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DOJ touts anti-LGBT views, task force at ‘religious freedom’ summit

Sessions accused of ‘undermining LGBTQ rights’

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Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the creation of a Religious Liberty Task Force. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

A summit at the U.S. Justice Department on Monday ostensibly intended to promote religious freedom, including the creation of a Religious Liberty Task Force, often highlighted efforts to enable anti-LGBT discrimination.

At the summit in the Justice Department’s Great Hall, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the creation of the task force to implement “religious freedom” guidance he issued last year.

“The task force will help the department fully implement our religious liberty guidance by ensuring that all Justice Department components — and we got a lot of components around the country — are upholding that guidance in the cases they bring and defend, the arguments they make in court, the policies and regulations they adopt and how we conduct our operations,” Sessions said.

According to the Justice Department, Sessions will serve as chair of the task force, which will be co-chaired by Acting Associate Attorney General Jesse Panuccio and Associate Attorney General for the Office of Legal Policy Beth Williams.

Sessions said a primary mission of the Religious Liberty Task Force will be ensuring Justice Department employees “know their duty is to accommodate people of faith.”

“This administration is animated by the same American view that has led us for 242 years that every American has a right to believe and worship and exercise their faith in the public square,” Sessions added.

The underlying guidance on which the task force is based seeks to allow individuals and businesses to act in the name of religious freedom — often used as an exercise for anti-LGBT discrimination — without fear of government reprisal. Nowhere in the guidance is there a limiting principle assuring the right to free exercise of religion should be an excuse to engage in anti-LGBT discrimination.

Announcing the new task force, Sessions referenced the Masterpiece Cakeshop case in which a Colorado baker was sued after he refused to make a custom-made wedding cake for a same-sex couple. The U.S. Supreme Court narrowly ruled in his favor based on the facts of his case, citing anti-religion sentiment on the Colorado Civil Rights Commission.

Sessions commended Phillips for having endured an “ordeal faced so gravely,” touting an amicus brief the Justice Department filed on his behalf before the Supreme Court. U.S. Solicitor General Noel Francisco also argued in favor of Phillips before justices in oral arguments.

“Let’s be frank: A dangerous movement, undetected by many, but real, is now challenging and eroding our great tradition of religious freedom,” Sessions said at the start of his remarks. “There can be no doubt, it’s no little matter. It must be confronted intellectually and politically, and defeated.”

LGBT rights supporters said in response to the creation of the Religious Liberty Task Force its purpose was to further the Trump administration’s goal of compromising LGBT rights.

Louise Melling, deputy legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union, said the agenda of the Religious Liberty Task Force “isn’t consistent with religious freedom.”

“Religious freedom protects our right to our beliefs, not a right to discriminate or harm others,” Melling said. “Jeff Session’s Department of Justice is again turning that understanding of religious freedom on its head.”

Lucas Acosta, director of LGBTQ media for the Democratic National Committee, said in a statement the task force is “just the latest assault in this administration’s continued campaign against LGBTQ people and our civil rights.”

“By creating this task force, Sessions is establishing a unit dedicated to undermining LGBTQ rights and giving anti-LGBTQ far-right extremists like task force head Jesse Panuccio a taxpayer-funded platform to push their anti-equality agenda,” Acosta said. “Rather than ensuring every person has equal protections and opportunities, Sessions is shamefully doubling down on bigotry.”

But the creation of the Religious Liberty Task Force was just one portion of the summit, which also included the voices of participants who urged a commitment to religious freedom to advance anti-LGBT discrimination.

Archbishop of Louisville Joseph Edward Kurtz, who formerly served as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said religious freedom is facing challenges that amount to “power-seeking for the purpose of imposing one’s will on others.”

Kurtz cited as an example Catholic adoption agencies being “targeted for closure” for refusing to place children with LGBT families out of religious objections.

“One of the biggest concerns is the ability of our child welfare providers to continue to be able to place children with foster and adoptive families consistent with our teaching,” Kurtz said.

