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LGBTQ activists express mixed views on defunding police

Capital Pride, DC Center suggest diverting funds to queer programs

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A protest earlier this month calling for defunding D.C. police ended at the home of Mayor Bowser. (Blade photo by Michael Key)

Local LGBTQ organizations and activists have expressed mixed views over whether the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department should be partially or completely “defunded” in the midst of a growing nationwide debate triggered by the Black Lives Matter movement to address police brutality and racial bias.

Several local LGBT groups and activists have said they support calls by the Black Lives Matter D.C. organization for significantly reducing the D.C. police budget and diverting police funds to social services and community-led violence interruption programs.

But none of the groups or activists who spoke to the Washington Blade has gone as far as others who say the D.C. police budget should be reduced each year “until we get to zero.”

However, the local LGBTQ group No Justice No Pride, which organized a June 13 protest rally and march in support of defunding the D.C. police that ended in front of Mayor Muriel Bowser’s Northwest D.C. house, called on the mayor to “immediately defund MPD.”

Some local LGBTQ activists, who appear to be in the minority, say they are cautious about any reduction in the D.C. police budget until the alternative crime reduction programs favored by Black Lives Matter D.C. and other groups are shown to be effective in reducing crime and protecting the safety of city residents.

These activists point out that LGBTQ people, especially transgender women of color, have been subjected to anti-LGBTQ hate crimes and other violent crimes to a greater degree than other population groups.

“This is a very complex issue,” said longtime gay and Democratic Party activist Earl Fowlkes, who serves as executive director of the D.C.-based national LGBTQ organization Center for Black Equity.

“It has a lot to do with crime and why there is crime and what do we do to prevent crime before the police are even involved,” said Fowlkes, who expressed support for the social services programs advocated by Black Lives Matter and others to address the root causes of crime.

“But do we defund the police or eliminate the police? I don’t see that as a viable alternative at this time,” he said.

Officials with the DC Center for the LGBT Community and Capital Pride Alliance, the group that organizes the city’s annual Pride parade and festival, have expressed support for the “Defund MPD” calls by the local Black Lives Matter leaders, but have not called for a full defunding of the police budget.

In a joint email to local LGBTQ activists, the two groups have called for diverting funds from the police budget to help fund 11 specific LGBTQ-related programs proposed by a coalition of 10 local LGBTQ or LGBTQ supportive organizations of which the DC Center and Capital Pride are members.

Rehana Mohammed, chair of the DC Center’s board of directors, told a June 15 D.C. Council hearing on police issues that the Center opposes a proposal by Mayor Bowser to increase the police budget by $18.5 million for fiscal year 2021.

“We recommend instead investing those funds in community safety, social services, violence interruption programs, and community support programs,” Mohammed testified at the hearing. “The current strategies of creating reforms and increasing funding are simply not working,” she said.

She attached to her written testimony the list of the 11 proposed LGBTQ programs that the coalition supporting them wants the D.C. Council to fund in the city’s FY 2021 budget that amount to $10.6 million.

Mohammed was referring to a sweeping police reform bill that the D.C. Council approved unanimously as an emergency measure on June 9. But the bill does not address the police budget, which the Council is expected to approve in July.

Ashley Smith, chair of the Capital Pride Alliance board of directors, said he too believes the traditional policing strategies in D.C. and other cities have failed to significantly reduce crime and create safer communities.

“I think Capital Pride, from an organizational perspective, we are totally advocating for funds to be diverted and greater investments to be made in supportive and preventive and community-based programs in order to address the needs of diverse communities,” Smith said.

Bobbi Elaine Strang, president of the Gay & Lesbian Activists Alliance and a supporter of some degree of defunding the D.C. police, said she agrees with arguments by defunding advocates that much of the current funding for police goes to activities that police should not be doing.

“Our society asks police officers to act as drug counselors, mental health workers, and social workers,” Strang said. “There are agencies and supportive services that are much better equipped to deal with those issues that should be sufficiently funded, which will allow us to limit the scope of the work we expect from police officers and enhance public safety,” she said.

Among those agreeing with Strang’s assessment is Naseema Shafi, CEO of Whitman-Walker Health, the city’s largest private healthcare agency serving the LGBTQ community.

“Whitman-Walker believes that funding for public safety should go to programs that create public safety,” Shafi told the Blade. “With that core belief, we support disinvesting in armed policing as a method of creating safety and in investing in our public safety budget including social supports that we know interrupt violence such as health care, education, housing, employment and other key areas,” she said.

