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Gay military doctor now fights for trans troops, LGBT health equity

Ehrenfeld got ball rolling for open service, testified before Congress

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Jesse Ehrenfeld testifies for trans military service. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Six months ago, five service members made history on Capitol Hill by becoming the first openly transgender witnesses to testify before Congress.

Alongside them was another witness who wasn’t transgender, but a member of the LGBT community who presented expert testimony affirming their capacity to serve as President Trump threatened to expel them from the military under his proposed ban.

Jesse Ehrenfeld, an anesthesiologist and expert in LGBT medical issues, said otherwise qualified individuals shouldn’t be barred from military service simply because they’re transgender.

“I would like to say unequivocally for the record that there is no medically valid reason, including a diagnosis of gender dysphoria, to exclude transgender individuals from military service,” Ehrenfeld told the House Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee.

In an interview Tuesday with the Washington Blade, Ehrenfeld acknowledged his personal experience helped influence his advocacy for transgender people in the military.

After all, he’s a gay man who’s able to serve as a commander in the Navy and be open about his sexual orientation thanks to repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,”

“Being an LGBTQ person, you know, I have faced discrimination at various points in my life,” he said. “Certainly the ability to stand up for what is right, I think, in part comes from those experiences growing up as a gay person, and certainly, as a physician, I have certain opportunities to try to stand up for the community.”

Ehrenfeld, 40, has a long record prior to his congressional testimony of being on the forefront of advocating for transgender people in the military — both in the Obama and Trump administrations.

A crucial moment came in 2015, when Ehrenfeld as a commander in the Navy, was deployed to Afghanistan where he provided care at the NATO Role III Multinational Medical Unit.

Then-Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, newly confirmed in his role as defense chief, took questions from service members at a military town hall in Kandahar about their concerns in the field.

Ehrenfeld’s question: Do you support allowing otherwise qualified transgender people to serve openly in the armed forces?

At the time, transgender people were barred from service as a result of a medical regulation instituted in the 1980s that was based on an outdated understanding of individuals with gender dysphoria.

“I don’t think anything but their suitability for service should preclude them,” Carter replied, adding he hasn’t studied the issue a lot since he became secretary of defense, but was “open-minded” about “what their personal lives and proclivities are, provided they can do what we need them to do for us.”

Days later during the White House news conference, the Washington Blade took the opportunity to ask whether President Obama shared Carter’s views on transgender service. Then-White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest affirmed that was the case.

“I can tell you the president agrees with the sentiment that all Americans who are qualified to serve should be able to serve, and for that reason, we here at the White House welcome the comments of the secretary of defense,” Earnest said.

Thinking back on that moment, Ehrenfeld said he was “frankly very nervous” to speak out but was “delighted” with Carter’s response.

“His message that fitness for duty should be the primary driver of the ability to serve is one that I think serves our military well,” Ehrenfeld said.

What motivated Ehrenfeld to ask the question? Ehrenfeld said it was based on his experience serving with Air Force Staff Sgt. Logan Ireland, a transgender service member who was deployed with him in Afghanistan. Since that time, Ireland has been at the forefront of advocacy for transgender people in the military.

The two met, Ehrenfeld said, shortly after he arrived in Afghanistan and Ireland sought medical care at the facility where Ehrenfeld was working.

“Frankly, I was a bit shocked to meet this person because I knew of the restrictions on transgender service and the last place I expected to find a transgender person was deployed with me in Afghanistan,” he said.

An estimated 14,700 transgender people are now serving in the military. Although the Obama administration would shortly after change the policy to allow transgender service, Trump would change that months after taking office and institute a ban.

“There are mountains of transgender troops and even more transgender veterans who are able to and have done that job quite well,” Ehrenfeld said. “It’s unfortunate that we have discriminatory policies that are preventing them from doing their job.”

After the exchanges at the military town hall and the White House, the wheels were in motion for a year-long study at the Defense Department on transgender military service.

For the Obama administration study, Ehrenfeld said he provided input based on his medical expertise and had conservations with defense officials as the process was happening.

On June 30, 2016, Carter announced at the Pentagon the ban would be lifted. Ehrenfeld said he was present at the Defense Department and it was among the “proudest moments” of his career.

