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White House, LGBTQ groups clash over new religious freedom regs

Proposal lifts requirement for faith-based orgs to recommend secular alternatives

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President Trump announces religious freedom regulations in the Oval Office. (Image public domain)

Following the release of new regulations from the Trump administration with the stated intent of protecting the religious freedom of federal grantees, LGBTQ groups and the White House locked in a dispute over whether they enable anti-LGBTQ discrimination.

Although the White House is denouncing the criticism as partisan bias, the LGBTQ advocacy groups are able to point to specific language in the regulations that would inhibit LGBTQ people from obtaining social services from religious-affiliated grantees.

President Trump unveiled the new regulations Thursday at an event in the Oval Office in observance of National Religious Freedom Day, which he called “something very important and very special, and special to me and the people that are gathered around me.”

“Tragically, there is a growing totalitarian impulse on the far-left that seeks to punish, restrict, and even prohibit religious expression,” Trump said. “Something that, if you go back 10 years or 15 years or 20 years, it was un-thought of that a thing like that could even happen — that anybody would even think of something like that happening.”

The triage of new measures coming from the Trump administration are 1) Regulations from nine federal agencies lifting regulations requiring religious-affiliated federal grantees to inform individuals seeking their service of secular alternatives; 2) Guidance affirming First Amendment protections for teachers and students to pray in schools; and 3) An Office of Management & Budget memo ensuring religious organizations are eligible for federal grants consistent with the Supreme Court’s 2017 decision in the Trinity Lutheran case.

It’s the first of these measures — the regulations relaxing standards for religious-affiliated federal grantees — that has invoked the ire of LGBTQ rights advocates. The nine agencies from which the regulations came down are the Justice Department, the Department of Agriculture, the Labor Department, Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Department of Health & Human Services, the Department of Education and the Department Housing & Urban Development.

Those measures, LGBTQ advocates said, are the latest in series of efforts from the Trump administration to green-light refusal of services to LGBTQ in the name of religious freedom.

The nation’s leading LGBTQ advocacy group, the Human Rights Campaign, also came out swinging in the statement asserting the new regulations would “roll back existing protections for LGBTQ and other people seeking government services and benefits.”

“The right to believe and to exercise one’s faith is a core American value. The right to discriminate with taxpayer dollars is not,” HRC President Alphonso David said. “These regulations would dismantle meaningful protections for beneficiaries of these federally funded programs and strip away basic notice requirements designed to ensure that beneficiaries know their rights to be free from discrimination and their right to an alternative, non-religious provider. Taxpayer funds should not be used to allow discrimination.”

Heather Weaver, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion & Belief, said in a statement the American Civil Liberties Union plans to “submit comments vigorously opposing these proposed regulations.”

“We will keep saying this as long as we have to: Religious freedom is a fundamental right, but it does not confer a license to discriminate,” Weaver said. “Government-funded programs, including those operated by faith-based organizations, should not be able to discriminate against vulnerable people seeking help.”

It wouldn’t be the first time the Trump administration has relaxed pro-LGBTQ non-discrimination requirements imposed during the Obama administration for recipients of federal contracts or contracts in the name of religious freedom. 

In the last year alone, the Department of Labor has proposed a rule that would allow federal contractors to invoke a religious exemption to discriminate against LGBTQ people in employment; HUD proposed a change allowing homeless shelters to refuse to place transgender people consistent with their gender identity over religious objections; and HHS proposed a rule eliminating non-discrimination requirements for federal grantees, including taxpayer-funded adoption agencies seeking to refuse child placement into LGBTQ homes.

Also condemning the latest Trump administration religious freedom measure was Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), one of seven openly gay members of the U.S. House, in his capacity as co-chair of the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus.

“Once again, the Trump administration is trampling on religious freedom and endangering the lives of the LGBTQ community,” Takano said. “This harmful proposal to repeal crucial non-discrimination protections at faith-based organizations that receive taxpayer funding will prevent LGBTQ individuals from obtaining much-needed social services.”

White House accuses LGBTQ groups of partisan bias

White House Deputy Press Secretary Judd Deere, however, denied in a statement to the Washington Blade the latest regulations enabled discrimination, criticizing LGBTQ groups for condemning the measures as anti-LGBTQ simply because they seek to enhance religious freedom.

“Are these the same groups who function more like a campaign arm of the Democratic Party and have refused to credit the president with any action he’s taken to protect LGBTQ Americans?” Deere said. “The president believes in human dignity for all and that no one should be discriminated against, including religious organizations and the LGBTQ community. These actions today build on President Trump’s longstanding commitment to responsibly safeguard the fundamental right to religious freedom by eliminating unfair and unequal treatment by the federal government.”

