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Korean LGBTQ experts push for peace

Bay Area group praises developments from U.S.-North Korea summit

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Members of HOBAK expressed hope for peace on the Korean peninsula. (Photo courtesy of Ryan Sin Photography)

A brief statement signed June 12 by President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un concluded a historic summit in Singapore. The agreement was short on details but fodder for explosive speculation.

Trump committed the U.S. to vague “security guarantees” in exchange for a “firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” with no specific language about verification or a timeline.

Trump also called off “war games,” otherwise known as joint U.S. military exercises with South Korea that has heretofore provided an umbrella of protection for the region. The announcement surprised both South Korea President Moon Jae-in and the Pentagon.

“Our military exercises are defensive in nature,” Frank Jannuzi, CEO of the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation and former deputy executive director of Amnesty International USA, told the Los Angeles Blade. “What’s remarkable to me here is that you’ve got Trump unilaterally suspending those exercises and getting nothing for it. It’s not like the North had made a reciprocal pledge to both suspend production of fissile material [that which is capable of sustaining a nuclear fission reaction] and to suspend their large-scale military exercises.”

Trump “is way out of his depth,” “duped” by the violent dictator Kim Jong Un, former CIA Director John Brennan told MSNBC. The statement of principles was something Un had already signed more specifically with South Korea.

Others, however, remain optimistic. Ju-hyun Park, a member of the Communications Committee of Hella Organized Bay Area Koreans (HOBAK), a San Francisco-area collective founded as a home for queer and trans Koreans, told the Los Angeles Blade: “The cancellation of U.S.-ROK [South Korean] military drills and the DPRK’s [North Korea’s] commitment to denuclearization are positive steps towards the realization of peace and reunification on the peninsula. We hope talks continue and result in demilitarization and denuclearization, including of U.S. assets.”

Christine Ahn, co-founder of the Korea policy Institute and founder and international coordinator of Women Cross DMZ—a coalition of women working to end the decades-long stalemated Korean War—told Democracy Now on Tuesday: “This is unprecedented. It’s a new day for the Korean peninsula. The joint statement talks about peace and prosperity and security. It remains the job of civil society, and especially of women’s groups, to be sure we’re included in this peace process.”

Women and LGBTQ Koreans have long been pushing for peace in the region as the best way to secure more freedoms and protections for gender and sexual minorities on the Korean peninsula. Both North and South Korea have been beset by human rights abuses, as well as prejudice from the American-influenced Christian Right against LGBTQ people.

Trump said human rights abuses were discussed “briefly” during the summit, but did not elaborate. Rather, he showed Un a four-minute video produced by WhiteHouse.gov and California-based Destiny Productions about what his country could be. The video comes off as a movie trailer “about a special moment in time when a man is presented one chance that may never be repeated. What will he choose – to show vision and leadership – or not?” Trump, who lavished praise on Un, told reporters that the North Korean leader and his entourage were impressed.

Many experts and activists, including members of HOBAK, watched the summit with both trepidation and excitement since the world leaders are known for being unpredictable. They feel the inclusion of women and LGBTQ communities in peace talks could help to usher in an era of demilitarization and reconciliation and want to offer insights into a better way forward.

HOBAK, a group of 20 grassroots activists, promote gender equality, LGBTQ rights, demilitarization, Korean reunification, and other progressive policies both on the Korean Peninsula and in the U.S. The group believes that American involvement in the ongoing Korean War has only stymied hopes for peace and demilitarization.

“I think we’ve been seeing this again with Donald Trump’s administration, where they have been really fanning the flames of hostility and tension,” Hyejin Shim told the LA Blade. “U.S. occupation has really impacted the politics of South Korea because the U.S. has positioned itself as South Korea’s benefactor and savior. To our understanding, the relationship between the U.S. and the South Korean government—that was a relationship that propped up South Korean dictators for many decades after the Korean War,” started June 25, 1950.

Having women and LGBTQ folks involved in the peacemaking process leads to actual and more lasting peace deals, said Ahn, who has hosted international peace summits in Seoul and Pyongyang. The ongoing state of war is “used by governments on both sides to justify a very repressive national security state. Obviously, on a scale of one to 10, it’s a 10 in North Korea. And in South Korea, it depends on whether it’s a more progressive or liberal administration, versus a neoconservative one.” While she did not minimize North Korea’s record on human rights, Ahn said the treatment of LGBTQ visitors has been worse in South Korea, by comparison. 

