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Fears over women’s safety made wedge issue in Equality Act hearing

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From left, Ranking Member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Chair Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) at the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary hearing for the Equality Act on Wednesday. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

A Senate hearing on the Equality Act, which would expand the prohibition on discrimination under federal law, put on full display Wednesday the use of fear mongering about women’s safety and the integrity of women’s sports as a tool to thwart attempted progress on LGBTQ rights, although more traditional objections based on religious liberty also played a role.

Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) pulled no punches during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing — the first-ever hearing for the Equality Act in the U.S. Senate — in heightening fears about threats to women in sex-segregated spaces. 

When Abigail Shrier, a journalist who has built a career campaigning against gender transitioning for youth, was presenting testimony as an expert witness, Kennedy went straight to the locker rooms.

“Would this bill prohibit the boy with gender dysphoria from exposing his penis to the girls?” Kennedy asked.

The questioning put Shrier, who was testifying against the Equality Act, in a bind. The Equality Act does prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity in locker rooms, but says nothing about that particular issue and laws against lewd conduct are in place. “I’m sorry would it prohibit that?”

When Kennedy repeated the questions, Shrier replied, “I don’t believe the bill addresses genitalia.” Kennedy went to ask her if it prohibits them from dressing together. “No,” Shrier replied. “Would this bill prohibit them from showering together?” “No.” Kennedy then asked about boys being able to access girls’ sports.

“He wouldn’t have to have gender dysphoria,” Shrier said. “Anyone who says they’re a girl at any time under this bill, they don’t have to be transgender-identified, they don’t have to have gender dysphoria.”

Kennedy said he had intended to get to that point and asked her if the Equality Act would require schools to allow boys with gender dysphoria to compete in girls’ sports. Shrier replied, “Yes, anyone who identifies as a woman.”

Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), top Republican on the committee, brought up a specific incident in Connecticut where transgender girls were allowed to compete in a girls track event. Grassley named one of the girls who filed a complaint over the situation, Chelsea Mitchell, as he displayed images of three girls involved behind him.

“Many women and girls before her fought for legal protections under Title IX, which recognizes that sex specific distinctions are appropriate in some instances,” Grassley said. “As a father, grandfather and husband, I have celebrated the athletic successes of talented young women in my own family, so I am deeply concerned about this act’s potential negative implications for all girls and women in sports.”

The Equality Act says nothing about sports, but would prohibit discrimination against transgender people in education and federally funded programs. It should be noted the ruling last year from the U.S. Supreme Court in Bostock v. Clayton County, which found anti-LGBTQ discrimination is an illegal form of sex discrimination, has broad applications, including for Title IX of the Education Amendment of 1972, which bars discrimination on the basis of sex in sports. As a result, refusing to allow transgender kids in sports would likely already be illegal.

Fears of the impact of LGBTQ rights advances on religious practices also came up during the hearing. Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), for example, raised a question about whether churches that conduct services with members of the congregation divided by sex would be liable as a public accommodation under the Equality Act.

Mary Rice Hasson, a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics & Public Policy Center, served as a Republican witness and maintained churches could be held liable under the Equality Act “by expanding public accommodations to mean wherever Americans gather, even virtually.”

“Compromise your religious beliefs or risk endless litigation,” Hasson said. “Recipients of federal funds are also targeted, even for the simple act of maintaining sex segregated bathrooms.”

HRC President Alphonso David, responding to an earlier question from Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), contested the idea that churches would be liable, which would be consistent with the religious exemption the Equality Act would retain under the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

“The Equality Act does not affect how religious institutions function,” David said. “That is very different than institutions that actually provide public accommodations, institutions that are open to the public and are providing goods and services to the public.”

A major issue of contention was a provision of the Equality Act that would preclude the use of the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a law intended to protect religious minorities, as a potential legal defense in cases of discrimination. Scolding Republican critics who indicated the Equality Act would gut RFRA, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said the bill does nothing of the sort, but Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) shot back there was “an explicit carve out in the Equality Act for RFRA.”

“I’m aware of no other law that seeks to shred RFRA in this way, and the effect of it basically is that churches, religious ministries, Christian colleges and universities, they’ll be unable to pursue their missions, particularly if they involve service to the poor, service to the needy,” Hawley said.

During a hearing in which Democratic members of the committee largely focused on their witnesses and Republicans stuck with theirs, Kennedy was an exception and asked David if there are more than two sexes. David initially deferred to medical experts and noted sex and gender can be different concepts, but then concluded “it’s not limited to two,” citing for example people who are intersex.

Shrier made an attempt during the hearing to qualify her opposition to the Equality Act, saying her opposition is based on potential consequences of the bill on women’s safety.