“Sending armed police to respond to instances of intimate partner violence, mental health crises, and housing instability has not safely or effectively served the LGBTQ community,” Shafi said. “Whitman-Walker believes that through listening to leaders in Black communities who have been envisioning a safer and more equitable future, we can create a public safety and justice system that makes our whole community safer and stronger,” she said.

Longtime D.C. gay activist and Ward 8 community leader Phil Pannell expressed a differing view when he spoke during a June 15 webinar on the D.C. police funding issue hosted by Capital Pride and the DC Center. Among the panelists who spoke at the webinar in favor of reducing the police budget were Preston Mitchum, adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center; and Ward 4 D.C. Council candidate and community activist Janeese Lewis George.

“I’m going to be really honest, and it really hurts to say this,” Pannell said during the online forum. “But as a black gay senior citizen who lives in a poorer part of town, I’m more afraid of being on the streets of Ward 8 and being confronted by a young man in a hoodie than someone in a police uniform,” he said.

“I’ve been one of those folks who have been in the chorus of wanting more police in Ward 8 because I’ve been victimized so many times,” Pannell said. “And right on the block where I live I’ve had three neighbors and friends who have been killed. And none of them were killed by police,” Pannell said.

“I would hope that those of us in the LGBTQ community will at least engage in meaningful discussion with police officers,” he said. “And I truly feel that we can have an honest discussion about police brutality without brutalizing the police.”

Pannell told the Blade he acknowledges the need for police reforms to prevent the police killings of black men in other cities that have rocked the country and triggered ongoing protests against police abuse.

“But I don’t believe the behavior of rogue cops represents the general behavior of the police any more than I think the behavior of pedophile priests represents the general behavior of the Roman Catholic clergy,” Pannell said.

D.C. police spokesperson Dustin Sternbeck did not respond to a request by the Blade for the police view of what impact a substantial cut in the police budget would have on police efforts to curtail hate crimes, including anti-LGBTQ hate crimes.

The Blade also asked Sternbeck in an email whether police officials think a cut in the police budget would have a negative impact on the operation of the police LGBT Liaison Unit, which has responded for many years to calls for police help by LGBTQ people in the city. Sternbeck or another police spokesperson had not responded as of late Tuesday.

Gay former D.C. Police Lt. Brett Parson, who served as head of the department’s Special Liaison Branch that oversees the LGBT Liaison Unit, retired from the force last year. When asked last week about his views on the controversy surrounding calls for defunding the police and the impact it could have on the LGBT Liaison unit, Parson declined to comment. But he offered his view on the overall policing issues under debate across the country.

“I support the current discussions and calls for reform of policing in our nation,” he said. “If we are to have true peace and equality in our nation in communities, regardless of race or any other trait, police must gain the trust of all citizens through fair, compassionate, and effective reform,” Parson said. “I hope to be part of that reform movement.”

Gregory Pemberton, chair of the D.C. Police Union, told the Blade the union strongly opposes cuts to the police budget. When asked by the Blade if a significant budget cut would have an impact on the police response to calls for police help by LGBTQ people, he said police response to all calls for service would be hindered. 

“MPD responds to over 700,000 911 calls per year,” he said. “That’s nearly 2,000 calls per day where someone is in distress. If we start reducing the number of police officers or their equipment like cars and bicycles, the response time will increase for all citizens,” Pemberton said.

“The first things that are going to be cut from police services are training and personnel,” he said in discussing the impact of a large budget cut. “These are the two tenets of responsible policing, having well trained police and having enough of them to respond to the citizens,” said Pemberton. “The idea that cutting the budget would somehow improve policing is completely contradictory to common sense.”

When asked what he thought of proposals by Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ organizations to divert funds from the police to community-based violence interruption programs as an alternative to police involvement, Pemberton said he and the union would be “all ears” if such programs would lessen the need for a police response.

But he added, “Until someone provides us with a blueprint of exactly how this would work, I’m leery of how successful these approaches would be.”

Among those expressing concern over police defunding are LGBTQ nightlife industry workers, many of whom are hoping to return to work at the city’s restaurants, bars, and nightclubs that have been forced to close or limit operations due to coronavirus.

“As a nightlife advocate, I know firsthand how special policing programs make our nighttime socializing areas safe for workers and accessible for patrons,” said gay nightlife business advocate Mark Lee. “As venues fully re-open in the next fiscal year, they want to ensure there are sufficient monies to reduce the major pre-shutdown crime spike in commercial districts,” Lee said.

