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With no LGBTQ policy staffer, Biden backers fear Equality Act delay

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Joe Biden, gay news, Washington Blade
Some Biden supporters are calling for a new staffer dedicated to LGBTQ policy. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

An early, easy win on LGBTQ rights in a Joe Biden administration could be delayed because the campaign doesn’t have a staffer dedicated to LGBTQ policy, some prominent LGBTQ Biden supporters told the Washington Blade they’re beginning to fear.

Biden has signaled he’ll make the Equality Act, comprehensive legislation that would ban anti-LGBTQ discrimination under the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, his No. 1 legislative priority and ensure Congress passes the measure within the first 100 days of his administration.

But a handful of Biden supporters deeply familiar with his campaign — who spoke to the Blade on condition of anonymity for greater candor — say they’re beginning to worry achieving that goal within the 100-day timeframe is in peril without an LGBTQ policy staffer in place at this time.

Such a Biden campaign or transition staffer, especially one with a background in LGBTQ issues, would be able to hit the ground running on the Equality Act even before the start of the new administration in 2021, making deals in the House and the Senate to advance the legislation and deciding what compromises, if any, would be acceptable and necessary to ensure the measure becomes law, LGBTQ supporters say.

With no LGBTQ policy staffer in place in the Biden campaign or transition team, these supporters say it’s unclear whether Biden will be able to meet his promise to sign the Equality Act into law within 100 days, raising fears the delay will continue indefinably beyond that goal.

Neither Barack Obama in 2008, nor Hillary Clinton in 2016, had a campaign staffer dedicated to LGBTQ policy, so the creation of an LGBTQ policy staffer in the Biden campaign would be unprecedented for a Democratic presidential nominee. (Defenders of creating the LGBTQ policy position point out, however, that Obama faced early criticism for not being able to accomplish anything transformative on LGBTQ rights within his first 100 days in office.)

“It’s also 2020,” one prominent Biden supporter said. “We’ve come a long way since Obama first ran for office and even since 2015, 2016 when Hillary ran for office.”

Although Biden has hired numerous campaign staffers who are LGBTQ, supporters who want a dedicated LGBTQ policy staffer say they’re not enough. The Biden campaign has hired Reggie Greer as LGBTQ+ vote director, but his background has been in appointments as a former staffer with the LGBTQ Victory Institute and his focus is constituency outreach. 

Gautam Raghavan, who as an Obama administration staffer during efforts to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” ferried information back and forth between the White House and the Pentagon, was tapped as an official for the Biden transition team, but not on LGBTQ policy. Karine Jean-Pierre is a lesbian and a former Obama administration staffer on the Biden campaign, but doesn’t have a background in LGBTQ policy.

Another out gay Biden campaign staffer is Jamal Brown, who has a background in LGBTQ policy as a former staffer with the New England-based GLBTQ Advocates & Defenders, but is working to engage with audiences across the board as national press secretary for the Biden campaign.

Brown, in response to the Blade’s request to comment for this article, nonetheless indicated the Biden team is confident in the campaign structure as it currently stands.

“Our campaign is equipped with talented leaders and experts in LGBTQ+ affairs who are working tirelessly to advance Joe Biden’s commitment towards equality and acceptance for LGBTQ+ people,” Brown said. “Our dedicated experts in LGBTQ+ policy crafted the widely-praised and comprehensive platform for securing LGBTQ+ equality, and our Vote Director is mobilizing LGBTQ+ voters in key battleground states. When Joe Biden is elected president, our team will be ready to implement his vision for LGBTQ+ equality, including enactment of the Equality Act.”

The idea about an LGBTQ policy staffer is a contentious one: Not all LGBTQ Biden supporters believe one is necessary. In fact, other LGBTQ leaders pushed back on the idea the position is needed.

Reasons cited against the hire were that it’s soon to have an LGBTQ policy staffer in place, having such a team member would be unprecedented and the Human Rights Campaign and the “Out for Biden” steering committee are already advising the Biden campaign on LGBTQ policy.

The Equality Act has already been written, these responders point out, and the legislation with no compromises easily passed in the U.S. House last year with a bipartisan vote under the leadership of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) — even though it remains bottled up under Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality and member of the “Out for Biden” steering committee, said Biden is clearly on the record in support of the Equality Act and she “just can’t imagine” the need for an LGBTQ policy staffer.

“There’s enough folks who know this bill inside and out and who have prioritized this bill working with the campaign, who will be working with the transition, who will be working the administration,” Keisling said. “I don’t think — this doesn’t feel like an issue to me.”

