by members of a Maryland-based conservative group “We the People 2” that among other things are anti-masks, anti-vaccinations and are opposed to teaching racial history in the schools. They also oppose two books that are in Howard County Public Schools library shelves: “Gender Queer” and “Lawn Boy.”

Speakers at a We the People 2 rally last month at an Elkridge warehouse condemned the books, which contain LGBTQ characters, as sexually explicit. The group later filed police reports against the Board of Education alleging the books constitute pornography with “graphic sexual content and materials being used and disseminated in public schools,” according to the group’s press release.  A flier announcing this action used the loaded terminology, “We must not allow our children to be abused and victimized.”

Among the speakers at the Elkridge rally was Republican Gordana Schifanelli who is running for lieutenant governor on the ticket with Daniel Cox. Another speaker, George Johnson, a teacher from Baltimore City, was heard on a video of the event saying, “We’re doing God’s work because Marxism, homosexuality and transgenderism is the devil.”

In response, the pro-LGBTQ rally in Columbia announced the following:

We are taking a stance against hate in the community as we raise our voices in support of equity in our schools. Attacks on teachers and school staff have prompted us to stand united and drown out the noise.

In addition, We ARE the People states:

We stand for LGBTQ+ students and educational professionals

Teaching accurate history to our students

Supporting equitable practices in our schools

Providing students with relevant LGBTQ+ media through their school libraries

The two-hour rally, which was attended by several county council members, featured speakers representing a wide swath of community, educational, religious and political organizations. They included: Community Allies of Rainbow Youth (CARY), Black Lives Activists of Columbia (BLAC), Absolutely Dragulous, Howard County Schools, PFLAG-Columbia/Howard County, IndivisibleHoCoMd, Columbia Democratic Club, Howard Progressive Project, Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia (UUCC), HoCo Pride, Progressive Democrats of Howard County, and the Columbia United Christian Church.

Many of the speakers denounced the censorship of materials that are needed by many LGBTQ students. Genderqueer and non-binary students, they point out, are most vulnerable and need affirming literature to help with their development and self-acceptance. The speakers also decried hate speech, which has surfaced again, as well as the opposition to teaching history as it relates to race.

Others argued that the community must not sit back and take it from extremist groups.

“You are all defenders,” said Cynthia Fikes, president of the Columbia Democratic Club, in a fiery speech. “But to succeed a strong defense also needs a strong offense.”

The two books in question were recently the center of controversy in the Fairfax County (Va.) school system. The books were removed in September from the shelves of the high schools pending a comprehensive review following opposition from a parent at a school board meeting. It should be noted that both books were previous winners of the American Library Association’s Alex Awards, which each year recognize “10 books written for adults that have special appeal to young adults, ages 12 through 18.”  

The board established two committees consisting of parents, staff and students to assess the content of the books and make recommendations to the assistant superintendent of instructional services who would make the final determination.

One committee found that “Lawn Boy” includes themes that “are affirming for students” with marginalized identities. “There is no pedophilia in the book,” the committee added. The other committee found that “Gender Queer” depicts “difficulties non-binary and asexual individuals may face.” The committee concluded that “the book neither depicts nor describes pedophilia.” The books were restored to the shelves.

“As this backlash against LGTBQ+ literature demonstrates, we must be ready to stand up and defend the progress we have made,” said Jennifer Mallo, member of the Howard County Board of Education, expressing her own point of view. “We must ensure our elected officials understand and share our values and will fight for our marginalized students.”

The enthusiastic crowd was clearly pleased with the event.

“Today’s rally was meant to inspire our community to take action,” said Chris Hefty, who was the lead organizer of the rally and the emcee. “Action that protects our youth. Action that protects our educators and admins. This action comes in the form of advocacy, communication with elected officials so they know your voice, and through well informed voting to ensure those who represent us are those we know will support us. We shared a message of love, acceptance, and warmth.”

Hefty adds, “The unity we facilitated through this rally was a sight to behold. As the lead organizer I couldn’t have been more pleased! In the future we will be sure to better meet the needs of all our community members. We thank all those in our community for their support and feedback and look forward to accomplishing great things together moving forward.”

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The gay man who shook Brazilian sports and society

Gilberto Nogueira shares his dream of inclusion

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Gilberto Nogueira (Photo by Anderson Stevens/Sport Club do Recife)

An unexpected trailblazer shook Brazilian society in 2021 and caused significant advancements of LGBTQ rights in historically conservative groups.

Gilberto Nogueira, a reality show superstar, brought to prime-time television what most would think of as contradictions: A sexually liberal person with strong religious convictions; a high-level academic who speaks the language of the people; and, most strikingly, an effeminate and proudly gay man who is also a soccer fan.