“I understand how we’ve taken a few steps backwards since but at the time it represented such progress with incredible ramifications for transgender people and LGBTQ people all across our nation, not just those serving,” Ehrenfeld said.

Ehrenfeld, who earned his medical degree from the University of Chicago and his master’s in public health at Harvard University, bolsters his advocacy with his impressive credentials in medicine.

Motivated to enter the field of medicine at an early age, Ehrenfeld said in his college days at Haverford College he sought to shadow physicians in their work.

“I love taking care of patients in the operating room, getting them through complex surgeries, watching them walk out of the hospital is one of the most fulfilling things that I get to do on a weekly basis,” he said.

A researcher in the field of biomedical informatics, Ehrenfeld is a professor at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, where he serves as director for the Center for Evidence-Based Anesthesia.

His LGBT work in the medical field goes beyond transgender military service. Nine years ago, he co-founded the Program for LGBTI Health at Vanderbilt for work on health disparities facing LGBT people.

The research, Ehrenfeld said, seeks to modify and improve electronic health records to serve the needs of LGBT patients and care protocols for transgender people.

“A lot of that work is ongoing,” Ehrenfeld said. “We continue to partner with colleagues, not just at Vanderbilt but across the country to help advance the evidence base that can lead to the best practice for LGBTQ patients.”

Sean Cahill, director of health policy research at the Boston-based Fenway Institute, said he worked with Ehrenfeld on LGBT data collection in health care.

“Jesse Ehrenfeld has been an effective advocate for LGBT health equity within the American Medical Association and the broader health professional sector,” Cahill said. “Jesse has helped enlist broad, mainstream support for sexual orientation and gender identity data collection in Electronic Health Records, for SOGI nondiscrimination in health care and for coverage of transgender health care needs.”

In 2018, Ehrenfeld was given the inaugural NIH Sexual & Gender Minority Research Award for that work.

Now chair of the Board of Trustees for the American Medical Association, Ehrenfeld also works on behalf of U.S. physicians to conduct medical advocacy, which he said includes reducing HIV/AIDS stigma and working to ensure all Americans, including LGBT people, have access to affordable health care.

“We’re committed to helping to achieve equity through health care, and that has to be done by raising awareness about the importance of health equity to patients and communities but also working at the system level to identify and eliminate those disparities,” he said.

With all those hats, Ehrenfeld said a typical week consists of seeing patients in the operating room — mostly for anesthesia for non-surgical procedures — as well as being active in Vanderbilt’s LGBT health programs, where he researches information technology to reduce health care disparities.

“I never know exactly what’s going to happen,” he said. “I have some vague idea of what might transpire, but it’s that variety that kind of keeps me going.”

Other work in LGBT advocacy includes appearing with his partner in a 2015 TV ad produced by Freedom to Marry promoting same-sex marriage and being a former chair of the Massachusetts Log Cabin Republicans from 2009-2010.

One other distinction pops out on his list of accolades. In 2016, Ehrenfeld won an Emmy nomination for “TransMilitary,” a film directed by Fiona Dawson that documents the lives of transgender people in the military, including Ireland.

“I’m very proud of that particular nomination because of what it represents,” Ehrenfeld said. “It represented work and ideas on the film ‘TransMilitary’ trying to capture authentically the lives of deployed and actively serving transgender service members. And I was able to work with a production team to capture a lot of footage and photos.”

Meanwhile, anti-LGBT groups continue their work seeking to undermine transgender people, such as by stating — contrary to evidence — transgender identity isn’t based on science and biological sex is the only reality.

One such mailing came this week from the National Organization for Marriage, a group formed to fight same-sex marriage.

Under the subject line “Science Deniers,” the e-mail compares biological characteristics, between men and women, such as differences in sensory abilities, and behavioral differences to conclude transgender advocates are promoting a “completely false ideology.” The National Organization for Marriage then asks for donations to allow the group to continue its message.

Ehrenfeld said his affirmations of transgender people are based on science.

“I think when we have individuals that try to bend facts, we point them back to what the evidence speaks to and we know, acknowledging that individuals gender and sexual identities don’t always fit neatly into binary paradigms,” he said.

Likely as a result of anti-transgender sentiments such as these, the change allowing transgender people to serve openly in the military wouldn’t last. In 2017, President Trump announced via Twitter after meeting with unnamed military experts he’d ban transgender people from the armed forces.