“If S. 393 merely proposed to extend employment, and public housing rights to gay and transgender Americans, I would be supporting this bill, instead of testifying against it,” Shrier said. “I am here today because the bill does much more, and no one who wrote it appears to have thoughtfully considered what it would mean for women and girls.”

Tillis open to ‘compromise’ on LGBTQ rights

Despite the issues raised by Republicans, one key moment came when Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), whose vote would be key to reaching the 60-vote threshold to end a Senate filibuster on the Equality Act, appeared to make a good faith effort to reach across the aisle.

“On the one hand, we have the fact that even in 2021, our LGBTQ friends, family, neighbors, still face discrimination from employment to healthcare to housing to homelessness among LGBTQ youth is a very real problem with discrimination,” Tillis said. “I think it’s wrong, in any aspect. But on the other hand, we have millions of Americans who are people of faith who have serious and legitimate issues of conscience.”

Although Tillis said the Equality Act “falls short of the goal” he seeks in addressing both sides, he added he’s “open to finding a compromise.” The last committee member to ask questions during the hearing, Tillis also lamented members of the committee “were talking past one another” about their concerns without coming closer to an ultimate conclusion.

Two issues that appeared to concern Tillis were the provision in the Equality Act against use of RFRA in cases of discrimination and whether the Equality Act’s ban on LGBTQ discrimination in federally funded programs would require prisons to house transgender women consistent with their gender identity. Tillis posed a question on whether a male serial rapist could say he identified as a woman and be allowed in women’s prisons; Shrier said that “absolutely” would be the case.

Meanwhile, proponents of the Equality Act continued to make their case for the bill based on its general objectives, to ban anti-LGBTQ discrimination in all aspects of public life.

Durbin, kicking off the committee hearing, displayed a video highlighting milestones in the LGBTQ movement, including the election of Harvey Milk and the swearing-in of Pete Buttigieg, as well as media coverage on passage in the U.S. House of the Equality Act.

“Unfortunately, some opponents have chosen to make exaggerated claims about what the Equality Act would do,” Durbin said. “Let me be clear, those of us working to pass this legislation are open to good faith constructive suggestions on further improvement and strengthening the bill. In fact, that’s why we’re having this hearing, but many of the texts on this bill are nothing more than the latest in a long, long, long line of fear mongering targeting the LGBTQ community.”

Stella Keating, a 16-year-old student from Tacoma, Wash., made the case for the Equality Act as a witness in the simplest way possible: Introducing herself as a transgender person.

“Hi, I’m Stella, and I’m transgender,” Keating said, “I’m here before you today, representing the hundreds of thousands of kids, just like me who are supported and loved by their family, friends, and communities across the country.”

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Va. businessman apologizes for burning of rainbow flag poster

‘Shocked and horrified’: Ashburn incident caught on video

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Organizers of an event where a Pride symbol was burned say the incident was a misunderstanding.

The owner of a Virginia technology company that hosted a private Veterans Day party on the grounds of an Ashburn, Va., brewery in which a company employee used a flame-throwing device to ignite a rainbow flag poster said the selection of the poster was a mistake and he and his company have no ill will toward the LGBTQ community.

The Washington Blade learned about the poster burning from a customer of the Old Ox Brewery in Ashburn, where the incident took place on its outdoor grounds. The customer made a video of the incident with his cell phone and sent a copy of the video to the Blade.

The video, which includes an audio recording, shows a man using a hand-held flame-throwing device to ignite the rainbow poster, which was hanging from a cable and appeared to be mounted on cardboard or a thin sheet of wood. Bystanders can be heard laughing and cheering as the poster is set on fire.

The poster consisted of a variation of the LGBTQ Pride rainbow flag that included the word “love” configured from an upper white stripe on the rainbow symbol.

The customer who took the video, who has asked not to be identified, thought the decision to set the poster on fire was a sign of disrespect if not hatred toward a longstanding symbol of LGBTQ equality and pride.

Chris Burns, Old Ox Brewery’s president, shared that view, telling the Blade he and his staff were “shocked and horrified” when they learned later that a rainbow flag poster had been burned on the brewery’s grounds. Burns said Old Ox supports the LGBTQ community and participated in LGBTQ Pride month earlier this year.

He said the company that held the private party paid a fee to hold the event on the brewery’s grounds, but the brewery did not know a rainbow poster would be burned.

“I’m mortified that our event was interpreted in this way,” said Nate Reynolds, the founder and partner of Hypershift Technologies LLC, the Falls Church, Va.-based technology company that organized the Nov. 11 party at Old Ox Brewery. “I can assure you that ZERO ill-will or offense was meant,” Reynolds told the Blade in a Nov. 24 email.