“Cities across the country with robust nightlife economies like D.C. are working to create ‘best practice’ approaches for nighttime safety utilizing dedicated police teams,” Lee said. “A merely symbolic slashing of the MPD budget threatens these initiatives.”

Lee said he was also troubled that requests by some local LGBTQ groups to redirect police funds to their organizations to operate proposed LGBTQ programs “smacks of opportunism and self-interest” and appears to be “less about how to improve policing than it is a money grab.”

Kent Boese, president of the Gertrude Stein Democratic Club, the city’s largest local LGBTQ political group, serves as an elected member of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 1A in Adams Morgan. He said that while the Stein Club and his ANC have yet to take a position on the police defunding issue, he is concerned that while important city agencies such as the Office of Human Rights are slated for budget cuts, the mayor’s budget calls for an increase in funding for the police.

“While the current budget shows a strong priority for MPD, it does not similarly show a strong commitment to the critical services and programs that will make every District community a safer place,” Boese told the Blade. “So reducing the MPD budget is not only a legitimate option, it is a moral obligation provided the money is reprogrammed into the very services and programs that will result in safer, stronger communities – services and programs that have themselves been defunded for decades to the detriment of all.”

Adam Savit, president of the LGBTQ group Log Cabin Republicans of D.C., pointed to the separate April 2018 and June 2019 beatings of gay men by male attackers along the U Street, N.W. entertainment district as examples of why traditional policing is necessary to address incidents like these.

“Making moderate changes to the D.C. police budget and priorities may be helpful in solving existing problems in police-community relations,” Savit said. “However, massive funding cuts or defunding the police entirely shows a complete misunderstanding of why responsible use of force is needed to keep citizens safe,” he said.

“Perhaps more destructive than defunding is the moral and political undermining of the police to the point that they can’t do their job,” he said. “All citizens, including LGBT citizens, would be less safe if the MPD is defunded.”

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Kelley Robinson, a Black, queer woman, named president of Human Rights Campaign

Progressive activist a veteran of Planned Parenthood Action Fund

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Kelley Robinson (Screen capture via HRC YouTube)

Kelley Robinson, a Black, queer woman and veteran of Planned Parenthood Action Fund, is to become the next president of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s leading LGBTQ group announced on Tuesday.

Robinson is set to become the ninth president of the Human Rights Campaign after having served as executive director of Planned Parenthood Action Fund and more than 12 years of experience as a leader in the progressive movement. She’ll be the first Black, queer woman to serve in that role.

“I’m honored and ready to lead HRC — and our more than three million member-advocates — as we continue working to achieve equality and liberation for all Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer people,” Robinson said. “This is a pivotal moment in our movement for equality for LGBTQ+ people. We, particularly our trans and BIPOC communities, are quite literally in the fight for our lives and facing unprecedented threats that seek to destroy us.”

Kelley Robinson IS NAMED as The next human rights Campaign president

The next Human Rights Campaign president is named as Democrats are performing well in polls in the mid-term elections after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, leaving an opening for the LGBTQ group to play a key role amid fears LGBTQ rights are next on the chopping block.

“The overturning of Roe v. Wade reminds us we are just one Supreme Court decision away from losing fundamental freedoms including the freedom to marry, voting rights, and privacy,” Robinson said. “We are facing a generational opportunity to rise to these challenges and create real, sustainable change. I believe that working together this change is possible right now. This next chapter of the Human Rights Campaign is about getting to freedom and liberation without any exceptions — and today I am making a promise and commitment to carry this work forward.”

The Human Rights Campaign announces its next president after a nearly year-long search process after the board of directors terminated its former president Alphonso David when he was ensnared in the sexual misconduct scandal that led former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to resign. David has denied wrongdoing and filed a lawsuit against the LGBTQ group alleging racial discrimination.

Kelley Robinson, Planned Parenthood, Cathy Chu, SMYAL, Supporting and Mentoring Youth Advocates and Leaders, Amy Nelson, Whitman-Walker Health, Sheroes of the Movement, Mayor's office of GLBT Affairs, gay news, Washington Blade
Kelley Robinson, seen here with Cathy Chu of SMYAL and Amy Nelson of Whitman-Walker Health, is the next Human Rights Campaign president. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)
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Eastern Europe

Former Ambassador Daniel Baer explains it all on Ukraine crisis

Expert downplays strategic thinking behind Putin’s move

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Daniel Baer, United States Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, gay news, Washington Blade
Daniel Baer served as U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security & Cooperation in Europe. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Daniel Baer, who worked on LGBTQ human rights and transatlantic issues as one of several openly gay U.S. ambassadors during the Obama administration, answered questions from the Washington Blade on Ukraine as the international crisis continues to unfold.