“I was actually seeing patients that day,” Ehrenfeld said. “Unfortunately, it’s been a continuous fight ever since to regain the ground that has been lost.”

Although defense officials were reportedly surprised by the tweets, then-Defense Secretary James Mattis was concurrently conducting a study at the Pentagon re-evaluating transgender military service. Months later, Mattis produced an implementation plan severely restricting the ability of transgender people to serve in the armed forces.

Unlike the Carter study, Ehrenfeld said he didn’t provide input for the Mattis study, nor was he asked for his expertise.

The courts initially blocked the Trump administration’s policy, but the U.S. Supreme Court lifted those orders, essentially allowing the ban to go into effect. The Pentagon implemented its restrictions on transgender military service on April 12.

With the ban in place, transgender advocates continue the battle for a change to allow service members once again to serve regardless of their gender identity. At the top of their list to make that happen is removing Trump from the White House when he seeks re-election in 2020. 

Ehrenfeld, however, cautioned restoring transgender military service might not be as simple as electing a having a new president.

“I don’t think it is necessarily,” Ehrenfeld said. “There are legal challenges that are a part of the equation and certainly, there’s no guarantee a new administration would change the policy or change course. Again, I don’t have a crystal ball to be able to predict what it would take to get us to a better policy position, but certainly those are the kinds of things that I think are in the mix.”

Gal Mayer, president of GLMA: Health Professionals Advancing LGBTQ Equality, called Ehrenfeld a “national leader” for LGBT health whose rise coincides with the medical field’s growing support for policies addressing LGBT health equity.

“Jesse Ehrenfeld is a national leader for LGBTQ health who embodies the qualities GLMA hopes to foster: A health professional who dedicates their practice and academic research to advocating for the health and well-being of LGBTQ people,” Mayer said.

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D.C. man charged with 2020 anti-gay death threat rearrested

Defendant implicated in three anti-LGBTQ incidents since 2011

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shooting, DC Eagle, assault, hate crime, anti-gay attack, police discrimination, sex police, Sisson, gay news, Washington Blade

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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Biden names civil rights veteran to U.S. Education Dept.

Catherine Lhamon’s portfolio will include LGBTQ rights, sexual misconduct, racial discrimination

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Nominee for Assistant Secretary of the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education Catherine Lhamon. (Photo public domain))

The White House announced Thursday that President Joe Biden has nominated Catherine Lhamon to serve as the Assistant Secretary of the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education.

Lhamon currently serves as a Deputy Assistant to the President and Deputy Director of the Domestic Policy Council for Racial Justice and Equity at the White House, where she manages the President’s equity policy portfolio. She is a former attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, (ACLU) and served as chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights from 2017 to 2021.

She has also served as Legal Affairs Secretary to California Governor Gavin Newsom.

Her portfolio at Education, where she previously served in the same position under former President Barack Obama, will include LGBTQ rights, sexual misconduct and racial discrimination in the nation’s K-12 schools, universities and colleges. Lhamon was Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the Department of Education, to which President Obama nominated her and the Senate confirmed her in 2013.

“I am thrilled that President Biden is nominating Catherine Lhamon to serve as Assistant Secretary of the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education. Catherine has devoted her career to ensuring equity is at the core of all her work,” U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said in a statement released by his office Thursday.

“She has a strong record of fighting for communities of color and underserved communities, whether as the current Deputy Director of the Domestic Policy Council, the former chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, or as a civil rights educator at Georgetown University. We are thrilled to have Catherine serving as Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights and know she will continue to fight for fairness, equity, and justice for all of America’s students.”

Lhamon has also litigated civil rights cases at National Center for Youth Law, Public Counsel Law Center, and the ACLU Foundation of Southern California.  Lhamon taught federal civil rights appeals at Georgetown University Law Center in the Appellate Litigation Program and clerked for the Honorable William A. Norris on the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

“Catherine Lhamon is the right choice to lead the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights at such a critical time for the country and the agency. There is much work to do in order to roll back the harmful policies and legacies of Betsy DeVos, from her attacks on transgender students to her unconscionable revocation of discriminatory discipline guidance and rewrite of Title IX rules,” Adele Kimmel, Director of the Students’ Civil Rights Project at Public Justice told the Blade in an email.