“We held a small private party for a few clients, which included a demonstration of Elon Musk’s Boring Company ‘Not a Flamethrower,’” he said in his message. He was referring to one of billionaire businessman Elon Musk’s companies that specializes in boring through the ground to create tunnels for cars, trains, and other purposes. 

“After so many being isolated during COVID, we wanted to have an event that was lighthearted and to some small effect, silly,” Reynolds said in his message to the Blade.

According to Reynolds, in thinking about what should be used for “fodder” for the flame-thrower, he went to a Five Below discount store and purchased items such as stuffed animals and posters, including a “Space Jam” movie poster as well as what he thought was a poster of the British rock group The Beatles.

“When I pulled the Beatles poster out of the tube it was instead the ‘Love’ poster,” he said, referring to the rainbow flag poster the Blade asked him about in an earlier email.

“All I focused on was the ‘Love’ wording and not the rainbow and did not draw the conclusion that the poster was an icon that represents the LGBTQ community,” Reynolds said. “It was my own ignorance of not connecting the symbolism of the poster. If I had realized it was a symbol of the LGBTQ community, I would not have used it,” he said.

“I feel terrible, and I want to emphasize that I am solely responsible for this mistake – not the Old Ox Brewery,” he wrote in his message. “Nobody at Old Ox had anything to do with this activity.”

Reynolds added, “Hate has no place in my heart, and I sincerely apologize for any offense that could have been drawn from what I now realize was poor judgement on my part. I simply didn’t correlate this poster with the LGBTQ pride symbol.”  

(Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Before Reynolds issued his statement of apology, Burns, the Old Ox Brewery co-owner, told the Blade in an email he was “saddened and upset” over the rainbow poster burning on the grounds of his brewery.

“We do not wish to benefit from this event,” he said in his email message. “Therefore, Old Ox is donating 100% of the revenue generated from the private event to GLSEN.”

GLSEN is a national LGBTQ advocacy group that focuses on education and support for LGBTQ youth. Burns said Old Ox Brewery also donated proceeds from a Pride month event it organized earlier this year to GLSEN.

LGBTQ activists and organizations contacted by the Blade said they were unfamiliar with the variation of the rainbow flag with the word “love” that was the subject of the poster burning incident. The poster is available for sale at Five Below stores in the D.C. metropolitan area for $5.

Small print writings on the poster show it is produced by Trends International LLC, which describes itself on its website as “the leading publisher and manufacturer of licensed posters, calendars, stickers and social stationery products.” The Blade couldn’t immediately determine who designed the poster.

 The video of the poster burning incident can be viewed here:

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Fairfax schools returns LGBTQ-themed books in high school libraries

Review found ‘no pedophilia’ in texts as critics claimed

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(Book cover insert courtesy of Amazon)

The Fairfax County Public Schools announced on Tuesday that following a detailed review by two committees appointed by school officials it has returned two LGBTQ themed books to its high school libraries that had been temporarily withdrawn after being challenged by critics who claimed they included sexually explicit content inappropriate for students.

The two books, “Lawn Boy,” a novel by author Jonathan Evison, and “Gender Queer: A Memoir,” which is described as an illustrated autobiography by non-binary author Maia Kobabe, each contain descriptions of sexual acts.

But supporters of the books have argued that they have won praise by literary critics and, while describing intimate relationships, they tell stories that do not fall into the category of pornography.  

Fairfax County Public Schools, the name used for the county’s public school system, on Tuesday said in a statement that a thorough review of the books by two committees consisting of educators, school officials, parents and some students found that neither book contained content that could be considered to depict pedophilia as claimed by some parents and others opposing the two books.

School officials announced they had temporarily withdrawn the two books from school libraries following a Sept. 23 meeting of the Fairfax County School Board where strong objections to the two books were raised by parents.

“Two books that were subject to formal challenge have been deemed appropriate for high school readers following a two-month review process and will be reinstated to Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) libraries,” Tuesday’s statement by the school system says.

“The decision reaffirms FCPS’s ongoing commitment to provide diverse reading materials that reflect our student population, allowing every child an opportunity to see themselves reflected in literary characters,” the statement continues. “Both reviews concluded that the books were valuable in their potential to reach marginalized youth who may struggle to find relatable literary characters that reflect their personal journey,” the statement says.

The statement says the final decision to reinstate the books was made by Noel Klimenko, the Fairfax County Public Schools’ assistant superintendent for its Instructional Services Department.

The two books have received favorable reviews in various literary publications. Both have received the American Library Association’s Alex Award, an annual award that recognizes the year’s 10 books written for adults that the association says have a special appeal to young adults ages 12 through 18.