Ahn has led delegations of Korean-Americans to North Korea, half of whom have been queer. “It’s really extraordinary the percentage of queer Koreans who have been involved in this [peace and de-militarization] movement,” Ahn said. In one instance, a woman asked the government-appointed tour guide “minder” what he imagined Kim Jong-un would say concerning queer people. The “minder” said something to the effect of:  “It doesn’t matter what your sexual orientation is, as long as you’re for the revolution and for advancing equality.”

When the woman relayed the story to elderly first-generation Korean-American immigrants in the U.S.—a community traditionally known to be heterosexist and patriarchal—she received a standing ovation. “It just shows there isn’t a monolithic view or experience within North Korea, that there are obviously competing views,” Ahn said. “It’s important to have these honest conversations to bring about change both there and here.”

“We know that nations at war are not friendly to human rights,” she said. “Not to justify it, but why don’t we try a different approach? Why don’t we try engagement? If we can get to peace, a lot of things will improve in the day-to-day existence of people [on the Korean Peninsula].”

Jannuzi agreed that peace and human rights “go hand in hand.” However, he said, “The hostilities don’t account for the lack of a judicial system or trial; the inability to worship; the inability to have access to information; or the restrictions on people to express any criticism of the government. Their policies are draconian. They exercise collective punishment of entire families—children and parents are sent to jail for crimes committed by family members. It’s an authoritarian state that’s keeping a tight grip on its people.”

The United Nations Commission of Inquiry on DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea—North Korea), Jannuzi noted, found the country is among the world’s more repressive and intolerant societies. “There are maybe 120,000 political prisoners who are in gulags because of their political beliefs. That may include people who are [incarcerated for] their sexual orientation or sexual practices,” but there is a lack of good data on this front.

LGBTQ communities in South Korea, too, face social and political repression. As Pride celebrations unfold in cities and towns across the United States, LGBTQ people in Seoul will risk their safety by taking to the streets in rainbow regalia. Counter-protesters have been known to assault Pride participants, who often wear sunglasses and concealing headgear to guard against accidental or intentional outing because they fear reprisal from their families, employers, friends and communities.

Shim, who is queer, told the LA Blade the South Korean military has been known to root out gay and bisexual men from its ranks by using entrapment techniques. Service members are solicited with gay apps such as Jack’d and Grindr that are often used by men who have sex with men. After they are outed and subsequently discharged from the armed forces, gay and bisexual men face prison sentences because able-bodied men in South Korea between the ages of 18 and 35 must complete two years of compulsory military service. If they don’t complete the full two-year term, they are required to make up the difference in a correctional facility.

Additionally, while consensual same-sex activity is legal among civilians in South Korea, it is punishable by up to two years imprisonment—or institutionalization—if participants are in the military.

Despite the pervasiveness of homophobia in South Korea, HOBAK is hopefully advocating for a comprehensive anti-discrimination law. Pew research found public opinion has shifted toward LGBT acceptance more in South Korea than in any of the other 39 countries surveyed.

Homophobia persists, however, fueled by a Christian conservatism originated in the late 1880s. For instance, South Korean Prime Minister Moon Jae-in has a distinguished record of supporting progressive policies, but answered a campaign question about gay rights by saying he is against homosexuality.  

But HOBAK persists, as well. During her most recent trip to Jeju Island, part of South Korea’s Jeju Province, Shim attended Pride celebrations and witnessed the viciousness of counter-protesters wielding signs akin to those brandished by members of the Westboro Baptist Church. “So much of South Korean politics is very interrelated and interconnected,” Shim said. “So there are LGBT folks doing labor stuff—queer people are everywhere, so of course they’re involved in everything.”

Ahn is pleased with the summit. Nuclear weapons would instantly kill 300,000 people on the Korean Peninsula and now Trump no longer has the option to launch a first strike. Ahn believes Women Cross DMZ “planted a seed” in Trump’s mind through a letter they sent him saying he had unique opportunity to do what no American president has successfully done before: bring an end to the longest U.S. conflict.

