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HRC announces independent review of president ensnared in N.Y. AG report

Chicago-based law firm to undertake 30-day investigation

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State Equality Index, gay news, Washington Blade
Alphonso David (above) has been ensnared by the New York attorney general on report. (Blade file photo Michael Key)

The nation’s leading LGBTQ advocacy group has announced to staff an independent review of Alphonso David, president of the Human Rights Campaign, after he was ensnared in the damning report from the New York attorney general finding Gov. Andrew Cuomo violated the law by sexually harassing 11 women employees.

A pair of emails — one from the Human Rights Campaign board, the other from David — went out Monday morning and announced the independent review would be conducted by the Chicago-based Sidney Austin LLP that will take no longer than 30 days to complete. The emails were shared with the Washington Blade and a representative for the Human Rights Campaign confirmed the emails were accurate.

David, in his email, says he “fully endorse[s]” the review, reiterating he has joined calls for Cuomo to resign and denies any wrongdoing.

“One thing this horrible situation reminds us of is that discrimination, misconduct and abuse often thrive in darkness, and it makes me more determined than ever to continue fighting injustice and speaking up for those who need our voice,” David writes.

A spokesperson from Sidney Austin LLP didn’t immediately respond in time for this posting to comment on the nature of the review, who will conduct it or the timeline to reach benchmarks within that 30-day window.

The announcement comes nearly a week after New York Attorney General Letitia James issued the explosive report, which sent shockwaves through the LGBTQ community as many called on David to resign.

David has denied any wrongdoing from the start, and the Human Rights Campaign board stood by him by announcing on the day the report was issued the organization had renewed his contract for another five years.

Internally, things are tense for David as the organization suffers from high turnover and the movement is under strain as anti-transgender bills advance through state legislatures and the Equality Act is held up in Congress. According to a report in the Huffington Post, a recording of a one-hour staff meeting between David and staff on Wednesday revealed a tense question as they asked him about his role in the Cuomo affair. One staffer asked, “When are you resigning?”

Another LGBTQ advocate included in the report is already making moves. Roberta Kaplan, who successfully argued in 2013 against the Defense of Marriage Act and has taken cases of women accusing former President Trump of sexual assault, has stepped down from her role as a board member for “Time’s Up,” according to reports in the Associated Press and New York Times.

(Kaplan was described in the report as having reviewed and read a potential op-ed seeking to discredit one of the survivors of sexual harassment to see if it was OK to make public. The op-ed went unpublished.)

The emails on Monday from the HRC board recognize the distress David’s inclusion in the report has caused the LGBTQ community. As noted in the email from the board and David, many people in the the LGBTQ community are survivors of sexual misconduct. Both emails, nonetheless, express a desire to continue forward.

“One thing we want to make clear, this investigation will in no way hinder the organization’s continued pursuit of the critical work necessary to being equity and liberation to the LGBTQ+ community,” the board writes in the email.

David in his email goes into detail about the findings in the report, maintaining he had no knowledge about any incident of sexual misconduct as described in the report and his inclusion in the report indicates no wrongdoing.

Although the report says David kept material from a personnel file on one of the accusers after he left Cuomo’s office and, after being asked by Cuomo for a copy, assisted in returning it to them in efforts to distribute it to the media and discredit the alleged victim, David says he was “legally obligated” to provide the report and “was not involved” in its public dissemination. Why he had the material in the first place is not addressed in his email. David is quoted in the report as saying that was because he was involved in counseling the employee.

Another component of report indicates David said he’d help seek out names for the op-ed that would have sought to discredit the accuser, although he allegedly said he wouldn’t sign the document. David, in his email, acknowledges he refused to sign it and says he “never agreed to circulate it.”

David, however, doesn’t in the email address a third component of the report finding he took part in discussions among Cuomo’s staffers about calling another accuser and secretly obtaining a recording in an attempt to discredit her. David told the Blade that was because his role in the conversation was in his capacity as legal counsel.

Although voices have emerged calling on David to resign, other LGBTQ leaders have come to David’s defense and others say they’re awaiting further information before rending a judgment.

