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In seesaw experience, LGBTQ fed’l workers enjoy new openness under Biden

Pride Month celebrated after neglect in Trump years

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Anthony Musa, chair of Pride in Federal Service, said the change for LGBTQ federal workers is dramatic.

With Pride month underway and the coronavirus pandemic getting under control, LGBTQ federal workers are expressing a new sense of ebullience about being able to celebrate openly this season after a more muted experience during the Trump administration.

The new excitement about the openness is the latest chapter for LGBTQ federal employees, who have a unique seesaw experience of having alternating periods of support mixed with periods when the leadership is disengaged or even hostile.

Anthony Musa, chair of Pride in Federal Service for LGBTQ federal employees, said the change in feeling to “a sense of acceptance” is in no small part the result of outreach from the top in the Biden administration.

“There is a strong push by the White House, especially lately in the past couple of weeks to really reach out directly to LGBTQ+ federal employees and ensure that Pride month is celebrated and that employees are supported by both the administration and the political appointees within the individual departments and agencies,” Musa said.

One example of the Biden administration reaching out, Musa said, is the White House Office of Public Engagement coming to affinity groups for LGBTQ federal workers and offering assistance for promotion and coordination of Pride celebrations.

It’s not just Pride events. Musa said the U.S. Office of Personnel Management has been conducting periodic calls about the Federal Health Benefits Program to highlight opportunities for LGBTQ families and health care for transgender and non-binary people.

The Biden administration’s outreach to LGBTQ employees is visible in other ways. For the first time, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm last week raised the Progress Pride flag outside of her department’s headquarters in D.C. in an event recognizing Pride month.

The sense of jubilation outside the Department of Energy was palpable among its LGBTQ employees, who were able to openly celebrate Pride at an official event with a top Biden administration official.

Helping Granholm raise the flag was Tarak Shah, chief of staff for the energy secretary and the first openly gay person to occupy that role.

Shah said via email to the Washington Blade he considers the experience of raising the Pride flag at the Department of Energy “a moment that is incredibly personally meaningful – and one I don’t take for granted.”

“For much of our nation’s history, our institutions have held LGBTQ+ people back,” Shah said. “But, when we raised the flag over DOE this month, we symbolically lifted up our people up, and set an example for the energy and scientific communities around the world. I am proud to be part of an administration that says clearly ‘we have your back’ and for an energy secretary who is a champion for LGBTQ people everywhere.”

The State Department is experiencing a similar change. After the Trump administration in its final years prohibited U.S. embassies from flying the Pride flag on the official pole, the State Department reversed the policy, allowing the rainbow flag to be flown alongside the U.S. flag.

A gay civil service officer at the State Department, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak with the media, said the new policy at U.S. embassies as well as Pride proclamations from Biden and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken are having a positive impact.

“One thing I’ve been noticing is within the GLIFAA group on Facebook, people sharing photos of our embassies and consulates around the world with the [Pride] flag flying on the same pole with the U.S. flag,” the officer said. “Those kinds of signals alone I think are making people feel like it’s just a completely different world instead of months ago for us. You know where we were.”

The new flag policy, the officer said, is consistent with a broader change at the State Department of leadership making diversity writ large a priority, which includes having a diversity and equity official in place who reports directly to the secretary of state.

In contrast, the Trump administration’s approach to LGBTQ employees was largely hands-off — if not a climate of hostility. LGBTQ people who continued to work in the federal government didn’t have the same engagement from the top down and contended with policies frustrating plans for Pride activities.

One example of the Trump administration being counterproductive was the executive order former President Trump signed prohibiting critical race theory in diversity training for federal employees. Because the directive required review of all diversity engagement — even if it didn’t include critical race theory — the executive order hampered organization among LGBTQ employees.

In fact, last year Pride in Federal Service was forced to cancel a summit for LGBTQ federal employees because Trump’s executive order on critical race theory made things too complicated.

Musa said the Trump administration offered “absolutely no outreach or support” for engagement with federal government employees.

“We were offering some training with OPM on diversity and inclusion that we had to suspend because it fit within those guidelines of what was restricted,” Musa said. “So it was difficult to say the least.”

But the change in atmosphere isn’t the result of the change in administration alone. LGBTQ workers are also feeling a sense of renewal with the coronavirus in the rear-window as domestic vaccinations continue to increase and events cancelled in the past year are happening again.