Topics during the interview, which took place weeks ago on Jan. 27, included Putin’s motivation for Russian incursions, the risk of outright war, predictions for Russia after Putin and how the crisis would affect LGBTQ people in Ukraine.

Baer was deputy assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor and U.S. ambassador to the Organization of Security & Cooperation in Europe.

The full interview follows:

Washington Blade: What’s your level of engagement with this affair? Are you doing any consulting work? Is the administration reaching out to you at all?

Daniel Baer: I actually think the White House is doing a pretty good job of recognizing that they need to not only have press conferences, but also talk to other people who are trying to figure out how to be constructive critics, idea generators from the outside.

Blade: OK, so you’re being solicited and engaging on this issue. My next question for you is why do you think Putin is doing this at this time?

Baer: So, I guess taking a step back from the whole thing, one of the things about a problem like this is that everybody is searching for the right answer assuming that there is a like comfortable or compelling or intellectually accurate answer, and I actually think we’re just in a really hard moment.

I don’t know why he’s doing it now. And in fact, I think that one of the puzzles that we haven’t solved yet is that all the things that he says are the reasons that he’s doing it — that he feels encirclement by NATO, … or that the situation in Ukraine is untenable — none of those things have changed. Setting aside the fact that they’re spurious, it’s not like there’s been some new move in the last 12 months that has precipitated [a reaction] on any of those fronts that you can say, “Oh, well, he’s responding to the recent meeting where Ukraine was offered membership in NATO, or he’s responding to a change in government in Ukraine that it’s clearly anti-Russia, or any other move that we’ve done.” The explanation just doesn’t hold water, and so I think we need to look for alternative ones.

The best I can come up with is actually just a broad — it doesn’t actually explain this particular moment, but I think you could look at the timing of his life. He has, I don’t know, 10 years left. And during those 10 years, it’s unlikely that Russia is going to grow more powerful; it’s much more likely that it’s going to become at least relatively and probably nominally less powerful. And so, if you’re unhappy with the status quo, and you feel like you’re a declining power, and you don’t have endless time, there’s no time like the present. And you’ll make up whatever reasons you need to in order to justify it.

I also think there’s a tendency on our part to attribute far more “strategery” to Putin than there necessarily is. I mean, he’s a bully and a thug. I think the whole Putin’s playing chess and we’re playing checkers is actually completely inverted. We’re in our own heads that there’s some kind of nuanced position that would mollify him. He’s just a gangster and he’s taking a punch because he has one. And I don’t think it gets much more complicated than that. And so, I guess the answer to why he’s doing this now, because the international conditions are such that he feels like the United States is focused domestically, the Ukrainians are not moving forward with succeeding to build — they’re kind of in stasis on building a European state— and he has, you know, he has the space to take a punch, so he’s contemplating doing it, or he’s already decided to do it. And he’s just extracting as much as possible before he takes it.

Blade: That leads me to my next question: What is your judgement of the risk of out and out war?

Baer: I don’t know because I have two hypotheses that cut both ways. One is that I think Putin is vastly underestimating the degree of resistance. On the other hand, I think that nothing short of domination is satisfactory. And so, I don’t know. I guess I think there’s a 90 percent chance that he does something, and I think there’s a 75 percent chance that what he does is not an all out invasion or ground invasion, at least not at first, but rather something that is aimed at confusing us. So some sort of hybrid or staged or false flag kind of attack in tandem with a political coup in Kiev, where he works to install a more Russia-loyal leader.

The thing with the ground invasion is that Russian soldiers’ moms are one of the only, like, powerful political forces in civil society in Russia. I just don’t see any way that a ground invasion doesn’t involve massive Russian casualties, even if they will be dominant. The people who are going to impose the consequences on him will be the Ukrainians, not the rest of us, and he should not invade, and if he does, we should, frankly, work hard to make it as painful and difficult for him as possible.

Blade: What will that look like?

Baer: I think we should at that point continue — we shouldn’t pause, we should continue to send the defensive equipment and backfill as much as possible their ability from an equipment basis to resist.

