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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 GOP Governor Greg Abbott signs anti-Trans youth sports bill

“Despite the powerful testimony of trans kids & adults- the emails to the Governor to veto this harmful piece of legislation it is now law”

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Texas Republican Governor Greg Abbott (Blade file screenshot)

AUSTIN – Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law Monday H.B. 25, an anti-Transgender youth sports bill banning Trans K-12 student-athletes from playing on sports teams consistent with their gender identity. 

H.B. 25 is the 9th statewide bill signed into law this year banning transgender youth from participating in school sports and the 10th in the country. This bill also comes during a year when Texas lawmakers have proposed nearly 70 anti-LGBTQ bills, including more than 40 bills that specifically target transgender and nonbinary youth — far more than any other state.

“We are devastated at the passage of this bill. Despite the powerful testimony of trans kids and adults, families and advocates, and the many emails and calls our community placed to the Governor’s office to veto this harmful piece of legislation it is now law,” Ricardo Martinez, CEO of Equality Texas, said.

“Most immediately, our focus is our community and integrating concepts of healing justice to provide advocates who have already been harmed by this bill with spaces to refill their cup and unpack the acute trauma caused by these legislative sessions. Our organizations will also begin to shift focus to electing pro-equality lawmakers who understand our issues and prioritize representing the vast majority of Texans who firmly believe that discrimination against trans and LGB+ people is wrong,” he added.

Earlier this month, the Texas state government was criticized for removing web pages with resources for LGBTQ youth, including information about The Trevor Project’s crisis services. The Trevor Project the world’s largest suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for LGBTQ+ young people.

“Transgender and nonbinary youth are already at higher risk for poor mental health and suicide because of bullying, discrimination, and rejection. This misguided legislation will only make matters worse,” Amit Paley, CEO and Executive Director of The Trevor Project said in a statement released Monday afternoon.

To every trans Texan who may be feeling hurt and attacked by this legislation and months of ugly political debate — please know that you are valid, and you are deserving of equal opportunity, dignity and respect. The Trevor Project is here for you 24/7 if you ever need support, and we will continue fighting alongside a broad coalition of advocates to challenge this law,” Paley said.

********************

Additional resources:

Research consistently demonstrates that transgender and nonbinary youth face unique mental health challenges and an elevated risk for bullying and suicide risk compared to their peers.  

  • The Trevor Project’s 2021 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health found that more than half (52%) of transgender and nonbinary youth seriously considered suicide in the past year, and 1 in 5 attempted suicide. 94% of LGBTQ youth reported that recent politics negatively impacted their mental health. 
  • A newly published research brief on “Bullying and Suicide Risk among LGBTQ Youth,” found that 61% of transgender and nonbinary (TGNB) students reported being bullied either in-person or electronically in the past year, compared to 45% of cisgender LGBQ students. TGNB students who were bullied in the past year reported more than twice the rate of attempting suicide in the past year compared to those who were not. And TGNB students who said their school was LGBTQ-affirming reported significantly lower rates of being bullied (55%) compared to those in schools that weren’t LGBTQ-affirming (65%).
  • A 2020 peer-reviewed study found that transgender and nonbinary youth who report experiencing discrimination based on their gender identity had more than double the odds of attempting suicide in the past year compared to those who did not experience discrimination based on their gender identity.
  • Trevor’s research has also found that a majority of LGBTQ young people (68%) had never participated in sports for a school or community league or club — with many citing fear of bullying and discrimination as a key factor for not participating.

If you or someone you know needs help or support, The Trevor Project’s trained crisis counselors are available 24/7 at 1-866-488-7386, via chat at TheTrevorProject.org/Help, or by texting START to 678678.

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National

Ohio high school cancels play with Gay character after Pastor complains

The School’s fall production of “She Kills Monsters” was scheduled to open in less than one month until the play was canceled

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Hillsboro High School (Screenshot via Cincinnati ABC affiliate WCPO-TV)

HILLSBORO, Oh. — A Southwest Ohio high school’s play was abruptly canceled after Jeff Lyle, a local pastor from Good News Gathering, complained of a gay character. 

Hillsboro High School’s fall production of “She Kills Monsters” was scheduled to open in less than one month, until students learned the play would be canceled last week, reports Cincinnati’s ABC affiliate WCPO

The story follows a high school senior as she learns about her late sister’s life. It is implied throughout the play that her sister is gay, according to the news station.

The play’s cancellation comes a week after Lyle, a long-time voice of the anti-LGBTQ+ religious-right in Ohio, and a group of parents confronted the production’s directors at a meeting, according to Cincinnati CBS affiliate Local 12. Lyle denies pressuring school officials, but tells WCPO he supports the decision.

“From a Biblical worldview this play is inappropriate for a number of reasons, e.g. sexual innuendo, implied sexual activity between unmarried persons, repeated use of foul language including taking the Lord’s name in vain,” Lyle said. 

Some families say they believe Lyle did influence the school’s decision. 