When the Blade pointed out the concern was about having the apparatus in place to help ensure the Equality Act becomes law, Keisling replied, “The apparatus that matters right now is getting him elected.”

“We don’t need somebody sitting in Philadelphia or — I guess we’re sitting in our homes now — but we don’t need somebody in the campaign headquarters whose job is try to calculate that,” Keisling said. “All of us together, including the speaker of the House and a new majority leader in the Senate and Sen. [Jeff] Merkley and David Cicilline, everybody would be on that, and we don’t need somebody coordinating it this year. We have an ironclad commitment from the VP himself and that’s what we need for now.” 

Although it wasn’t explicitly stated, opponents of the idea strongly implied public discussion would shift focus away from the more fundamental and necessary task of ensuring Biden is elected in the fall, which would ensure a president who supports the Equality Act is in the White House.

For their part, Biden supporters seeking the LGBTQ policy staffer acknowledge Biden and Trump couldn’t be further apart, and Biden is the undisputed champion of equality. Biden has said he’d make the Equality Act a legislative priority, but Trump has signaled he outright opposes the legislation based on unspecified “poison pills” in the bill.

In response to the objections, one prominent Biden supporter who backs having an LGBTQ policy staffer said Symone Sanders, Julie Chavez Rodriguez, Jean-Pierre and Cristobal Alex currently oversee portions of policy for the Black and Brown communities for the Biden campaign, and Jean-Pierre also oversees women’s rights issues, so having an LGBTQ policy staffer along those lines would be only fair.

“I think it’s disingenuous to say that it’s just in campaign mode, and that it’s too early, because other communities would react very differently if they were told that,” the Biden supporter said.

Further, the Biden supporter pointed out the candidate has promised to the LGBTQ community “the most comprehensive federal piece of legislation for the LGBT community that’s ever been put forth and signed by a president,” which is no small task. An LGBTQ policy staffer in place now, the Biden supporter said, may be needed to get it over the finish line.

The Biden supporter also pointed out the campaign reported having $242 million in cash on hand, so the campaign has the luxury of being able to make the hire, and Biden enjoys a double-digit lead in the polls, so supporters have the luxury about being able to discuss the idea in public.

Many of the Equality Act’s goals have been accomplished with the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark ruling this year in Bostock v. Clayton County, which determined anti-LGBTQ discrimination is a form of sex discrimination, thus illegal in the workplace under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. The ruling has applications to other federal laws that ban sex discrimination, including provisions in the Civil Rights Act against discrimination in housing, education, jury service and credit.

But LGBTQ supporters of Biden say the appetite for passing the Equality Act remains as strong as ever. The legislation would round out the protections in Bostock to areas where no federal law exists against sex discrimination, such as federally funded programs, such as adoption services and the prison system, and public accommodations.

Further, the Equality Act would expand the definition of public accommodations under federal civil rights law to include retail stores, banks, transportation services and health care services. The legislation would also establish that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act — a 1994 law aimed at protecting religious liberty — can’t be used to enable anti-LGBTQ discrimination.

JoDee Winterhof, senior vice president for policy and political affairs at the Human Rights Campaign, said the priority now should be electing Biden and strong majorities in Congress that support the Equality Act, which will set up the administration for an early win on the bill.

“Over the next 106 days, our focus must remain on making sure we elect Joe Biden and a pro-equality majority in the U.S. House and Senate,” Winterhof said. “As president, Joe Biden has made a commitment to pass the Equality Act, and by every measure is well-positioned to achieve that goal should he be elected. Electing a pro-equality majority in the U.S. Senate will be a key to success. HRC has and will continue to work with the Biden team to ensure that when he is elected, the White House can hit the ground running to make a stronger, safer, more equal future for LGBTQ people.” 

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Bill to ban conversion therapy dies in Puerto Rico Senate committee

Advocacy group describes lawmakers as cowards

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Puerto Rico Pulse nightclub victims, gay news, Washington Blade

 

A Puerto Rico Senate committee on Thursday killed a bill that would have banned so-called conversion therapy on the island.

Members of the Senate Community Initiatives, Mental Health and Addiction Committee voted against Senate Bill 184 by an 8-7 vote margin. Three senators abstained.

Amárilis Pagán Jiménez, a spokesperson for Comité Amplio para la Búsqueda de la Equidad, a coalition of Puerto Rican human rights groups, in a statement sharply criticized the senators who opposed the measure.

“If they publicly recognize that conversion therapies are abuse, if they even voted for a similar bill in the past, if the hearings clearly established that the bill was well-written and was supported by more than 78 professional and civil entities and that it did not interfere with freedom of religion or with the right of fathers and mothers to raise their children, voting against it is therefore one of two things: You are either a hopeless coward or you have the same homophobic and abusive mentality of the hate groups that oppose the bill,” said Pagán in a statement.