Jannuzi said that peace would open the door to further negotiations, including those focused on human rights. “I don’t think there’s anything about the North Korean human rights situation that would be improved through coercion,” he said. “Pressure in the form of military pressure or economic sanctions is not the way to convince them to improve their human rights record.”

Jannuzi would like to see a human rights working group that would address human rights and human security issues, including in freedom of expression and religion, as well as protections for LGBTQ people. “Making peace with North Korea,” he said, “is the best way to gain access and leverage to begin to improve human rights in North Korea.”

Jannuzi however, cautioned that this most recent pledge by North Korea to denuclearize is “more vague, weaker, and less specific than almost all of the previous commitments that have been made,” while also extolling the importance of the Summit. “We’ve accomplished very little so far, but we’ve started a process,” he said.

Ahn is focused on peace: “This could be so good for peace in Korea, peace in northeast Asia, for the abolishment of nuclear weapons and for world peace. And we should not be trying to derail it because of our disdain for Trump but see it in the broader picture of what this means for the possibility of a future of world peace.”

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Two anti-LGBTQ bills die in Va. Senate

Democrats maintain 21-19 majority in chamber

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The Virginia Capitol (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Two anti-LGBTQ bills died in the Virginia Senate on Thursday.

A Senate Education subcommittee voted against state Sen. Travis Hackworth (R-Tazewell County)’s Senate Bill 20, which would have eliminated the requirement that school districts must implement the Virginia Department of Education’s transgender and non-binary student guidelines.

The Senate General Laws and Technology Committee in an 8-7 vote tabled state Sen. Mark Peake (R-Lynchburg)’s Senate Bill 177, a religious freedom measure that critics contend would have allowed anti-LGBTQ discrimination in housing.

Virginia’s statewide nondiscrimination law includes sexual orientation and gender identity. Peake’s bill would have removed “the provision of the exemption for religious organizations under the Virginia Fair Housing Law that denies such exemption where the membership in such religion is restricted on account of race, color, national origin, sex, elderliness, familial status, sexual orientation, gender identity, military status, or disability.”

The General Assembly’s 2022 legislative session began on Jan. 12 with Republicans in control of the House of Delegates. Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin took office three days later.

Democrats, who maintain a 21-19 majority in the state Senate, have vowed to block any anti-LGBTQ bill.

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Department of Education investigating BYU LGBTQ+ discipline policy

“They’ve wronged marginalized communities at BYU and they need to be held accountable for it” ~ former gay student at BYU

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Bradley Talbot, a former gay student at BYU (Photo courtesy of Bradley Talbot)

PROVO, Ut. – The U.S. Department of Education has opened an investigation into policies at Brigham Young University (BYU) that discipline LGBTQ students, aiming to determine whether or not the private religious school, owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), is violating their civil rights. 

The Education Department is investigating a complaint that came after BYU removed rules banning “homosexual activity” from its honor code in 2020, only to clarify weeks later that same-sex partnerships were still prohibited.

The probe, which opened in October of last year, will focus on Title IX, a law prohibiting universities from discriminating against students and others based on gender. 

Last year, President Joe Biden signed an executive order mandating every federal agency, including the Education Department, clarify that civil rights laws protect LGBTQ people from discrimination. However, religious schools have Title IX exemptions, making federal scrutiny rare.  

“It’s really significant that investigators are stepping in now,” Michael Austin, a BYU alumnus and vice president at the University of Evansville, told the Salt Lake Tribune. “It means there’s some reason to think the university has gone beyond the religious exemptions it has and is discriminating even beyond those.”

The investigation, headed by the Office of Civil Rights within the department, seems to be about whether faith-based exemptions apply even if the behavior is not directly related to education or expressly written in the honor code. BYU also bans alcohol, beards and piercings, among other things. 

BYU did not respond to the Blade’s request for comment. But a spokesperson told the Associated Press that the school does not anticipate any further action because “BYU is exempt from application of Title IX rules that conflict with the religious tenets” of the LDS.

Though the LDS has softened some of its rules around LGBTQ issues, the church remains opposed to same-sex marriage and sex outside of marriage. 

In a November 2021 letter to the Education Department, Kevin Worthen, president of BYU, argued that religious exemptions do apply to the school. The letter adds that all BYU students, faculty, administrators and staff “‘voluntarily commit to conduct their lives in accordance with the principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ.’”