One event in honor of Pride month cancelled last year due to coronavirus, but now happening again, is a celebration at the Pentagon for LGBTQ service members and civilian employees. Although the events at the Defense Department had taken place annually since “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal was certified in 2011, coronavirus broke the annual streak of that new tradition.

Rudy Coots, president of the LGBTQ employee group DOD Pride, said LGBTQ federal employees are able to reconnect in ways that haven’t been possible for a long time thanks to the lifting of coronavirus restrictions.

“I would say that we’re excited to be able to celebrate Pride month this year in person since COVID-19 prevented us from having an event last year,” Coots said. “So we’re very excited about that, and we’re certainly in the department very excited that the secretary of defense will honor us with remarks as our keynote speaker.”

Also in contrast to the previous administration at the Pentagon event for Pride month is the presence at the event of a Cabinet-level official. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is set to deliver the keynote address, a stark contrast to the Trump years when Pride events within federal agencies were more limited and didn’t include Cabinet-level officials.

With such a distinction between one administration and the next, LGBTQ workers in the federal government acknowledge they face a unique seesaw effect — and the on-and-off experience takes a toll.

In recent years, the neglect and outright hostility during the George W. Bush administration changed when former President Obama took office, but the pendulum swung the other way during the Trump years, and now the situation for LGBTQ federal workers has changed once again with Biden in office.

Musa said the back-and-forth isn’t necessarily as difficult for workers who live in D.C., which has robust legal protections against anti-LGBTQ discrimination, but the situation is different for federal employees in other areas.

“We are a small minority of federal employees; the majority of federal employees work outside the D.C. region,” Musa said. “And I think that really having that back and forth seesaw type thing where things are either really good depending on what administration’s in charge or really bad, is particularly aggravating.”

Musa added the stress of the back-and-forth would be alleviated if a federal law expanding the prohibitions on anti-LGBTQ discrimination, such as the Equality Act, were in place. The bill, however, continues to languish in Congress and is all but dead.

Despite the on-and-off track record, LGBTQ federal workers continue to hold out hope of greater stability in the near future and say as time passes the changes made for a welcoming work environment have become more and more durable.

The gay civil service officer at the State Department said the momentum is toward greater LGBTQ inclusion within the federal workforce and “over time, it will be harder and harder to walk back these changes,” pointing to a few bright spots in the Trump administration.

“They yanked the flag and some other stuff, but they were still fighting to get same-sex spouses accredited and countries that don’t allow you to accredit your spouse,” the officer said. “And so a lot of the things that had changed actually under the Obama administration did remain in place.”

The officer conceded, however, LGBTQ public advocacy in the State Department on behalf of the community, both abroad and within its workforce “really fell away, and then obviously there were specific cases of political attacks against LGBTQ staff that are well documented.”

Musa predicted the situation with LGBTQ employees would evolve to a place of continued support regardless of the administration in power, which he said would stem from civil service leadership’s more consistent support as opposed to political appointees.

“That’s sort of my hope,” Musa concluded. “Worst case scenario we end up back in the same way we were in late 2020, but hopefully we don’t go back to that.”

CORRECTION: An initial version of this article misspelled the name of Rudy Coots. The Blade regrets the error.

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North Dakota lawmakers okay regulation banning Conversion Therapy

This rule change will stop the vast majority of mental health providers in North Dakota from subjecting LGBTQ youth to conversion therapy

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Capitol Building of North Dakota in Bismarck (Photo Credit: State of North Dakota)

BISMARCK, ND. – The North Dakota House Administrative Rules Committee voted 8-7 on Tuesday, June 8, to authorize the rule proposed by the North Dakota Board of Social Work Examiners, implementing new regulations prohibiting licensed social workers from subjecting LGBTQ youth to the widely discredited practice of conversion therapy.

The North Dakota Board of Social Work Examiners, which oversees licensing for social workers in the state, created the new rule which states that “it is an ethical violation for a social worker licensed by the board to engage in any practices or treatments that attempt to change or repair the sexual orientation or gender identity of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning individuals.”

The West Hollywood based Trevor Project, the world’s largest suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer & questioning (LGBTQ) young people, had worked with Democratic House Minority Leader Rep. Josh Boschee, the National Association of Social Workers ND Chapter, the North Dakota Human Rights Coalition, and local advocates like Elizabeth Loos to advance these critical protections for LGBTQ youth.