Blade: So if we were to look at a model for past U.S. engagements. I’m thinking Greece under President Truman, which was so successful that nobody really knows about it, I don’t think. Is there any model we should be looking toward, or not looking toward?

Baer: No, I guess. I’m not sure there’s any good historical model because obviously, any of them you can pick apart. I do think that one thing that has gotten lost in a lot of the analysis — and this goes back to Putin being a gangster thug, and not being such a genius — is there’s a moral difference between us. The reason why Putin gets to control the dialogue is because he’s willing to do things that we aren’t willing to do — as gangsters are, as hostage-takers are — and so yes, they get to set the terms of what we discussed, because we’re not holding hostages. We’re trying to get hostages released. And the hostage-taker has an upper hand and asymmetry because they are willing to do something that is wrong.

We shouldn’t lose the kind of moral difference there. Nor should we lose sight of the fact that Ukraine is being menaced. And I’m not saying it’s our obligation [to intervene militarily], certainly not our obligation. They aren’t a treaty ally. We have neither a political obligation nor a moral one to necessarily risk our own lives, our own soldiers in defense of Ukraine. But if Ukraine wants to defend themselves, there’s a strong moral case to be made that anything, short of risking our own lives, is something that is morally good. We generally believe that self-defense from lethal threat is a reasonable moral cause and assisting others in defending themselves is too — I think there’s a lot of back and forth that get glossed over whether that’s a provocation or whatever, and I want to say to people stand back, look at this: we’ve got one party that is attacking another. And the question is, does the other have a right to defend itself? Yes. And if they have a right to defend themselves, and they also have a right to have whatever assistance people will offer them in defending themselves.

That doesn’t mean that they get to demand that we show up and fight in the trenches with them, of course, and I don’t think there’s any serious people who are recommending that but it’s a good thing to help them. It’s not like a technical thing. It’s a good thing to help

Blade: Getting into that moral background, one thing I want to ask you was about the significance of what would happen in this concept of democracy versus autocracy. First of all, how much is Ukraine a functional democracy, in the sense that if we’re defending Ukraine, we are defending a democracy, and what signal do you think it would send if that Ukrainian government fell to Russian autocracy?

Baer: I think the institutions of government that the Ukrainian people have are not worthy of the Ukrainian people’s own demonstrated commitment …

They are not worthy of the Ukrainian people’s own demonstrated commitment to the idea of democratic institutions. So the answer is today’s Ukrainian government is a mixed bag and it’s very hard to build, on the rot of a Russian fiefdom, a functioning democracy, so I think it’s a mixed bag. I don’t want to sound like I’m minimizing [the changes], or that they’ve completely bungled an easy project. It was always going to be a hard project, and it was never going to be linear.

But I think that what we’ve seen from the Ukrainian people — by which I mean not Ukrainian people, but people of Ukraine — is that there is a broad part of society that a) does not want to live under a Russian thumb and b) sees its future in kind of European style democracy. And so I think that if there was, there’s no question that the Russian attack would be in part about subjugating the people of Ukraine and forcing them to live under some sort of new Russian satellite. And I think that there’s little space for serious argument that that’s something that the people of the country wish to have.

Blade: But I’m just kind of getting at — you’re kind of minimizing that this is a strategic move by Putin, but if he were to successfully dominant Ukraine it becomes a Russian satellite isn’t that saying like, “Well, ha ha West, you thought the Cold War was over and there’s going to be just be a unipolar world in the future but no, we’re gonna we have this we’re back and we’re gonna create a multipolar world for the future.”

Baer: Yeah, I mean, my answer to the Russians who always raise the multipolar world to me is, “Fine, it’s going to be a multipolar world. What makes you think that Russia is one of the poles?” Poles by definition draw people to them, they are compelling and a pole attracts, magnetically or otherwise, and there is nothing attractive about the model that Russia is pursuing. And if the only way that you can be a pole is by subjugating, to force your neighbors, you are proving that you are not one.

I think the benefits for Russia are far smaller than Putin thinks and I think the consequences for the rest of the world of allowing a violation of international order to go forward are much larger than many people recognize.

Blade: But that was their approach when they were the Soviet Union. They were subjugating the Eastern Bloc through Russian force. They did have, in theory, the concept of their worldview of you know, of socialism, or whatever you want to put it charitably, was going to be the right way to go. Is there really that much of a difference?