Although no government is actively seeking to close Catholic adoption agencies, they have threatened to shut their doors on their own in the wake of the legalization of same-sex marriage because they feel they’ll be forced to place children with gay couples who marry.

As a result, a growing number or states have enacted anti-LGBT adoption laws allowing taxpayer-funded agencies to refuse to place children with LGBT families over religious objections. House Republicans have inserted an amendment in a pending appropriations bill that would penalize states and localities for having policies barring anti-LGBT discrimination among adoption agencies.

Phillips, the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop, was himself present at the summit and took part in a panel of individuals who say they are facing challenges to their religious freedom.

Moderating his panel was Justice Department spokesperson Kerri Kupec, formerly a spokesperson for the anti-LGBT Alliance Defending Freedom. At a time when that term is used as justification for anti-LGBT discrimination, Kupec said in her introduction of the panel religious freedom is often “housed in scare quotes, as if it’s not a real thing, or even worse, a bad thing, which is tragic.”

Much of Kupec’s questioning of Phillips sought to elicit sympathy for him, which meant his act of refusing to make a custom-made wedding cake for a same-sex couple who entered his store was glossed over as he explained his commitment to his religious views.

In addition to refusing to make a same-sex wedding cake, Phillips said his religious beliefs compel him to close on Sundays, refuse to service Halloween celebrations or make cakes with denigrating messages.

“It’s the message of the cake that I evaluate, not the person who ordered the cake,” Phillips said. “In one instance, I had a man who wanted me to make a cake basically telling his boss that he was a jerk, so I wouldn’t do that, but I’ve also had people asked me to do cakes that would disparage gay people, the gay lifestyle, but I wouldn’t do that either because they’re hurtful cakes.”

As the litigation went forward, Phillips said he received death threats as well as a threat over the phone against his daughter. As a result, Phillips said he wouldn’t allow employees to answer the phone at Masterpiece Cakeshop and would only take calls himself.

Noting the U.S. Supreme Court only takes a few select cases each year, Phillips became emotional when he recalled news that justices had agreed to take up his petition after the state of Colorado ruled against him.

Even though the result of the case was narrowly in his favor and didn’t open up a First Amendment right for anti-LGBT discrimination, Phillips said it was worth the effort.

“True tolerance has to be a two-way street,” Phillips said. “We’re thrilled that the United States ruled in our favor, this ruling solidifying religious freedom in our country, but it’s not just for me, it’s for all us, every American should now be able to live and work freely and according to their conscience without fear of punishment from the government.”

Other speakers at the summit expressed concerns about threats to religious minorities in a manner that progressives would likely agree is a threat to religious freedom.

Among them was Harpreet Singh, who works with Muslim, Arab, Sikh, South Asian and Hindu religions on behalf of the Justice Department, and Asma Uddin, senior scholar at the Religious Freedom Center of the Freedom Forum Institute, who talked about anti-Muslim sentiments.

Singh said his agency has found hate crimes against minority religions have been increasing, which he said is substantiated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s annual reports and studies from universities, although “there’s a lot of underreporting going on.”

But other speakers on the panel railed against efforts to uphold LGBT rights as they face compromise in the name of religious freedom, including Emilie Kao, director of the Richard & Helen DeVos Center for Religion & Civil Society at the anti-LGBT Heritage Foundation.

Kao was critical of litigation filed by the ACLU against the Michigan law enabling Catholic adoption agencies to refuse placement to LGBT families over religious objections.

Asserting same-sex couples seeking to adopt face no problem in access to adoption, Kao said the plaintiff in the lawsuit drove past four other adoption agencies to reach St. Vincent’s Catholic Charities, which she said “still holds the belief that they should put every child with a mother and father.”

“The lesbian couple says they were personally offended by St. Vincent’s not placing a child with them,” Kao said. “I think it’s important for us to recognize that throughout the history of our country and the Supreme Court’s cases, we have always protected the right of people to follow their religious beliefs, and we’ve never protected the right not to have your feelings hurt.”