The new regulations, a Trump administration official said, don’t disturb any existing non-discrimination requirements in the law that apply to federal grantees because they’re not allowing or addressing a situation in which a beneficiary is denied services.

The Obama regulations, the official said, required religious providers to notify every potential beneficiary who walked in the door that if the fact that the organization is religious made them uncomfortable, the religious organization would recommend a secular provider. That is what was taken down, the official said, in the latest Trump proposal.

In response, the ACLU’s Weaver insisted the new regulations do, in fact, enable anti-LGBTQ discrimination, primarily through deleting the requirement that there be a secular option available in order for a social services program to be designated as “indirect aid.” 

Typically, indirect providers of social services, Weaver said, have a lot of leeway to include religious activities in their programming and can impose religious requirements in obtaining services. In contrast, Weaver said direct providers are required to adhere to regulations, such as LGBTQ non-discrimination requirements.

Previously, those indirect providers, Weaver said, would have to provide secular alternatives to individuals, but under the Trump administration regulations, both the need for secular alternatives and the need for indirect providers to notify individuals of those alternatives are no more.

“This means that these religious providers can effectively turn away LGBTQ people and religious minorities who do not agree to submit to religious activities and messages, and (because of the change to the definition of indirect aid) there need not be a secular provider available to help them,” Weaver said.

The regulations also enable anti-LGBT discrimination, Weaver said, in other ways. Although religious organizations are allowed to favor co-religionists in hiring practices, Weaver said the regulations broaden that exemption to allow a government-funded entities to discriminate against LGBTQ workers and job applicants.

Further, Weaver pointed to language in the Department of Education regulation allowing universities to allow religious-affiliated student groups to select their own leaders despite campus-wide non-discrimination requirements, which she said is “another way in which LGBTQ discrimination is promoted.”

Robin Maril, associate legal director at the Human Rights Campaign, said the religious freedom measures are anti-LGBTQ because they “undo all of the good protections” instituted under the Obama administration.

The regulations, Maril said, would not only undo requirements for religious-affiliated providers to offer information about secular alternatives, but also the requirement they notify individuals they need participate in the religious component of their programming.

Further, Maril said the regulations may force individuals to participate pointed to language which states federal grantees “may require attendance at all activities that are fundamental to the program,” which she called “insane.”

“I can totally see where they’re coming from — that protections still exist, because they do — but then it undermines safeguards and protections that gave them life,” Maril said.

As an example of cases where religion has been used to justify discrimination, Maril pointing to the Harris Funeral Homes case before the U.S. Supreme Court, which involves an employer who claimed a religious reason in firing funeral director Aimee Stephens for being transgender, and challenges to the Anchorage non-discrimination ordinance on religious grounds.

“People are arguing basically recognizing the existence of transgender people violates a religious belief,” Maril said. “I don’t see how this see does not enable this kind of discrimination.”

The White House didn’t respond to a request to comment when the Washington Blade presented the particular concerns of the LGBTQ groups.

Anti-LGBTQ groups pleased with new Trump regs

If one measure of determining whether or not a religious freedom measure is anti-LGBTQ is testing out it pleases anti-LGBTQ groups, the results would come out as a “yes.”

Tony Perkins, president of the anti-LGBTQ Family Research Council, said Trump is “taking on the bullies” in a statement largely focused on the new regulation ensuring teachers and parents can pray in schools.

“With this and his other announced rules, President Trump is continuing the drumbeat of religious freedom and the long march toward restoring religious freedom in the public square,” Perkins said. “No doubt, his announcement today will further galvanize both the attention and support of people of faith.”

Also hailing the measure was Michael Farris, CEO of Alliance Defending Freedom, who said the new regulations were based in part on the anti-LGBT legal firm’s victory in the Trinity Lutheran case.

“Religious freedom is the headwaters of all freedoms, and we’re grateful that President Trump and his administration have taken numerous opportunities to acknowledge and protect it for all people and organizations of faith,” Farris said. “Unfortunately, some states and local government officials continue to treat religious organizations as second class citizens, and discriminate against them in government programs.”

Meanwhile, LGBTQ groups maintain their opposition to religious freedom regulations, saying they demonstrate the need for a change at the White House.

Rea Carey, executive director of the National LGBTQ Task Force, condemned the regulations at the same time her organization was hosting its annual Creating Change conference, which this year is taking place in Dallas, Texas.

“The stated reason for the new rules is to ‘remove burdens’ on providers, but serving women, people of color, religious minorities and LGBTQ people is not a burden,” Carey said. “Instead, these rules reinforce the power of people with privilege at the expense of people who have been marginalized. Our communities no longer expect better from this administration, yet every time Trump attempts to remove support from those who need them most, it causes both tangible and psychological harm.”