The Department of Education responded to the letter, affirming that the university has some religious exemptions, but the department had to investigate if the complaint falls under those exemptions. 

An Education Department spokesperson confirmed the investigation to the Blade but declined further comment. 

Queer students at BYU celebrated the school’s removal of the anti-LGBTQ language in the honor code. Yet, the university announced weeks later that there was “some miscommunication” as to what the changes meant, clarifying that “the principles of the Honor Code remain the same.”

Bradley Talbot, a former gay student at BYU, was on campus during the apparent reversal, saying it “instilled a lot of fear and a lot of students.” 

“There are still a lot of feelings of betrayal and apprehension around it,” he told the Blade.

At BYU, students who hold hands or kiss someone of the same sex can face punishment, including expulsion. LGBTQ+ students face harsher discipline than heterosexual couples at the school. 

Talbot said he knew of “quite a few people” who lost their degrees and were kicked out during his time at BYU because of the gay dating ban. “People were turned in by roommates. Some people were turned in by their own parents,” he added. 

Courtesy of Bradley Talbot

The university’s clarification frustrated LGBTQ students, according to Talbot. In response, he organized a demonstration in March of 2021, lighting the “Y” that sits above BYU’s campus – one of the school’s oldest traditions – in rainbow Pride colors on the one year anniversary of the university’s letter sent to students that clarified the LGBTQ dating policy. 

“We did it to reclaim that traumatic day and spin in a positive light of support, love and unity to create more visibility and awareness,” said Talbot. “And also to take a stand that we weren’t going to put up with just being tossed around by BYU. We deserve to be a part of the BYU community and a part of the LGBTQ community.”

The school has since updated its policies, banning protests and other demonstrations on Y Mountain, where Talbot staged his demonstration, in December of last year. 

“Demonstrations should be consistent with BYU’s faith-based mission, intellectual environment and requirements described in the policy,” a statement added. 

Still, Talbot, who is now graduated, has hope that the Education Department’s investigation will “finally change” things at BYU. “This has been something that’s been going on for decades,” he said. “They’ve wronged marginalized communities at BYU and they need to be held accountable for it.”

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National

LGBTQ advocates fight on for trans athletes, but they may be losing the battle

Transgender women competing in women’s sports remains unpopular in polls

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From left, Lia Thomas, Caitlyn Jenner and Michael Phelps. (Screen capture of Thomas via YouTube, Washington Blade photo of Jenner by Michael Key, photo of Phelps by kathclick via Bigstock)

In the wake of the NCAA changing its policies regarding transgender athletes and state legislatures advancing new legislation against trans inclusion in school sports, LGBTQ advocates continue the fight to ensure athletes can compete consistent with their gender identity, although they may be losing the battle.

As public polling has demonstrated, transgender athletes competing in sports — especially trans women in women’s sports — remains unpopular even among pro-transgender people. Key figures have emerged in recent days opposing transgender inclusion amid the focus on Lia Thomas, a recently transitioned swimmer at the University of Pennsylvania who has been smashing records in women’s aquatics.

Nonetheless, LGBTQ advocates charged with fighting for transgender rights are continuing the efforts. After a coalition of LGBTQ advocates sent a letter to the NCAA urging the organization to include a non-discrimination provision in its updated constitution, the Human Rights Campaign condemned the organization for refusing to keep the language, which appears to have the effect of allowing the sports division to decline to allow transgender athletes to compete consistent with their gender identity, and sent an action alert to supporters.

Joni Madison, interim president of the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement the NCAA “needs to show us their playbook for protecting LGBTQ+ and specifically transgender athletes from discrimination” as state legislatures advance legislation against transgender kids in sports.

“The NCAA has so far proven to be an unreliable ally to LGBTQ+ athletes across the country who depend upon the organization to protect them from discrimination and now they owe these athletes answers,” Madison said.

Instead of reaffirming non-discrimination protections, the NCAA announced a change in policy that goes in different directions but appears aimed at limiting participation of transgender women without taking full responsibility for it. On one hand, the NCAA delegates to the bodies governing individual sports the policies for transgender participation, but on the other hand requires transgender women to document having limited testosterone levels over a certain period of time.