Michael McConnell, a law professor at the Constitutional Law Center at Stanford University, warned of the growing compromise that religious liberty faces in the wake of growing “sexual freedom.”

“An extremely popular argument in religious circles has been that religious accommodations are necessarily unconstitutional if they lead to so-called third-party harm,” McConnell said. “If there’s anyone whose rights or interests…are interfered with, that that means the accommodation is simply unconstitutional. To my mind, that’s an extremely implausible argument because virtually every accommodation, and indeed, virtually any application of any constitutional right — free speech, property, due process — there’s always someone on the other side of ledger who’s interests are being harmed.”

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National

‘Very familiar’: Mark Glaze’s story brings into focus mental health for gay men

Experts see common story as LGBTQ people enter middle age

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Mark Glaze's death by suicide is bringing into focus mental health issues faced by gay men.

The death by suicide at age 51 of Mark Glaze, a gun reform advocate who was close to many in D.C.’s LGBTQ community, is striking a chord with observers who see his struggles with mental health and alcoholism as reflective of issues facing many gay men as they enter middle age.

Glaze’s story resonates even though much of the attention on mental health issues in the LGBTQ community is devoted to LGBTQ youth going through the coming out process and transgender people who face disproportionate violence and discrimination within the LGBTQ community in addition to a growing focus on LGBTQ seniors entering later stages of life.

Randy Pumphrey, senior director of behavioral health for the D.C.-based Whitman-Walker Health, said Glaze’s story was “very familiar” as a tale of mental health issues facing gay men in the middle stage of life.

“You’re talking about a gay-identified man who is in his 50s, somebody who has struggled with alcohol misuse — or maybe abuse or dependence— and also depression,” Pumphrey said. “I think that there has always been a higher incidence of suicide for men in general in their middle age 50 and above, but this increases when you’re talking about gay men, and also if you’re talking about gay men who suffer with mental health issues, or substance use disorder issues.”

Several sources close to Glaze said his death did not come as a surprise. His family has been open about his death by suicide last month while he was in jail after allegedly fleeing the scene of a car accident in Pennsylvania and a long history of depression and alcoholism.

Pumphrey said Glaze’s situation coping with mental health issues as well as the consequences for his role in the accident, were reflective of someone who might “begin to perceive that this is an issue that they can’t get away from, or the consequences they can’t get away from exposure and that can lead somebody to a fatal outcome.”

“My experience is that there have been gay men that I have worked with over the years — particularly in their 50s and early 60s — it’s taken them a long time to recognize the severity of the problem, whether it’s their depression or their substance abuse, and then they find themselves in a very precarious situation because of shame, and so they may not necessarily seek help even though they need help.”

A 2017 study in the American Journal of Men’s Health found the prevalence of depression among gay men is three times higher than the general adult population, which means they are a subgroup at high risk for suicide.

The study found “scant research exists about gay men’s health beyond sexual health issues,” most often with HIV, which means issues related to depression and suicidality “are poorly understood.”

“Gay men’s health has often been defined by sexual practices, and poorly understood are the intersections of gay men’s physical and mental health with social determinants of health including ethnicity, locale, education level and socioeconomic status,” the study says.

The study acknowledged being male itself is one factor incorporated in addressing mental health issues in this subgroup because “regardless of sexual orientation, men can be reluctant to seek help for mental health problems.” Another study quoted in the report found 23 percent, less than one quarter of gay men, who attempted suicide sought mental health or medical treatment.

In addition to mental health issues facing gay men in Glaze’s age group, others saw his situation as a common story in the culture of Washington, which is notorious for celebrating and prioritizing success with little tolerance for personal setbacks.

In the case of Glaze, who had sparred on Fox News with Tucker Carlson as executive director of Everytown for Gun Safety, the threat of exposure and threat to his career may have seemed overwhelmingly daunting.

Steven Fisher, who knew Glaze since the 1990s and worked with him at the D.C.-based Raben Group, said one factor that contributed to Glaze’s condition was “he could only see upward in terms of his career trajectory.”