Elizabeth Birch, a former executive director of the Human Rights Campaign, said in an email to the Washington Blade she stands behind David.

“I have enormous respect for Alphonso David,” Birch said. “No person who has endured sexual harassment should ever be silenced. I believe Alphonso when he states he did not participate in attempts to silence any of Governor Cuomo’s accusers.”

Meanwhile, the report is already hampering efforts to advance the legislative agenda for the LGBTQ movement and passage of the Equality Act, which was already all but dead in the U.S. Senate. Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) last week sent a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee asking for inclusion of the AG report in the record, drawing on the ties between David and Cuomo’s sexual misconduct to build the narrative from opponents of the Equality Act asserting it would be a threat to women’s safety.

Kierra Johnson, executive director of the National LGBTQ Task Force, said in an email to the Washington Blade she is withholding judgment and her organization is “still processing the media related to the NY AG Cuomo investigation and report.”

“It is imperative, albeit at times difficult, that we remain vigilant in finding and accepting the truth and implementing interventions that facilitate our ability to rebuild trust and keep the work moving forward,” Johnson said. “These times require that we slow down, challenge ourselves to articulate and understand complexity and nuance, resist being reactive and lean into our values. We condemn sexual harassment and abuse, and we are in solidarity with the survivors’ quests for justice.”

Johnson, however added, the report makes clear Cuomo “should resign” because that would be “the right thing to do for NY and for survivors everywhere.”

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Texas

Texas governor signs bill banning transgender youth healthcare

Senate Bill 14 to take effect on Sept. 1

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Landon Richie, a 21-year-old political science major and a leading transgender activist, protesting at the Texas Capitol in May. (Photo courtesy of Landon Richie)

By Alex Nguyen and William Melhado | Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law Friday a bill that bars transgender kids from getting puberty blockers and hormone therapies, though the new law could face legal challenges before it takes effect on Sept. 1.

Senate Bill 14’s passage brings to the finish line a legislative priority for the Republican Party of Texas, which opposes any efforts to validate transgender identities. Trans kids, their parents and LGBTQ advocacy groups fiercely oppose the law, and some have vowed to stop it from going into effect.

Texas — home to one of the largest trans communities in the U.S. — is now one of over a dozen states that restrict transition-related care for trans minors.

“Cruelty has always been the point,” said Emmett Schelling, executive director of the Transgender Education Network of Texas. “It’s not shocking that this governor would sign SB14 right at the beginning of Pride [month]; however this will not stop trans people from continuing to exist with authenticity — as we always have.”

Authored by New Braunfels Republican state Sen. Donna Campbell, the law bars trans kids from getting puberty blockers and hormone therapies, treatments many medical groups support. Children already receiving these treatments will have to be “weaned off” in a “medically appropriate” manner. The law also bans transition-related surgeries for kids, though those are rarely performed on minors.

Those who support the law claim that health care providers have capitalized on a “social contagion” to misguide parents and push life-altering treatments on kids who may later regret their decisions. SB 14’s supporters have also disputed the science and research behind transition-related care.

But trans kids, their parents and major medical groups say these medical treatments are important to protecting the mental health of an already vulnerable population, which faces a higher risk of depression and suicide than their cisgender peers. At the same time, doctors say cutting off these treatments — gradually or abruptly — could bring both physical discomfort and psychological distress to trans youth, some of whom have called it forced detransitioning.

In response, the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Texas, Lambda Legal and the Transgender Law Center pledged on May 18 to fight SB 14 in court. They have yet to file a lawsuit.

“Transgender people have always been here and will always be here,” Ash Hall, policy and advocacy strategist at the ACLU of Texas, said Friday. “Our trans youth deserve a world where they can shine alongside their peers, and we will keep advocating for that world in and out of the courts.”

This legal threat is not new; some of these groups have sued several other states over their restrictions. Earlier this year, the Department of Justice also joined the legal fight against Tennessee’s ban.