Baer: Yeah, however disingenuous it was, they did have an ideology . So you’re right, that was a key distinction. The other thing is that the Soviet Union in relative size — its economy and population etc. — was much larger than Russia is today. And Russia is shrinking, and its economy is less diverse than the Communist one was. I think it’s a delusion to think that they’re going to kind of rebuild an empire, even if yes, because of their willingness to do awful things, they could potentially for a time politically control through violence, their neighbors. I just don’t — in a multipolar world, I don’t see Russia being one of the poles, at least not on its current path.

Blade: How would you evaluate the U.S. diplomatic approach to this issue?

Baer: There’s been very clear over-the-top effort to include the Europeans at every step — meetings with them before each meeting and after each meeting, to force conversations into fora that are more inclusive and stuff like that. And I think that Secretary Blinken is rightly recognizing the need to kind of play a role of kind of keeping everybody on the side while we test whether diplomacy whether there’s anything to do, whether there’s any promise with diplomacy.

I think there’s kind of, sometimes kind of, two camps in U.S. foreign policy circles. One is like: We should give the Russians what they want because it just doesn’t matter that much. War is much worse than anything that we would give them. And another is that we can’t give them an inch and we have to punch them in the face whenever we can. And I think both of those are kind of knee-jerk positions that have become a bit religious for people and neither of them is paying attention to the practical challenge that’s in front of the administration, which is like this guy’s threatening to invade and we need to identify whether there’s any opportunity for a functional off ramp, and that doesn’t mean we do that in a vacuum and ignore the long-term consequences, but our problem is not a religious one, it’s a practical one. And I think they’re doing a pretty good job of threading the needle on that and being not too far forward and not too far back.

Blade: Do you see any significant daylight between the United States and Europe?

Baer: No, I mean, no more than the minimum that is possible. There’s a lot of talk about Germany these days. Look, I think some of the things they say are not particularly helpful, but I don’t actually think that in the long run, if Putin invaded, I don’t think that they would hold up sanctions or anything like that. So I think they’re on our side, even if they’re talking out of both sides, in some cases.

Blade: I am wise to the fact that this is a nuclear power. It might be a little old school, but could escalation get that far?

Baer: There can’t be war. There can’t be war between NATO and Russia. It should be avoided. Obviously, there can be, but it should be avoided.

Blade: How committed do you think President Biden is to protecting Ukraine?

Baer: Reasonably so. I think he’s enough of an old school trans-Atlantist that he understands that this isn’t just about Ukraine.

Blade: I was wondering because he had those comments from his press conference about “minor incursion” and I’m just wondering if you’re reading anything into that or not.

Baer: No, I think that was that was a — I think broadly speaking, everything he says is in line with the kind of view that you would expect. And of course, one sentence can catch [attention]. That wasn’t what he meant. What he meant was that he didn’t want to draw a “red line” that would prejudge policy in response to something short of the most extreme scenario.

I think it is a good caution to not obsess over a single sentence and to look at the broad considered policy statements.

Blade: What do you think if you were looking for developments, like what would you be looking out for is significant in terms of where we are going to be going in the near future? This is one thing to keep an eye out for but is there anything else that you are kind of looking out for in terms of the near future?

Baer: I guess I would look out for whether or not the United States joins meetings of the so-called Normandy Format, which is the France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia grouping, which has so far been unsuccessful, but I think can only be successful as the United States joins it, but the Russians, I think have misgivings with the idea of our joining it.

Blade: I’m not at all familiar with that. What makes this forum particularly so —

Baer: So it was started in the summer in like June of 2015, on the margins of some meeting between Merkel and Hollande. The French and the Germans are very committed to the idea that they might be able to mediate peace between Ukraine and Russia. It was supposed to implement the Minsk Agreement, and it just hasn’t been productive so far. I don’t think that the Russians will do anything — I don’t think the Ukrainians feel comfortable negotiating anything without the Americans at the table. And I don’t think the Russians feel like anything is guaranteed without the Americans at the table. So I just, I’m fine with France and Germany taking the lead, but I think the U.S. has to be there.

And there was a meeting of this group in Paris yesterday, and which the U.S. was supportive of, and so I’m watching to see whether or not the United States gets added in some ad hoc way, whether there are future meetings. I guess the reason I would watch it, if the U.S. were to join future meetings that would signal to me that it’s actually there’s some diplomacy happening there.