“We saw that in him and it had me very concerned because I felt like he might end up in a place that wasn’t good once he left Everytown, and that’s tragically and sadly what happened,” Fisher said. “I think he just had trouble adjusting to what is usually a roller coaster ride, I think, in people’s careers, especially in the D.C. world.”

Along with Glaze, Fisher has worked on gun issues for Everytown, which has been a client of his since 2015 after he worked for them in 2012 after the Newtown shooting.

Compounding the challenges that Glaze faced is a culture among many gay men focused on sexuality, which prioritizes youth and appearance and presents problems as those qualities start fading when men enter middle age.

Fisher said another factor in Glaze’s condition was social media, pointing out public perception about his identity was important to him.

“If you look at his social media — I think this is instructive to the rest of us — a lot of the comments are about how Mark was so good looking and he was charming, and he was so smart and so funny,” Fisher said. “That’s all true, and that’s why he was very appealing to many people, but those qualities don’t really tell you everything about a person. In fact, one could argue they’re superficial in a way, and people have to remember people are more complicated than what you see on social media.”

One issue for gay men facing mental health issues as they enter middle age is they don’t have the same resources as those available to LGBTQ youth, who have been more of a focus in terms of mental health issues in the LGBTQ community.

Among the leading organizations for LGBTQ youth is the Trevor Project, which has resources and a hotline for LGBTQ youth facing mental health crises.

Kevin Wong, vice president of communications for the Trevor Project, said his organization would be receptive to an older LGBTQ person who calls the hotline, but ultimately would refer that person elsewhere.

“If an LGBTQ person above the age of 25 reaches out to The Trevor Project’s crisis services for support and expresses suicidal thoughts, our counselors will listen, actively and with empathy, and work with them to de-escalate and form a safety plan, like any other contact,” Wong said. “However, our organization has remained youth-centric since its founding and our volunteer crisis counselors are specifically trained with younger LGBTQ people in mind.”

Much attention is focused on the coming out process for LGBTQ people, a time that can upend close relationships — as well as reaffirm them — and a process more commonly associated with youth.

Ilan Meyer, senior scholar of public policy at the Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, said data is scant about suicide rates among LGBTQ people, but information on suicide attempts shows they tend to be at a heightened rate for LGBTQ people as they go through the coming out process.

“What we do know is that there is a connection with the coming out period at whatever age coming out happens,” Meyer said. “And so, we see a proximity to coming out whatever age that happened, we see the suicide attempts proceeding and after that.”

Suicide attempts, Meyer said, are much higher for LGBTQ people than the population at large. The self-reported rate of suicide attempts in the U.S. population as a whole, Meyer said, is 2.4 percent, but that figure changes to 20 to 30 percent among LGBTQ youth, which about to 10 to 15 times greater.

Black and Latino people, Meyer said, have been less likely to make suicide attempts in their lifetimes, although he added that may be changing in recent years.

With the primary focus on mental health issues elsewhere in the LGBTQ community, Glaze’s death raises questions about whether sufficient resources are available to people in his demographic, or whether individuals are willing to seek out care options that are available.

Meyer said whether the resources for suicidal ideologies among LGBTQ people are sufficient and what more could be done “is the the million-dollar question.”

“It’s definitely not determined by just mental health,” Meyer said. “So many people have depression, but they don’t attempt suicide. And so, then the difficult thing is to find the right moment to intervene and what that intervention should be.”

Meyer said much of the focus on mental health is on a person’s last moments before making a suicide attempt, such as making suicide hotlines readily available, but some of the stressors he sees “are more chronic, ongoing things related to homophobia and the kind of experience that LGBT people have as they come to terms to realize their sexual identity.”

Pumphrey said another factor in mental health issues not to be underestimated for almost two years now is “dealing with the COVID and loneliness epidemic,” which appears to have no immediate end in sight with the emergence of the Omnicron variant.

“There was always this piece of sometimes the experience of being in your 50s and early 60s…we talk about the invisibility factor,” Pumphrey said. “But when there’s just this sense of being disconnected from community, especially in the early days of the pandemic, and kind of being locked down, I think that just raised the risk.”