While the lawsuits are tailored to each state, Sasha Buchert, a senior attorney at Lambda Legal and the director of its Nonbinary and Transgender Rights Project, told the Texas Tribune last month that a major common challenge to the laws hinges on the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause and the argument that these laws are stopping trans kids from accessing the same medical treatments that are still available to their cisgender peers.

Buchert added that the lawsuits’ immediate goal is generally to get a preliminary injunction to stop these laws from taking effect, a tactic that has seen some success.

“It’s one thing to see some of the things that state legislators do, but it’s a completely different thing when you’re under the white-hot spotlight of judicial scrutiny,” she said.

And prior to SB 14, the ACLU and Lambda Legal successfully sued Texas last year to halt state-ordered child abuse investigations of parents who provide their trans kids with access to transition-related care. Impeached Attorney General Ken Paxton later appealed the decision in March, but the 3rd Court of Appeals has yet to issue a ruling on it.

“It’s a privilege to be able to fight,” Buchert said about the ongoing court challenges that Lambda Legal is involved in.

Editor’s note:

In a late Friday evening phone call, Landon Richie, with the Transgender Education Network of Texas, told the Washington Blade:

“Today Governor Abbott signed cruelty into law. Legislation that purports to ‘protect youth’ while stripping them of the life-saving, life-giving care that they receive will cost lives, and that’s not an exaggeration. Trans kids deserve not only to exist, but to thrive as their authentic selves in every facet of their lives, and we will never stop fighting to to actualize a world where that is undisputed. Despite efforts by our state, trans people will always exist in Texas, as we always have, and we will continue to exist brilliantly and boldly, and with endless care for one another.”

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The preceding article was previously published by The Texas Tribune and is republished by permission.

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues. 

Disclosure: The ACLU of Texas has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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U.S. Federal Courts

Federal judge rules Tenn. drag ban is unconstitutional

Law was to have taken effect April 1

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(Bigstock photo)

U. S. District Court Judge Thomas L. Parker of the U. S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee declared Tennessee’s anti-drag Adult Entertainment Act to be unconstitutional.

Parker’s ruling comes after a two-day trial last month. A Shelby County-based LGBTQ theatre company, Friends of George’s, had sued the state of Tennessee, claiming the law unconstitutional under the First Amendment.

Parker ordered a temporary injunction halting the just enacted Tennessee law that criminalizes some drag performances, hours before it was set to take effect April 1. In his 15 page ruling ordering the temporary injunction Parker wrote:

“If Tennessee wishes to exercise its police power in restricting speech it considers obscene, it must do so within the constraints and framework of the United States Constitution. […] The court finds that, as it stands, the record here suggests that when the legislature passed this statute, it missed the mark.”

Attorneys for the theatre company had argued that drag performances were an artform and protected speech under the first amendment.

In his 70 page ruling Friday, Parker wrote:

“After considering the briefs and evidence presented at trial, the court finds that — despite
Tennessee’s compelling interest in protecting the psychological and physical wellbeing of
children — the Adult Entertainment Act (“AEA”) is an UNCONSTITUTIONAL restriction on
the freedom of speech.”

“The court concludes that the AEA is both unconstitutionally vague and substantially
overbroad. The AEA’s ‘harmful to minors’ standard applies to minors of all ages, so it fails to
provide fair notice of what is prohibited, and it encourages discriminatory enforcement. The
AEA is substantially overbroad because it applies to public property or ‘anywhere’ a minor
could be present.”

Read the entire ruling:

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National

LGBTQ literature advocacy org to host celebrity panel

Discussion to be moderated by writer Sa’iyda Shabazz, ‘Glee’ actor Chris Colfer

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‘Glee’ actor Chris Colfer will be one of four panelists at a virtual event hosted by Pride and Less Prejudice on Saturday, June 3. (Photo by Kathclick/Bigstock)

Affectionately known by fans of the show as the “fashionable soprano,” Chris Colfer’s character in “Glee” came out as gay to his father in the fourth episode of the Golden Globe-winning musical drama series. Colfer paused in between fragments of sentences to catch his breath as his pupils, set atop his recognizable rosy cheeks, dilated.