“I think that’s wrong,” Jon Polstra, a father of one of the actors, told WCPO. “All they would have had to do if they objected to something in the play was not go to the play.”

In a statement to Local 12, Hillsboro City Schools Superintendent Tim Davis said the play was canceled because it “was not appropriate for our K-12 audience.”

The Lexington Herald Leader reports that the school planned to perform a version intended for audiences as young as 11 years old. 

Students were “devastated” and “blindsided” by the news, according to WCPO. 

“It felt like we had just been told, ‘Screw off and your lives don’t matter,'” Christopher Cronan, a Hillsboro High student, said. “I am openly bisexual in that school and I have faced a lot of homophobia there, but I never expected them to cancel a play for a fictional character.”

Cronan’s father, Ryan, also voiced his frustration. 

“They want to say the town is just not ready, but how are you not ready? It’s 2021,” Ryan Cronan said.

Students have started a GoFundMe in hopes of putting on the production at a community theater in 2022.

“If we do raise enough money, I am going to be genuinely happy for a very long time, because that means people do care,” Cronan told WCPO.

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Utah

VIDEO: Utah deal promoted as national model for LGBTQ rights, religious liberty

Data finds state has 2nd highest support for LGBTQ rights

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(Screen capture via YouTube)

A new video from the premier LGBTQ group in Utah, challenging the idea LGBTQ rights must be at odds with religious liberty, promotes an agreement reached in the state as a potential model to achieve a long sought-after update to civil rights law at the federal level.

The video, published Friday by Equality Utah, focuses on a 2015 agreement in Utah between the supporters of LGBTQ rights and the Mormon Church to enact a compromise acceptable to both sides. The agreement by those two sides led to an LGBTQ civil rights law in the state, which has Republican control of the state legislature and the governor’s mansion.

Troy Williams, executive director of Equality Utah, says in the video dialogue is key to achieving meaningful success, whether its among the people of Utah, a state legislature or lawmakers in Congress.

“When you are working with LGBT rights in a state like Utah, and you want to advance legal equality, you can’t do it without working with Republicans, with conservative, with people of faith,” Williams says.

Williams, speaking with the Washington Blade over a Zoom call, said the main audience for the video is people on “the center right and the center left” willing to listen to other side when it comes to LGBTQ rights and religious liberty.

“People that have the courage to reach out to each other, and sit down across from each other and say, ‘Hey look, let’s hammer this out,” Williams said. “That’s who my audience is.”

Not only did Utah enact non-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people, but the state under a Republican governor administratively banned widely discredited conversion therapy for youth. When lawmakers proposed legislation that would ban transgender youth from competing in school sports, the proposal was scuttled when Gov. Spencer Cox (whom Williams called a “super Mormon”) said he’d veto it after it came to his desk.

Marina Gomberg, a former board for Equality Utah, is another voice in the video seeking dispel the narrative religious liberty and LGBTQ rights are in conflict.

“in order to protect LGBTQ people, we don have to deny religious liberty, and in order to provide protections for religious liberties, we don’t have to deny LGBTQ people,” Gomberg says. “The idea that we do is a fallacy that Utah has dismantled.”

In July, new polling demonstrated the surprisingly the Utah, despite being a conservative state, has the second highest percentage of state population in support for non-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people. The data Public Religion Research Institute from 77 percent of Utah residents support LGBTQ people, which is just behind New Hampshire at 81 percent.

Tyler Deaton, senior adviser for the pro-LGBTQ American Unity Fund, said the Utah agreement demonstrates the possibility of reaching an agreement at the federal level once “second order” issues are put into perspective.

“The first order question has to be how are we winning the culture,” Deaton said. “Do people even want to pass the bill? And if they do, you then figure out the details.”

The American Unity Fund has helped promote as a path forward for LGBTQ non-discrimination at the federal level the Fairness for For All Act, legislation seeking to reach a middle ground on LGBTQ rights and religious freedom. Polling earlier this year found 57 percent of the American public back a bipartisan solution in Congress to advance LGBTQ civil rights.

Supporters of the Equality Act, the more established vehicle for LGBTQ rights before Congress, say the Fairness for For All Act would give too many carve-out for LGBTQ rights in the name of religious freedom. The Equality Act, however, is all but dead in Congress and has shown no movement in the U.S. Senate.

Skeptics of the Utah law would point out the law doesn’t address public accommodations, one of the more challenging aspects in the fight for LGBTQ rights and one or remaining gaps in civil rights protections for LGBTQ people in the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last year in Bostock v. Clayton County. As a result, it’s perfectly legal in Utah for a business owner to discriminate against LGBTQ coming as patrons.

Williams, however, shrugged off the idea the lack of public accommodations protections in Utah make the agreement in the state makes it any less of a model, making the case the spirit behind the deal is what matters.

“I think copying and pasting Utah’s law doesn’t work for lots of reasons,” Wililams said. “What’s most important is a model of collaboration because when you are sitting around the table with each other — Democrats and Republicans, LGBTQ people and people of faith — that’s when the transformation happens. That is when the mutual respect is really forged.”

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