Thursday’s vote comes against the backdrop of continued anti-LGBTQ discrimination and violence in Puerto Rico.

Six of the 44 transgender and gender non-conforming people who were reported murdered in the U.S. in 2020 were from Puerto Rico.

A state of emergency over gender-based violence that Gov. Pedro Pierluisi declared earlier this year is LGBTQ-inclusive. Then-Gov. Ricardo Rosselló in 2019 signed an executive order that banned conversion therapy for minors in Puerto Rico.

“These therapies lack scientific basis,” he said. “They cause pain and unnecessary suffering.”

Rosselló issued the order less than two weeks after members of the New Progressive Party, a pro-statehood party  he chaired at the time, blocked a vote in the Puerto Rico House of Representatives on a bill that would have banned conversion therapy for minors in the U.S. commonwealth. Seven out of the 11 New Progressive Party members who are on the Senate Community Initiatives, Mental Health and Addiction Committee voted against SB 184.

“It’s appalling. It’s shameful that the senators didn’t have the strength and the courage that our LGBTQ youth have, and it’s to be brave and to defend our dignity and our humanity as people who live on this island,” said Pedro Julio Serrano, founder of Puerto Rico Para [email protected], a Puerto Rican LGBTQ rights group, in a video. “It’s disgraceful that the senators decided to vote down this measure that would prevent child abuse.”

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Undocumented LGBTQ immigrants turn to Fla. group for support

Survivors Pathway is based in Miami

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Survivors Pathway works with undocumented LGBTQ immigrants and other vulnerable groups in South Florida. (Photo courtesy of Francesco Duberli)

 

MIAMI – The CEO of an organization that provides support to undocumented LGBTQ immigrants says the Biden administration has given many of his clients a renewed sense of hope.

“People definitely feel much more relaxed,” Survivors Pathway CEO Francesco Duberli told the Washington Blade on March 5 during an interview at his Miami office. “There’s much hope. You can tell … the conversation’s shifted.”

Duberli — a gay man from Colombia who received asylum in the U.S. because of anti-gay persecution he suffered in his homeland — founded Survivors Pathway in 2011. The Miami-based organization currently has 23 employees.

Survivors Pathway CEO Francesco Duberli at his office in Miami on March 5, 2021. (Washington Blade photo by Yariel Valdés González)

Duberli said upwards of 50 percent of Survivors Pathway’s clients are undocumented. Duberli told the Blade that many of them are survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking and victims of hate crimes based on their sexual orientation and gender identity.

“Part of the work that we have done for years is for us to become the bridge between the communities and law enforcement or the justice system in the United States,” said Duberli. “We have focused on creating a language that helps us to create this communication between the undocumented immigrant community and law enforcement, the state attorney’s office and the court.”

“The fear is not only about immigration,” he added. “There are many other factors that immigrants bring with them that became barriers in terms of wanting to or trying to access the justice system in the United States.”

Duberli spoke with the Blade roughly a week after the Biden administration began to allow into the U.S. asylum seekers who had been forced to pursue their cases in Mexico under the previous White House’s “Remain in Mexico” policy.

The administration this week began to reunite migrant children who the Trump administration separated from their parents. Title 42, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rule that closed the Southern border to most asylum seekers and migrants because of the coronavirus pandemic, remains in place.

Duberli told the Blade that Survivors Pathway advised some of their clients not to apply for asylum or seek visa renewals until after the election. Duberli conceded “the truth of the matter is that the laws haven’t changed that much” since Biden became president.

Survivors Pathway has worked with LGBTQ people in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody in South Florida. American Civil Liberties Union National Political Director Ronald Newman in an April 28 letter it sent to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas called for the closure of the Krome North Service Processing Center in Miami, the Glades County Detention Center near Lake Okeechobee and 37 other ICE detention centers across the country.

The road leading to the Krome North Service Processing Center in Miami on June 7, 2020. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Survivors Pathway responded to trans woman’s murder in 2020

Survivors Pathway has created a project specifically for trans Latina women who Duberli told the Blade don’t know they can access the judicial system.

Duberli said Survivors Pathway works with local judges and police departments to ensure crime victims don’t feel “discriminated, or outed or mistreated or revictimized” because of their gender identity. Survivors Pathway also works with Marytrini, a drag queen from Cuba who is the artistic producer at Azúcar, a gay nightclub near Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood.