“Being a part of…the glee club and football has really shown me that I can be anything,” he said. “And what I am is…I’m gay.”

Colfer, who is also author of young adult fiction series “The Land of Stories,” will be one of four panelists at a virtual event hosted by LGBTQ organization Pride and Less Prejudice (PLP) on Saturday, June 3. At the event, panelists will discuss queer visibility in authorship and the importance of queer people telling queer stories. 

“We selected [them] because we’re trying to look at the intersection between TV, film, podcasts, [and] books because it’s all media and it’s all really great avenues for queer people telling their own story,” said Rebecca Damante, co-founder and outreach coordinator of the organization.

PLP began in 2019 when Damante had conversations with her mother about her experiences as a queer person and how she came to terms with her sexuality in high school. Although she watched shows such as “Glee” and “Pretty Little Liars” that had great queer representation, she knew that “it would’ve made a huge difference” if she had seen this as a kid.

“I was a huge reader as a kid and my mom had a lot of great books in our library about interfaith families and adoption,” said Damante. “I come from an interfaith family and have family members who are adopted, so she had diverse books in that way but never really had LGBTQ inclusive books.”

This motivated the mother-daughter duo to start an organization that donates LGBTQ-inclusive books to classrooms from pre-K to third grade.

They posted a Google form to social media that was reposted by GLAAD, where Damante had interned, and amplified by LGBTQ activist Kristin Russo. Teachers would put in requests for books and this allowed PLP to start an email chain that they could also use to solicit donations. 

It wasn’t until Damante posted to Pantsuit Nation, a Facebook group that rallied Hillary Clinton supporters during her 2016 presidential run, that PLP garnered interest from hundreds of teachers. This led to a celebrity campaign video where actors Nicole Maines, Theo Germaine, and Darryl Stephens, among others, emphasized the importance of LGBTQ literature in classrooms. 

Since 2019, the organization has raised more than $140,000 in grants and donations and donated over 8,000 books. 

Dylan Moss, a kindergarten teacher in Albany, N.Y., is among those who have benefitted from PLP’s efforts. 

During a quest for more diverse and inclusive books for his classroom, he stumbled upon PLP’s website between 2020 and 2021 and reached out to the organization. Since then, he has been actively involved in PLP’s efforts and is now a member of the advisory committee that helps to create lesson plans that accompany the books.

“Biases start to get formed [in kindergarten], so I like to help [my students] create better narratives,” said Moss in a Zoom interview. “It’s easier to learn it now than to take away all the negative biases they have from everyday society, family, and just being around other humans.”

Moss also added, over email, that when discussing diverse topics in the classroom, conversations are aligned with social studies standards. 

“I’d rather [my students] understand that people are different and that there’s a reason we’re different and that we should love that we’re different,” he said on Zoom. “You don’t have to go deep into the ideas necessarily. You can just give them the basis of what you’re saying and kind of let them take it from there.” 

For Lisa Forman, Damante’s mom and co-founder and executive director of PLP, approaching education this way is not only a form of allyship and advocacy, it’s “standing up for what’s right.”

The first half of the 2022-2023 school year saw 1,477 attempts to ban 874 individual book titles, 26% of which had LGBTQ characters or themes, according to data from Pen America, an organization that advances human rights and literature causes in the United States and worldwide. 

In 2022, the Washington Blade reported that a Loudoun County, Va., school board voted to remove “Gender Queer: A Memoir,” an illustrated autobiography by non-binary author Maia Kobabe that contains descriptions and comic book style drawings of sexual acts that Kobabe uses to tell the story of the journey and struggle in discovering the author’s gender identity.

“As much as these books are for the queer kids in the classroom, they’re for every kid,” said Forman. “We’re doing this not just for the queer kids…we want to normalize the idea of being queer in the classroom.”

Looking to the upcoming celebrity panel, Damante wants to leave attendees feeling inspired enough to own their narratives, whether they identify as queer or not. 

“If teachers are able to see the impact of these queer stories then they’ll understand why it’s important for them to share the books,” she said. 

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