 “This rule change will stop the vast majority of mental health providers in North Dakota from subjecting LGBTQ youth to the dangerous and discredited practice of conversion therapy. This practice is not therapy at all— it’s abusive and fraudulent,” said Troy Stevenson, Senior Advocacy Campaign Manager for The Trevor Project. “There is still more work to be done in North Dakota, but this bold action will help save young lives. The Trevor Project is committed to an every state strategy to protect LGBTQ youth from conversion therapy and North Dakota has proven that progress is possible anywhere.”

“Thank you to the North Dakota Board of Social Work Examiners for restricting licensed social workers in North Dakota from being able to practice conversion therapy! LGBT North Dakotans, especially youth, are safer now as you hold licensees responsible to the NASW Code of Ethics,” said Minority Leader Boschee. 

The proposed ban on therapist-administered conversion therapy in North Dakota was met with opposition by several of the committee’s most socially conservative members, the Grand Forks Herald reported.

Rep. Dan Ruby, R-Minot, told the paper that he worries the new prohibition is limiting because it would prevent people seeking “some kind of treatment” from getting help. Bell said the rule is written so clients who are LGBT or questioning their sexual orientation or gender identity are not inhibited from seeking care.

Rep. Bernie Satrom, R-Jamestown, said he’s concerned the rule would interfere with religious counseling, adding “there are some cases where people want to change.”

“There are licensed counselors that are also Christians, and basically my concern in all of this is that we’re telling the Christian counselors ‘you can be a licensed counselor, but you can’t practice your Christianity,'” Satrom said.

Satrom and West Fargo Republican Rep. Kim Koppelman said approving the social workers’ ban on conversion therapy is outside of the committee’s scope and ought to be scrutinized by the full Legislature.

Boschee, the North Dakota Legislature’s only openly gay member, told the Grand Forks Herald that he was disappointed in some of his colleagues for standing behind the “harmful” practice of conversion therapy and trying to muddy the conversation over what is a simple self-imposed rule for social workers. The Fargo Democrat said he was ultimately pleased that seven lawmakers joined him in upholding the proposed ban.

Research: 

  • According to The Trevor Project’s 2021 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health, 13% of LGBTQ youth reported being subjected to conversion therapy, with 83% reporting it occurred when they were under age 18. LGBTQ youth who were subjected to conversion therapy reported more than twice the rate of attempting suicide in the past year compared to those who were not.
  • According to a peer-reviewed study by The Trevor Project published in the American Journal of Public Health, LGBTQ youth who underwent conversion therapy were more than twice as likely to report having attempted suicide and more than 2.5 times as likely to report multiple suicide attempts in the past year.
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‘We’re still very much in the healing phase’

Saturday marks five years since Pulse nightclub massacre

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The interim memorial at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla., on May 31, 2020 (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Saturday marks five years since a gunman killed 49 people inside the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla.

A remembrance ceremony will take place at the site, which is now an interim memorial. A number of other events to honor the victims will take place in Orlando and throughout Central Florida over the coming days.

“We’re still very much in the healing phase and trying to find our way,” Pulse owner Barbara Poma told the Washington Blade on Tuesday during a telephone interview.

The massacre at the time was the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.

Nearly half of the victims were LGBTQ Puerto Ricans. The massacre also sparked renewed calls for gun control.

Poma told the Blade that she expects construction will begin on a “Survivor’s Walk” at the site by the end of the year. A museum — which she described as an “education center” that will “talk about the history of the LGBT community and its struggles and stripes for the last century or so … about why safe spaces were important to this community” and what happened at Pulse and the global response to it — will be built a third of a mile away.

“We really feel it is important to never forget what happened at Pulse and to tell the story of that,” said Poma.

Poma noted the onePULSE Foundation of which she is the executive director met with representatives of the 9/11 Tribute Museum and the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum to discuss the memorial. Poma when she spoke with the Blade acknowledged the plans have been criticized.

“This kind of opposition is not unique to these kind of projects,” she said.

“It’s just important to know that really what we’re trying to do is make sure what happened is never forgotten and those lives were never forgotten,” added Poma.

Poma on Tuesday declined to comment on the lawsuits that have been filed against her, her husband and the onePULSE Foundation in the wake of the massacre.

DeSantis’ anti-LGBTQ policies overshadow anniversary

The Blade this week spoke with Equality Florida CEO Nadine Smith, state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith (D-Orlando) and other activists and elected officials in Florida and Puerto Rico who were part of the immediate response to the massacre.