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World

Openly gay man elected to Honduran congress

Víctor Grajeda will serve as Congresswoman-elect Silvia Ayala’s substitute

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Victor Grajeda (Foto cortesía de Víctor Grajeda)

An openly gay man in Honduras made history on Sunday when he won a seat in the country’s Congress.

Grajeda will serve alongside Congresswoman-elect Silvia Ayala of the leftist Free Party (Partido Libre), who represents Cortés department in which the city of San Pedro Sula is located, as her substitute.

Reportar sin Miedo, the Washington Blade’s media partner in Honduras, and Agencia Presentes, reported Grajeda received more than 100,000 votes. Grajeda is one of five openly LGBTQ candidates who ran for Congress.

“I am looking to open spaces and eliminate discrimination based on sexual orientation or identity,” said Grajeda.

Tegucigalpa Mayor Nasry Asfura, a member of outgoing President Juan Orlando Hernández’s ruling National Party (Partido Nacional), on Tuesday conceded defeat to President-elect Xiomara Castro of the Free Party.

Castro’s husband, former President Manuel Zelaya, was ousted from power in a 2009 coup.

Activists with whom the Blade has spoken say LGBTQ Hondurans continue to flee the country and migrate to the U.S. in order to escape rampant violence and discrimination and a lack of employment and educational opportunities. Castro, among other things, has publicly endorsed marriage rights for same-sex couples in Honduras.

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Local

Long-time LGBTQ activist running for Md. House of Delegates

Patrick Paschall is former FreeState Justice executive director

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Patrick Paschall (Photo courtesy of Eli Sauerwalt of Patrick Paschall for Delegate)

Former FreeState Justice Executive Director Patrick Paschall last week announced via social media that he is running for the Maryland House of Delegates.

“As a proud parent of two kids in Prince George’s County public schools, former Hyattsville City Council member, and lifelong civil rights advocate and policy analyst, I’ve spent my life and career working for equity, community and sustainability for my family,” Paschall said in a statement posted to Facebook on Nov. 23. 

Paschall, who currently is the American Rescue Plan Program Manager for the city of Hyattsville, previously served as executive director for FreeState Justice from 2015 to 2017. 

His LGBTQ advocacy work also includes serving as senior policy counsel for the National LGBTQ Task Force, as an organizer for Pride at Work and as a policy fellow for the National Center for Transgender Equality.  

He also worked for Family Equality Council, an organization advocating for the rights of same-sex couples and their children. 

“One of the things I’m running on is being a parent,” Paschall told the Washington Blade. “We can provide more opportunities for families to succeed in our communities.”

Paschall is running to represent District 22, which includes Hyattsville, where he has lived for over 10 years with his two children, who currently attend Hyattsville Elementary School, and his wife, who identifies as pansexual. 

He told the Blade he views his family as a “rainbow family,” but pointed out since he and his wife did not have to endure the same difficulties as his friends who are married same-sex couples when they wanted to adopt children.

“When I became a parent, no one stopped by my house to make sure it was an adequate living situation for my child, no one checked to make sure I had a room dedicated to the child and for no other purpose,” he said. “But my friends Jamie and Sean went through all of that when they tried to adopt a kid.”

Paschall explained that even though he and his wife didn’t go through these experiences, there was still room for Maryland to improve in the areas of adoptions and civil rights. 

“It strikes me how much privilege I have because the state doesn’t design to make it hard for me like it does for so many same-sex couples,” he explained. 

Patrick Paschall with his family. (Photo courtesy of Eli Sauerwalt of Patrick Paschall for Delegate)

Much like with the recent elections in neighboring Virginia, Paschall said helping parents is an important issue for him — one he wants to carry to Annapolis — if elected “because my district deserves better schools for our kids, more child care options and family support like paid family leave.”

“I think that District 22 needs a voice in Annapolis to represent progressive parents and to exercise policy expertise in achieving the values of our community,” he added. “And I have the experience to get it done.”

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