The fight now continues in state legislatures as sports bills are among the latest crop of measures seeking to limit access for transgender people. After South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem made a push for legislation against transgender kids in sports at the start of the year, the state legislature responded by advancing such a measure. On Wednesday, a South Dakota House committee favorably reported out legislation already approved by wide margins in the Senate that would make biological sex the standard for sports in an attempt to limit transgender participation.

Sam Ames, director of advocacy and government affairs at The Trevor Project, said in a statement upon the committee vote the legislation “has nothing to do with fairness — and everything to do with South Dakota politicians using transgender youth as pawns on a political chessboard.

“Proponents of this blanket ban are hard-pressed to find examples of transgender students making South Dakota sports less fair or safe,” Ames said. “Research from The Trevor Project makes clear that many already opt out of sports due to fear of bullying and discrimination.”

Although the issue of transgender women in sports has emerged in recent years as conservative activists found a way to challenge LGBTQ rights in a way that was palatable to the public, the fervor peaked as Thomas made headlines for breaking records in the pool.

After having previously competed in men’s aquatics, Thomas — after she transitioned — began competing in women’s events and was beating her competitors by wide margins. In one event in December, Thomas came in first in the 1,650-yard freestyle and 38 seconds ahead of her closest competitor. The NCAA rules would appear to have the effect of barring Thomas from further competition.

Public polling, which has shown strong support for LGBTQ rights in general, continues to show the sentiment is against transgender women competing in sports, although the outcome of the poll can change considerably depending on the wording of the question. One Gallup poll last year found only 34 percent of those surveyed supported transgender athletes participating on teams consistent with their gender identity, while 62 percent said transgender people should have to compete with other athletes of their gender designated at birth.

One LGBTQ strategist, who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity, said the time may have come for LGBTQ advocates to admit a fait accompli if they want to seek broader civil rights protections in employment, housing and public accommodations with the Equality Act or other federal legislation.

“Advocates should just admit this is a very different issue than a trans person applying for a job or finding an apartment,” the strategist said. “Equality principles differ by situation — that’s why we have separate men’s and women’s sports in the first place. The same public opinion overwhelmingly supportive of the Equality Act is also clearly skeptical of a one size fits all federalization of all sports everywhere.”

Adding fuel to the fire are recent comments from key figures in athletics.

Caitlyn Jenner, who before she transitioned was an Olympic champion in the 1970s, has been among the more prominent voices to speak out against transgender women in sports and said on a recent appearance on Fox News it represents “a woke world gone wild.”

Jenner, who came out against transgender participation in sports during her unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign last year in the California recall election, said the NCAA “just kicked the can down the road” on the transgender sports issue and had choice words for Thomas.

“When you do transition and you do go through this, you have to take responsibility and you have to have integrity,” Jenner said. “I don’t know why she’s doing this.”

Michael Phelps, the decorated Olympic swimmer, also declined to support transgender athletes fully when asked about the issue during an interview on CNN, bringing up doping in sports in comparison.

“I don’t know what it looks like in the future,” Phelps said. “It’s hard. It’s very complicated and this is my sport, this has been my sport my whole entire career, and honestly the one thing I would love is everybody being able to compete on an even playing field.”

To be sure, advocates for allowing transgender people to compete in sports consistent with their gender identity also have their supporters in the sports world, including tennis legend Billie Jean King. On Monday, Dorian Rhea Debussy, who’s non-binary and one of 54 facilitators in the NCAA Division III LGBTQ OneTeam program, resigned in protest over recent NCAA actions.

“I’m deeply troubled by what appears to be a devolving level of active, effective, committed, and equitable support for gender diverse student-athletes within the NCAA’s leadership,” Debussy said. “As a non-binary, trans-feminine person, I can no longer, in good conscience, maintain my affiliation with the NCAA.”

Arguably, schools complying with the new NCAA policy and states enacting anti-transgender laws would be violating Title IX of the Education Amendment of 1972, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in education, especially after the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Bostock v. Clayton County finding anti-transgender discrimination is a form of sex discrimination.

One federal court last year blocked a West Virginia state law against transgender participation in sports on that legal basis. No litigation, however, appears to be in the works at this time challenging colleges or the NCAA policy.

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