Equality Florida raised millions of dollars for survivors and victims’ families. CEO Nadine Smith on Tuesday told the Blade during a telephone interview that Equality Florida in the massacre’s immediate aftermath pledged to honor the victims “with action by uprooting hatred at its source and from that time we have invested deeply in safe and healthy schools.”

“Schools are a shared cultural experience where the attitudes of ignorance and fear and animosity and violence towards others either get challenged or encouraged,” said Smith. “Five years later I look at how far this work has come and at the same time, I’m very aware of the backlash that we are facing, particularly in our schools with laws targeting trans youth specifically.”

Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on June 1 signed a bill that bans transgender athletes from participating in high school and college sports teams that correspond with their gender identity. The governor the following day vetoed funding that activists say would have funded programs for Pulse survivors and homeless LGBTQ youth.

Carlos Guillermo Smith, a gay man who represents portions of Orlando, on Tuesday described DeSantis as “callous.”

“The governor’s actions are a reminder that five years after the attack at Pulse nightclub, we have a lot of work to do to push back against homophobia and transphobia,” said Carlos Guillermo Smith. “The Orlando community is very supporting and accepting of the LGBTQ community, but when you see what’s happening at the Governor’s Mansion in Tallahassee, you realize that there’s a lot of work to be done.”

Pedro Julio Serrano, associate director of Waves Ahead, an LGBTQ service organization in Puerto Rico, described the massacre’s impact in the U.S. commonwealth as “permanent in our collective memory.” Serrano also noted violence against trans Puerto Ricans remains rampant.

“We are now the epicenter of anti-trans violence in the U.S. and its territories,” said Serrano. “After five years, we still confront this hatred that doesn’t seem to stop. We will continue to fight until all of us are safe.”

the Pulse nightclub massacre, gay news, Washington Blade
A plaque in Third Millennium Park in San Juan, Puerto Rico, pays tribute to the victims of the Pulse nightclub massacre. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Tony Lima, a long-time Florida-based activist who is currently CEO of Arianna’s Center, an organization that serves trans women of color in Florida, the South and Puerto Rico, helped organize vigils and blood drives in the days after the massacre.

“We knew how important it was to aid our family in Orlando in this immediate crisis,” Lima told the Blade on Monday. “Orlando and South Florida are intrinsically connected. We often share resources in nightlife, events, advocacy and a lot of the same people … so I think there was a natural synergy there.”

Lima, like Nadine Smith and Carlos Guillermo Smith, sharply criticized DeSantis for signing the anti-trans bill and for vetoing funds for Pulse survivors and homeless LGBTQ youth. Lima also lamented the lack of progress on gun control.

A gunman on Feb. 14, 2018, killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. Lima told the Blade there have been two deadly mass shootings in South Florida in recent days.

“We have a huge problem when it comes to gun control in this country, and sadly five years later we haven’t made a whole lot of progress,” he said.

The Florida Capitol in Tallahassee, Fla., on July 31, 2020. Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has faced sharp criticism from activists over his anti-LGBTQ policies. State lawmakers have also been criticized over their inaction on gun control. (Washington Blade photo by Yariel Valdés González)

Orlando’s support of LGBTQ rights part of ‘bigger call to action’

Felipe Sousa-Lazaballet is the senior specialist for inclusion, diversity and equity for the city of Orlando’s Office of Multicultural Affairs. He is also Mayor Buddy Dyer’s LGBTQ liaison.

Orlando City Hall on June 1 raised the Pride flag in commemoration of Pride month.

Sousa-Lazaballet noted the fountain in Lake Eola Park in downtown Orlando was the colors of the trans Pride flag in commemoration of the International Transgender Day of Visibility. Orlando in 2019 became the first city in Florida to include National LGBT Chamber of Commerce-certified businesses in its municipal contracting and procurement programs.

“All of that is part of that bigger call to action, which is we want to honor the 49,” said Sousa-Lazaballet. “But we also want to with action by making the city an even more welcoming place for all.”

Sousa-Lazaballet, Carlos Guillermo Smith and Nadine Smith all told the Blade the way that Orlando, Central Florida, the country and the world responded to the massacre remains a source of pride.

“I think about how many messages there were in the aftermath that called on the worst instincts in people to be fearful of each other, to hate people as a group, to cower and to hide and I will never forget and have been changed by the Orlando community, how the nation and in fact globally people responded to the absolute opposite,” said Nadine Smith. “That is a light that I hold on to.”

Poma echoed Nadine Smith.