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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 civil rights division 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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Mixed reviews from transgender Republicans on Caitlyn Jenner’s run

Remarks on kids in sport a sore point among LGBTQ advocacy groups

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Caitlyn Jenner was quickly repudiated by LGBTQ advocates after she entered California’s recall election as a gubernatorial candidate — and her fellow transgender Republicans are mixed over whether or not to back her up.

Transgender Republicans are few in number, but some are in high-profile positions and have been working with their party to change its approach and drop its attacks on transgender people, whether it be in the military, public bathrooms, or school sports.

Jordan Evans, a Charlton, Mass.-based transgender Republican who unsuccessfully last year ran to become a Massachusetts Republican State Committee Woman, told the Washington Blade she had high hopes for Jenner as a fellow transgender candidate, but they were quickly dashed after her campaign launched.

“My feelings changed quickly after Caitlyn made it clear that she was less interested in using this opportunity to present the Republican Party and conservative movements with an accessible and high-profile introduction to the trans community and simply wanted to be a trans woman who espoused the same destructive approaches that we just so happen to be seeing all over the country,” Evans said.

Evans said the high hopes she had were based on the transgender advocacy she said Jenner was doing behind the scenes and the potential for two prominent LGBTQ Republicans to run for governor in California. After all, Jenner may soon be joined in the race by Richard Grenell, who was U.S. ambassador to Germany and acting director of national intelligence before becoming the face of LGBTQ outreach for Trump’s failed re-election.

But Jenner’s approach to the gubernatorial recall in California, Evans said, is “putting trans youth at risk for a campaign that isn’t even transformative for Republicans during this volatile time.”

“Even her current messaging is superficial and does nothing to help dispel claims that she’s unqualified,” Evans said. “The only positive thing that I’ve seen come from this is conservative mainstream media using her correct pronouns, but that is not worth the damage that she’s inflicting.”

Much of the disappointment over Jenner’s campaign is the result of her essentially throwing transgender kids under the bus as part of her campaign at a time when state legislatures are advancing legislation against them, including the bills that would essentially bar transgender girls from participating in school sports.

Jenner, declining to push back on these measures and assert transgender kids have a place in sports, instead essentially endorsed the bills shortly after she announced her candidacy.

“If you’re born as a biological boy, you shouldn’t be allowed to compete in girls’ sports,” Jenner told TMZ, which asked her about the hot-button issue during a Sunday morning coffee run.

Jenner dug deeper into MAGA-world at the expense of solidarity with the transgender community. Last week, Jenner retweeted Jenna Ellis, who has a notoriously anti-LGBTQ background and was criticized just last year for refusing to use the personal pronouns of Rachel Levine, who’s now assistant secretary of health and the first openly transgender presidential appointee to win Senate confirmation.

Jennifer Williams, a New Jersey-based transgender Republican who unsuccessfully ran for a seat in the New Jersey General Assembly last year, said via email Jenner “did much good for several years by educating millions of people around the world about transgender folks,” but won’t countenance the candidate’s remarks on transgender kids in sports.

“In regard to her current run for California governor, her recent comments regarding transgender youth playing sports are confusing,” Williams said. “Just last year, she said that she supported transgender female athletes. Caitlyn should consult with tennis great Billie Jean King, soccer star Megan Rapinoe or WNBA legend Candace Parker on the subject of transgender athletes in women’s sports, as they are very well versed on the matter.”

At a time when state legislatures are pushing through legislation targeting transgender youth, restricting their access to sports and transition-related care, Jenner’s refusal to repudiate those measures has become a focal point for opposition to her candidacy from LGBTQ advocacy groups, who say she’s “out of touch” (although none were supporting her even before she made those comments).

The LGBTQ Victory Fund, which supports LGBTQ political candidates and public officials, has signaled it wants nothing to do with Jenner.

Sean Meloy, vice president of political programs for LGBTQ Victory Fund, said Jenner hasn’t applied for an endorsement from the Victory Fund “and she shouldn’t bother to.”

“Her opposition to full trans inclusion – particularly for trans kids in sports – makes her ineligible for the endorsement,” Meloy said. “There are many great trans candidates running this cycle who are champions for equality.”

To be sure, Jenner used her celebrity status as a former reality TV star and Olympic champion on behalf of transgender lobbyists, urging donations to groups like the National Center for Transgender Equality and going to Capitol Hill to lobby Republicans on transgender issues. Jenner has also given money for transgender kids to attend college, giving transgender advocate Blossom Brown a check for $20,000 on “The Ellen Show” in 2015.