Marytrini and Duberli are among those who responded to the case of Yunieski “Yuni” Carey Herrera, a trans woman and well-known activist and performer from Cuba who was murdered inside her downtown Miami apartment last November. Carey’s boyfriend, who had previously been charged with domestic violence, has been charged with murder.

“That was an ongoing situation,” noted Duberli. “It’s not the only case. There are lots of cases like that.”

Duberli noted a gay man in Miami Beach was killed by his partner the same week.

“There are lots of crimes that happen to our community that never gets to the news,” he said. “We got those cases here because of what we do.”

Yunieski “Yuni” Carey Herrera was murdered in her downtown Miami apartment in November 2020. (Photo courtesy of social media)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Patrick O’Connell, acclaimed AIDS activist, dies at 67

Played key role in creating red ribbon for awareness

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Activist Patrick O’Connell was instrumental in creating the red ribbon to promote AIDS awareness. (Photo courtesy of Allen Frame; courtesy Visual AIDS)

Patrick O’Connell, a founding director of the New York City-based AIDS advocacy group Visual AIDS who played a lead role in developing the internationally recognized display of an inverted, V-shaped red ribbon as a symbol of AIDS advocacy, died on March 23 at a Manhattan hospital from AIDS-related causes, according to the New York Times. He was 67.

Visual AIDS said in a statement that O’Connell held the title of founding director of the organization from 1980 to 1995.

During those years, according to the statement and others who knew him, O’Connell was involved in the group’s widely recognized and supported efforts to use art and artist’s works to advocate in support of people with HIV/AIDS and efforts to curtail the epidemic that had a devastating impact on the art world.

Thanks to a grant from the Art Matters foundation, Visual AIDS was able to retain O’Connell as its first paid staff member in 1990, the group said in its statement.

“Armed with a fax machine and an early Macintosh computer, Patrick helped Visual AIDS grow from a volunteer group to a sustainable non-profit organization,” the statement says. “A passionate spokesperson for the organization, he helped projects like Day Without Art, Night Without Light, and the Red Ribbon reach thousands of people and organizations across the world,” the group says in its statement.

“We were living in a war zone,” the statement quoted O’Connell as saying in a 2011 interview with the Long Island newspaper Newsday. “But it was like a war that was some kind of deep secret only we knew about,” O’Connell said in the interview. “Thousands were dying of AIDS. We felt we had to respond with a visible expression,” he told the newspaper.

With O’Connell’s help, Visual AIDS in 1989 organized the first annual Day Without Art in which dozens of galleries and museums in New York and other cities covered art works with black cloths to symbolize the mourning of those who died of AIDS. Among those participating were the Brooklyn Museum, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which replaced a Picasso painting with a “somber informational placard,” according to the New York Times.

In 1990 O’Connell helped Visual AIDS organize the first Night Without Light, which was held at the time of World AIDS Day. New York City’s skyscraper buildings, bridges, monuments, and Broadway theaters turned off their lights for 15 minutes to commemorate people who lost their lives to AIDS, the New York Times reported.

In the kickoff of its Red Ribbon Project in 1991, McConnell helped organize volunteers to join “ribbon bees” in which thousands of the ribbons were cut and folded for distribution around the city, the Times reports. Those who knew McConnell said he also arranged for his team of volunteers to call Broadway theaters and producers of the upcoming Tony Awards television broadcast to have participants and theater goers display the red ribbons on their clothes.

Among those displaying a red ribbon on his label at the Tony Awards broadcast was actor Jeremy Irons, who was one of the hosts. In later years, large numbers of celebrities followed the practice of wearing the red ribbon, and in 1993 the U.S. Postal Service issued a red ribbon stamp.

The Times reports that O’Connell was born and raised in Manhattan, where he attended Fordham Preparatory School and later graduated from Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., in 1973 with a bachelor’s degree in history. According to Visual AIDS, O’Connell served as director of the Hallwalls arts center in Buffalo, N.Y. from 1977 to 1978 before returning to New York City to work for a gallery called Artists Space.

The Times reports that O’Connell learned in the middle 1980s that he had contracted AIDS and began a regimen of early AIDS treatment with a cocktail of over 30 pills a day. His involvement with Visual AIDS, which began in 1989, ended on an active basis in 1995 when his health worsened, the Times reports.

As one of the last remaining survivors of his New York contemporaries who had HIV beginning in the 1980s, O’Connell continued in his strong support for AIDS-related causes through 2000s and beyond, people who knew him said.
Visual AIDS says it is gathering remembrances and photos for a tribute post for O’Connell on its website. It has invited people to share their memories of him by sending written contributions and images via email to: [email protected].

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