“The robust committee process took place over several weeks and considered whether the books flouted regulations by being obscene or harmful to juveniles as defined by the Code of Virginia,” the school system statement says. “The members also considered the work in line with an excerpt from the FCPS Student Rights and Responsibilities Handbook pertaining to possessing obscene visual imagery as defined in the Code of Virginia,” the statement says.

“After careful consideration, neither books were deemed to have fallen foul of these regulations,” it concludes.

The decision by Fairfax school officials to reinstate the two books came about six weeks after more than 425 LGBTQ students and allies from over 30 Fairfax County public high schools sent a letter to the school board and the school system’s superintendent urging them to reinstate the two books.

The Pride Liberation Project, a coalition of LGBTQ and allied students in Fairfax County, organized the joint letter.

“Student representatives from over 30 schools, including nearly every high school in Fairfax County Public Schools, have signed this letter, and many of us are students of color, low-income, gender expansive and not out to our families and communities,” the letter states.

“We are writing to ask you to reject calls to remove Maia Kobabe’s ‘Gender Queer’ and Jonathan Evison’s ‘Lawn Boy’ from Fairfax County Public Schools libraries,” the letter says.

It points out that “hundreds of books in our schools already depict heterosexual relationships and physical intimacy,” and says singling out LGBTQ themed books with similar stories of intimacy for rejection is unfair.

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Matrimonio igualitario a un paso de ser ley en Chile

Solo falta una última votación en el Senado

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Una manifestación en favor del matrimonio igualitario en Santiago, Chile, en 2017. (Foto cortesía de Francisca Becker)

VALPARAÍSO, Chile — Como un triunfo “histórico” para los derechos de la diversidad sexual y de género, calificaron los activistas LGBTQ en Chile el avance del proyecto de ley de matrimonio igualitario el martes en el Congreso. Ahora solo falta una última votación en el Senado para convertirse en ley.

“Con 101 votos a favor, 30 en contra y dos abstenciones se aprueba el proyecto de ley que regula el matrimonio igualitario, que pasa a su tercer y último trámite en el Senado”, ha informado el Congreso Nacional chileno en un comunicado.

La votación se enmarca en uno de los momentos políticos más complejos para la población queer de ese país latinoamericano, luego de que el pasado domingo en las elecciones presidenciales y de congresistas la ultraderecha y anti-LGBTQ liderada por el candidato presidencial, José Antonio Kast del Partido Repúblicano obtuvieran un buen desempeño electoral.

Kast, que ha afirmado en muchas ocasiones que existe un “lobby gay” que “busca influir a las personas”, fue el candidato más votado y se enfrentará en el balotaje del 19 de diciembre al izquierdista Gabriel Boric.

“Frente a los discursos de violencia y odio, hace falta responder con amor. No queremos sesgos dogmáticos ultra ideologizados”, apuntó el diputado Diego Ibáñez, del Frente Amplio, la coalición que lidera Boric.

El proyecto de matrimonio igualitario fue firmado por la expresidenta Michelle Bachelet en 2017 y presentado ante el Congreso durante su segundo mandato. Sin embargo, no fue hasta enero de 2020 cuando la sala del Senado aprobó en general el proyecto con 22 votos a favor, 16 en contra y una abstención.

Posteriormente, el presidente del país, Sebastián Piñera, mostró su apoyo a la medida y ordenó suma urgencia.”Pienso que ha llegado el tiempo de garantizar esa libertad y esa dignidad a todas las personas, el tiempo del matrimonio igualitario en nuestro país”, dijo el jefe de Estado en su última cuenta pública.

“Luego de tres décadas de lucha, falta solo un trámite en el Senado para conquistar la hasta ahora esquiva igualdad legal que merece todas las parejas y familias”, destacó la vocera del Movimiento de Integración y Liberación Homosexual (Movilh), Javiera Zúñiga, a través de un comunicado de prensa.

“Festejamos este nuevo paso, ahora con la total convicción de que estamos en la recta final. Especialmente felices porque se aprobaron por amplia mayoría todos las indicaciones sobre filiación y adopción homoparental que introducimos en la Cámara. Hablamos de 30 años de lucha, pero de siglos de segregación, cuyos días están contados, lo cual terminará con las injusticias y desigualdades que sufren las parejas del mismo sexo y las familias homoparentales”, añadió Zúñiga.

De no ser aprobado en el Senado, el proyecto de ley pasaría a una comisión mixta. Sin embargo, la actual presidenta de la Cámara Alta se comprometió a realizar su mayor esfuerzo para que sea despachado lo antes posible.

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