Blaire White, a transgender conservative and YouTube personality, drew on these examples of Jenner helping transgender youth in a video earlier this month and said the two once had dinner together, but wasn’t yet ready to make a endorsement.

“I will say that until she lays out all of her policy positions and until she’s more on record in long form really talking about what she wants to do for the state of California, I can’t say for sure I would vote for her and would not vote for her,” White concluded in the video. “What I can say is: I’m interested. And also, being under Gavin Newson’s governorship, I would literally vote for a triple-amputee frog over Gavin Newsom, so she already has that going for her.”

Jenner’s campaign couldn’t be reached for comment for this article on the repudiation of her campaign from LGBTQ advocacy groups.

Gina Roberts, who’s the first transgender Republican elected to public office in California and a member of the San Diego GOP Central Committee, said she’s neutral for the time being as an elected Republican Party leader, but nonetheless had good things to say about Jenner’s candidacy.

“I think it’s awesome,” Roberts said. “It’s kind of indicative of how cool the Republican Party in California is because nobody really cares or it makes any difference. I mean, I was the first elected GOP transgender person in California and I think we’re ready for No. 2.”

Asked whether Jenner’s comments about allowing transgender kids in sports was troubling, Roberts said that wasn’t the case because she has her own reservations.

“I have pretty much the same opinion because … there’s so many nuances in that,” Roberts said. “If somebody transitions after they’ve gone through puberty, there is a big difference, especially in high school. If they transition beforehand, it’s not a big deal.”

A gun enthusiast and supporter of gun owner’s rights, Roberts said she competes in women’s events in shooting sports, but there’s a difference because she doesn’t “really have any advantages all those young, small ladies can pull a lot faster than I do and shoot faster than I do.”

Roberts concluded she’ll personally make a decision about whom she’ll support in the California recall election after Grenell announces whether or not he’ll enter the race, but can’t say anything until the San Diego GOP Central Committee issues an endorsement.

“He’s a good friend of mine, too,” Roberts said. “I know both of them. I think they’d both be certainly better than Gavin Newsom, I have to stay neutral until the county party decides who they’re going to endorse. I will support somebody or another in the endorsement process, but I can’t publicly announce it.”

Although LGBTQ groups want nothing to do with her campaign, Jenner’s approach has garnered the attention of prominent conservatives, who are taking her seriously as a candidate. One of Jenner’s first interviews was on Fox News’ Sean Hannity, a Trump ally with considerable sway among his viewers. Hannity was able to find common ground with Jenner, including agreement on seeing California wildfires as a problem with forest management as opposed to climate change.

Kayleigh McEnany, who served as White House press secretary in Trump’s final year in the White House and defended in the media his efforts to challenge his 2020 election loss in court, signaled her openness to Jenner’s candidacy after the Hannity interview.

“I really enjoyed watching @Caitlyn_Jenner’s interview with @seanhannity,” McEnany tweeted. “I found Caitlyn to be well-informed, sincere, and laser-focused on undoing the socialist, radical, a-scientific policies of Biden & the left. Very good.”

In theory, that support combined with Jenner’s visibility might be enough to propel Jenner to victory. In the recall election, California will answer two questions, whether California Gov. Gavin Newsom should be recalled, and if so, which candidate should replace him. The contender with the plurality of votes would win the election, even if that’s less than a majority vote, and become the next governor. There isn’t a run-off if no candidate fails to obtain a majority.

With Jenner’s name recognition as a celebrity, that achievement could be in her reach. After all, Arnold Schwarzenegger won the 2004 recall election in California as a Republican based on his celebrity status, and ended up becoming a popular governor.

But the modest inroads Jenner has made with the acceptance of conservatives and potential to win isn’t enough for other transgender Republicans.

Evans, for example, said Jenner’s candidacy is not only a disappointment, but threatening the potential candidacies of transgender hopefuls in the future.

“It’s difficult to be in electoral politics, and that’s even more true when you’re a member of a marginalized community,” Evans said. “Caitlyn’s behavior is making it even more challenging for the trans community to be visible in a field where we desperately need to be seen. She’s casting a tall shadow on our ability to have a voice and is giving credibility to lawmakers and local leaders simply unwilling to view us with decency and respect.”

Williams said Jenner should avoid talking about transgender issues over the course of her gubernatorial run “and instead focus on the hard, critical policy issues facing California.”

“It is a state in crisis and she has to run a very serious campaign and not rely on her celebrity or LGBTQ status to win over voters’ hearts and minds — just like all other LGBTQ candidates around the country need to do when they run for public office,” Williams said.

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