“We hope that our goal is to create that beacon of light that can come out of such darkness,” said Poma. “Darkness is a really dangerous place to get stuck in and so while we all wish what happened on June 12 never happened, it did and it’s now our moral and social responsibility to do something with that and that for me is creating light and change from what we all endured.”

A mural in Orlando, Fla., in the months after the Pulse nightclub massacre. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)
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Senate passes bill designating Pulse as a national memorial

“The tragedy at Pulse rocked our community and served as a reminder of the work we have to do to uproot hate and bigotry.”

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Washington Blade file photo by Michael K. Lavers

WASHINGTON – In a rare bipartisan move, a bill that designates the former Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida a national memorial was passed by unanimous consent in the U.S. Senate Wednesday.

Florida’s two U.S. Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Rick Scott (R-FL) introduced Senate Resolution 265 recognizing the fifth anniversary and honoring the 49 victims of the mass shooting attack on the Pulse Nightclub June 12, 2016.

Companion legislation authored by California U.S. Senator Alex Padilla (D-CA), and also Congressman Darren Soto’s (D-FL) House Resolution 49 that passed by voice vote on May 13 was also passed by the Senate.

“The tragedy at Pulse rocked our community and served as a reminder of the work we have to do to uproot hate and bigotry. We’re proud of the bipartisan coalition of Florida Congressional leaders for leading the effort to recognize this hallowed ground as a national memorial site.,” Brandon J. Wolf, the Development Officer and Media Relations Manager for LGBTQ advocacy group Equality Florida and a Pulse survivor told the Blade. “Our visibility matters. May the 49 lives stolen never be forgotten. And may we always honor them with action.”

Wolf was inside the club at the time of the shooting and lost his two best friends, Juan Ramon Guerrero and Christopher Andrew (Drew) Leinonen, who were among the 49 murdered during the rampage. Wolf had managed to escape but the event has forever left him scarred.

Since that terrible night Wolf has been a force for advocacy in gun control and LGBTQ equality rights and is a nationally recognized leader in those endeavors to include by President Joe Biden.

“Pulse is hallowed ground and what happened on June 12, 2016 must never be forgotten. ” Wolf added.

Florida’s Senator’s both released statements:

“The terrorist attack at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub was a heinous act of violence and hatred against members of the LGBTQ community,” Marco Rubio said. “Forty-nine innocent lives were lost on that horrific day. As the fifth anniversary approaches, we must continue to honor the memory of those who were taken far too soon. And while work still remains to root out evil, I am inspired by Orlando’s continued resiliency, pride, and strength.”

Rick Scott, who was Florida’s governor at the time of the mass shooting said, “Nearly five years ago today, our state, nation, the City of Orlando, and Hispanic and LGBTQ communities were attacked, and 49 innocent and beautiful lives were lost. It was an unspeakable tragedy,” he said. 

“An evil act of terrorism designed to divide us as a nation and strike fear in our hearts and minds. But instead, we came together, and supported each other through heartbreak and darkness, to preserve and rebuild. Today, we still stand strong, together, to remember the 49 young lives lost that tragic day and honor their memory with passage of our resolution and our bill to establish the ‘National Pulse Memorial.’ It is my hope that this memorial will forever serve as a tribute to the victims and a reminder for us all to always stand for love and kindness over hate and evil in this world.”

Although the United States Senate marked the upcoming fifth anniversary by honoring the victims and shooting survivors with passage of the legislation which now goes to President Joe Biden for his signature, in Florida, Repuiblican Governor Ron De Santis has taken a different tack.

Last week, DeSantis vetoed funding for LGBTQ programs from the state budget including money earmarked for mental health programming to support survivors of the Pulse Massacre, to house homeless LGBTQ children, and for Orlando’s LGBTQ Community Center. 

Brandon Wolf (L) speaking with Florida Governor DeSantis (R) at PULSE Memorial 2019 (Photo courtesy of Brandon Wolf)

These actions following his signing a bill on June 1, the start of LGBTQ Pride month- an education bill amended to include a previous stand alone bill, specifically targeting transgender girls and young women, banning them from playing on female sports teams.

“Let’s be clear about what this is: Governor DeSantis has declared war on Florida’s LGBTQ community.” said Wolf. “Before the 2019 Remembrance Ceremony, Governor DeSantis stood on hallowed ground, steps from where I escaped the building in 2016, and promised me that he would always support those of us impacted by the Pulse nightclub shooting. Today, almost two years later to date, he vetoed mental health services for us. I will never forget.”

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