That’s meant to be focusing mainly on the existing Russian invasion, the occupation of the Donbas, so that’s not about the threat of the new invasion, but it would be interesting to me if there was forward movement on other parts of Ukraine. The announcement of the American ambassador is one. I think that last week movement of troops into Belarus was a game changer for the U.S., because there are all kinds of new implications if you’re using a third country as your launchpad for war, and so it complicates things and it also looks more serious if you’re starting to deploy to third countries and stuff like that. So I think that was that last week, you noticed a difference in the U.S. tone and tenor in response to that.

So things like that. But in general, like what I would do and I don’t think people always catch this is because there’s a boiling frog aspect to it. There are statements coming out from the White House or State Department. Almost every day on stuff related to this and like last week, there was a noticeable change in the tenor as the U.S. became less, I think more pessimistic about the prospects of diplomacy and those I don’t have anything better to look for in those statements as tea leaves, in terms of what the U.S. assessment is of the prospects of the escalation are, so it’s bad.

Blade: Right. That’s very sobering.

There’s a lot of talk, and I’ve just been seeing some like about in terms of, there’s like comparisons to Afghanistan and making sure that all Americans are able to get out of Ukraine. Is that comparing apples to oranges?

Baer: Yes.

Blade: And could you unpack that a little bit? I mean, I can kind of guess the reasons why. How is that apples to oranges?

Blade: Well, the level of development in Ukraine in terms of infrastructure and transport and stuff like that is not comparable to Afghanistan. I think it would be– if there were a Russian invasion–you would definitely want to, obviously, for safety reasons, it’s not safe to be in a war zone, so you would want people to be able to evacuate and you’d have to plan for that.

A major concern [in Afghanistan] was also that there were tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of locals who had worked for the Americans. The Americans that are in Ukraine are not a departing occupying power. There’s just not the same footprint there — the Americans are in Ukraine or there as business people or young [people working on] democracy assistance or whatever. And it’s just it’s a different context.

Blade: Why do you think the Russians put up with Putin? I mean, this is a country that was a world power and I would think has some economic potential just given its sheer size, first of all, and they do have oil to offer people. So why aren’t the Russians like angry at him for obstructing their participation in the global order as opposed to just putting up with him for years and years and years.

Baer: Successful instrumentalisation of cynicism. The lack of a belief in an alternative will keep you from fighting for it.

Blade: That’s pretty succinct.

Baer: I mean, I don’t think there’s any question that the people of Russia could be better off or different in terms of kitchen table issues, and ease of navigating the world, prospects for their future for their children’s future. The amount of money that Putin has invested into military modernization that Russia can ill afford, while he’s cut pensions and social services and health care. It’s just it’s objectively true that the average Russian person would be better served by a different leader. But he’s done a very good job of effectively selling off the country for profit and persuading people through repression and propaganda that there is no alternative.

Blade: And Putin won’t be around forever. Once he finally goes, is an alternative going to emerge, or will it be the next guy in Putin’s mold?

Baer: I think it’s far from clear that what comes after Putin isn’t worse and bloody. Regimes like this don’t reliably have stable transitions.

Blade: Wow, okay.

Baer: Yeah, we shouldn’t… we should be careful about wishing… wishing for his demise.

Blade: That’s good to know. It’s kind of a frightful note for me to end my questions. But actually before I sign off, there’s one more thing too because I do kind of want to talk about the intersection about your old job in democracy and human rights and then a Venn diagram of that with your experience in Eastern Europe in particular. Do you have a sense of what’s at stake for LGBTQ people in Ukraine or if they’re in more danger right now than they would be otherwise?

Baer: That’s a good question. I mean, my knee jerk reaction is yes. That — as mixed of a picture as Ukraine has been in the last seven years, or eight years — there have been meaningful steps forward, and certainly, in terms of visibility.

I guess, in the sense that Ukraine is better than Russia today, if you’re gay, if Russia is going to occupy or control Ukraine we can expect that it will get worse because it will become more like Russia.

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Trump ribbed Pence for thinking ‘it’s a crime to be gay,’ new book says

Former president openly wanted gay Fox News analyst for Supreme Court

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Donald Trump (left) ribbed former Vice President Mike Pence (center) in a meeting with Andrew Napolitano for thinking "it's a crime to be gay." (Blade photos of Donald Trump and Mike Pence by Michael Key; screen capture of Andrew Napolitano via Fox News YouTube)

Donald Trump, in the days before he took office after the 2016 election, openly contemplated naming an openly gay Fox News contributor to the U.S. Supreme Court amid concerns from social conservatives about his potential choices and ribbed former Vice President Mike Pence for thinking “it’s a crime to be gay,” according to the new book “Insurgency” detailing the former president’s path to the White House.