Nogueira, or “Gil do Vigor,” which roughly means “Striving Gil” in Portuguese, became a TV phenomenon by almost winning “Big Brother Brazil”, one of the most popular shows in Brazilian television. His unapologetic character struck an enormous fan base that includes some of the most famous Brazilian soccer players and sports journalists. In a matter of weeks, Nogueira managed to build an unexpected alliance of LGBTQ people and sports fans to support him. This would produce lasting change, although it would not come without controversy.

“Dialogue is a great and necessary bridge to long-term changes, which leads us to reflection, reassessment of attitudes, conscious self-assessment, practical actions and much more,” Nogueira told the Washington Blade from California, where he is now pursuing his PhD in economics at the University of California-Davis.

The roots of the fight for diversity in Brazilian soccer can be traced to the 1970s, when a group called “Torcida Coligay” decided to defy homophobes and the then-ruling military dictatorship by bringing together queer fans of the soccer club Grêmio. More recently, tangible outcomes have been achieved.

Since Brazil’s Supreme Court criminalized LGBTQ-phobic violence in 2019, fines and legal sanctions have been applied by sports authorities onto clubs whose supporters chanted homophobic slurs. Drawing from the heritage of Torcida Coligay, the collective “Canarinhos LGBT” has been pressuring restlessly for the enforcement of these measures.

However, as an important part of the Brazilian cultural identity, sports have also entered the cultural war that has dominated Brazil’s public life. Nogueira himself has been in the middle of a battle between two visions of what soccer should be. A fan of the club Sport Recife, Gil was invited by the club for a visit to the team’s stadium. The day after, an audio leak revealed homophobic slurs by one of the club’s advisors, sparking outrage among Nogueira’s supporters and media figures and reaching national headlines. Before the episode, it would be unimaginable to have soccer players showing support for LGBTQ Rights.

Since then, the club’s executive direction, younger and more diverse, and its governing council, older and male-dominated, started a civil war around the expulsion of the advisors. Possibly avoiding further backlash, Nogueira has not been outspoken about this topic in Brazilian media. Asked to comment on this article, he broke his silence.

“Conservatism, patriarchy and homophobia are issues that, in the sports universe, are potentialized because it is an environment where these key themes were rarely brought into the agenda, which is completely inconsistent, as sports are synonymous with inclusion. But the question is: Inclusion for whom?” Nogueira said.

“I see that we are lagging behind and there is little willingness to advance in these debates, and even less will to introduce practices that can foster the debate on gender identities, gender expression, sexual orientation, among others. I also realize that we lack dialogue, and we know that talking about the plurality of life is respecting it, inserting it, sustaining it in such an oppressive environment.” he concluded.

The battle for inclusion in Brazilian sports occurs in the midst of a highly hostile political debate.

About a month ago, Mauricio Souza, a famous volleyball player, was fired from his club after anti-LGBTQ comments on social media. Immediately, he became a symbol of Brazil’s far right, multiplying his followers and gaining support from President Jair Bolsonaro. Souza is now expected to run for the Congress in Bolsonaro’s party.

In this context, Nogueira ‘s contribution for diversity in sports becomes even more remarkable. His persona — evangelical, gay, academic, raised in poverty — defies the typical divide of the deeply polarized Brazilian society. Asked what he would say to other LGBTQ persons living in highly conservative environments such as the church and the soccer stadium, Nogueira states the answer is within.

“There are always answers within ourselves,” he said. “While everyone has the right to speak when, how and if they want to about their orientation or gender identity, genuinely belonging to ourselves is something we will question ourselves throughout our lives”.

Another remarkable characteristic of Nogueira is his firm belief in his dreams. Even having won national recognition, 15 million followers on Instagram and millions of dollars in advertisement, he chose to continue his life-long plan to pursue a PhD at UC Davis. This does not drive him away from his fight for inclusion.

“I intend to conduct relevant research that has a social impact directly related to minorities — in this case, the LGBTQIA+ community and racial issues — so that we can discuss and show that it is important to have diversity in all sectors of the country, and that this will not only bring more equality, but it will also bring development,” he said.

From California, Nogueira has his own segment in a popular TV show, explaining complex economic concepts to common people. This highlights his vision for the future of Brazil.

“I intend to use my theoretical knowledge as an economist … to show that we need to consolidate ourselves as a country that is diverse, respectful, not homophobic, not racist, because otherwise, we pay the price as human beings, but also as a country, as a whole,” he said. Nogueira’s activism and brilliance has shown that Brazilian sports culture is on an inclusive path, but there is still a long way to go. There are very few high-profile athletes who are openly LGBTQ, and in men’s soccer, Brazil’s most popular sport, there are none.

However, Nogueira’s impact, as Michael Sam and Megan Rapinoe in the U.S., is proof that society is changing and this includes formerly homophobic milieus, as the sports arenas.

Egerton Neto is the international coordinator at Aliança Nacional LGBTI+, a Brazilian LGBTQ rights group, and a master candidate at the London School of Economics. Caio Leite is a political scientist.

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