“During her previous tenure in the same job, Catherine embraced equality, enforced Title IX and ensured students had an ally inside the federal government. She will do so again, and the Senate should move to quickly confirm her so she can begin the work of restoring the Department’s commitment to protecting the civil rights and dignity of students and implementing the Biden Administration’s pledge to undo the damage that DeVos has done,” Kimmel added.

Born in Virginia and raised in California, Lhamon graduated from Amherst College and Yale Law School. Lhamon and her husband and two daughters are transitioning between California and Maryland.

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IDAHOBiT events to promote intersectionality, resilience, allyship

HRC president to participate in virtual panel in Canada

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(Photo courtesy of the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia committee)

 

Intersectionality, resilience and allyship are among the themes that this year’s International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia events will highlight.

Dignity Network Canada and the Black Coalition for AIDS Prevention on May 17 will hold a virtual panel that will feature Human Rights Campaign President Alphonso David, Canadian Center for Gender and Sexual Diversity Executive Director Debbie Owusu-Akyeeah, Kaleidoscope Trust Executive Director Phyll Opoku-Gyimah, COC Nederland Executive Director Marie Ricardo and Rainbow Railroad Executive Director Kimahli Powell. The British High Commission and the Dutch Embassy in Canada have co-sponsored the event.

“We hope that this will be a really interesting and important conversation on intersectionality and transnational solidarity — and what it means for these leaders and their organizations during these times,” reads a description of the event.

The U.N. LGBTI Core Group on May 17 will host a virtual IDAHOBiT event that will focus on ways to develop an “inclusive and diverse post-pandemic world.” The World Bank Group, the International Monetary Fund, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the Inter-American and Asian Development Banks host a similar IDAHOBiT commemoration.

“In order to heal from the economic, social, and public health dire impact the pandemic has had and still has, every plan of recovery must take into account a human-rights based, intersectional and gender responsive approach that addresses the specific needs of LGBTI persons in order not to leave them further behind,” reads a description of the U.N. LGBTI Core Group event.

Several Russian LGBTQ rights groups on May 17 will hold a “Vaccine for Acceptance” event that seeks to bolster allyship in the country.

Retired South Africa Constitutional Court Justice Edwin Cameron on May 16 will moderate a virtual panel that will focus on religion and anti-LGBTQ violence.

Workplace Pride and the Dutch Embassy in Budapest on May 17 will host a symposium on LGBTQ-inclusive workplaces in Hungary. M.V. Lee Badgett, an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts, on the same day will participate in a webinar the U.S. Embassy in Singapore is hosting with Oogachaga, a local LGBTQ advocacy group.

Haver Srbija, a Serbian NGO, on May 15-16 will hold Falafel, a film festival that seeks to build “bridges and promotes Israeli, Jewish and LGBTQI culture and communities” and highlight “various social issues in the context of the fight against prejudice, discrimination, anti-Semitism, homophobia and xenophobia and encourages the audience to develop critical thinking on the issue of these topics.” Proud Lebanon is slated to hold a series of six webinars between May 17-22 that will focus on feminism, LGBTQ rights and other topics.

The National Center for Sexual Education in Cuba will hold a series of virtual forums and other events through the month to commemorate IDAHOBiT.

CENESEX Director Mariela Castro, whose father is former Cuban President Raúl Castro, during a May 4 press conference in Havana said the IDAHOBiT events are part of the process of amending the country’s family code to make it more equitable for LGBTQ Cubans. Mariela Castro said a bill to amend it will be introduced in the Cuban Parliament in July.

“I was able to appreciate that the majority of the population … is in favor of recognizing the rights of LGBTI+ people and especially the rights in the family sphere that include the possibility, the option, of marriage,” said Mariela Castro during the press conference, according to Tremenda Nota, the Washington Blade’s media partner in Cuba.

IDAHOBiT commemorates the World Health Organization’s 1990 decision to declassify homosexuality as a mental disorder.

This year’s events will take place against the backdrop of a pandemic that continues to exacerbate existing inequalities for LGBTQ people and other vulnerable groups around the world.

Consensual same-sex sexual relations remain criminalized in dozens of countries. Violence based on gender identity and sexual orientation remains rampant in the U.S. and throughout the world.

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