The key moment between Trump, Judge Andrew Napolitano and Pence took place during the transition period after the 2016 election when Trump invited the other two for a meeting at Trump Tower.  That’s when Trump reportedly took the jab at Pence.

“During their meeting, for part of which Mike Pence was present, Trump ribbed Pence for his anti-gay rights views,” the book says. “Addressing Napolitano, Trump gestured toward the archconservative vice-president-elect and said, ‘You’d better be careful because this guy thinks it’s a crime to be gay. Right, Mike?’ When Pence didn’t answer, Trump repeated himself, ‘Right, Mike?’ Pence remained silent.”

The potential choice of Andrew Napolitano, who was fired last year from Fox News amid recently dropped allegations of sexual harassment from male co-workers, as well as other TV personalities Trump floated for the Supreme Court, as detailed in the book, were among the many reasons conservatives feared he wouldn’t be reliable upon taking the presidency. Ironically, Trump would have been responsible for making a historic choice for diversity if he chose a gay man like Napolitano for the Supreme Court, beating President Biden to the punch as the nation awaits his selection of the first-ever Black woman for the bench.

The new book — fully titled “Insurgency: How Republicans Lost Their Party and Got Everything They Ever Wanted” and written by New York Times political reporter Jeremy Peters, who is also gay — identifies Trump’s potential picks for the judiciary as a source of significant concern for conservatives as the “Never Trump” movement was beginning to form and expectations were the next president would be able to name as many as four choices for the Supreme Court. Among the wide ranges of possible choices he floated during the campaign were often “not lawyers or judges he admired for their legal philosophies or interpretations of the Constitution,” but personalities he saw on TV.

Among this group of TV personalities, the books says, were people like Fox News host Jeanine Pirro, whom Trump “regularly watched and occasionally planned his flight schedule around, directing his personal pilot to adjust the route accordingly so the satellite signal wouldn’t fade.” Trump told friends Pirro “would make a fine justice,” the books says.

Trump potentially making good of his talk about naming Napolitano as one of his choices for the Supreme Court “would have been doubly unacceptable to many on the religious right,” the book says. Napolitano, a former New Jersey Superior Court judge, was friendly with Maryanne Trump Barry, Trump’s sister and a federal judge with a reputation for liberal views, such as a ruling in favor of partial-birth abortion, and is also gay, both of which are identified in the book as potential concerns by the religious right.

Napolitano and Trump were close, the book claims. Napolitano, as the book describes, had a habit of telling a story to friends about Trump confiding to him the future president’s knowledge of the law was based on Napolitano’s TV appearances. Trump told Napolitano: “Everything I know about the Constitution I learned from you on Fox & Friends,” the book says.

The book says the meeting with Trump, Pence and Napolitano when the former president took a jab at Pence in and of itself suggested Trump “was indeed serious about giving the judge some kind of position in the government.” Napolitano, known for making outlandish claims as a Fox News contributor —such as the British government wiretapped Trump Tower — never took a post in the Trump administration.

The new book isn’t the only record of Trump ribbing Pence for his anti-LGBTQ reputation. A New Yorker profile in 2017 depicted a similar infamous meeting with Trump and Pence in which the former president joked about his No. 2’s conservative views. Per the New Yorker article: “When the conversation turned to gay rights, Trump motioned toward Pence and joked, ‘Don’t ask that guy— he wants to hang them all!'”The incident described in “Insurgency” was similar to the meeting detailed in the New Yorker profile.

Trump ended up making a list of names he pledged he’d limit himself to in the event he was in the position to make a selection to the Supreme Court and made good on that promise based on his selection. By the end of his presidency, Trump made three picks to the bench who were each confirmed by the U.S. Senate: Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett. 

But Trump limiting his options to the list of potential plans was not a fool proof plan for conservatives. To the surprise of many, Gorsuch ended up in 2020 writing the majority opinion in the case of Bostock v. Clayton County, a major LGBTQ rights decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, which determined anti-LGBTQ discrimination is a form of sex discrimination and illegal under federal civil rights law.

The Washington Blade has placed a request in with Trump’s office seeking comment on the meeting with Pence and Napolitano as described in “Insurgency.” Napolitano couldn’t be reached for comment.

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