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Despite ‘relentless attacks,’ optimism for future of LGBTQ movement

National LGBTQ Task Force leaders address Creating Change Conference

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Kierra Johnson and Mayra Hidalgo Salazar delivered the National LGBTQ Task Force’s annual State of the Movement address. (Blade file photo of Johnson by Michael Key; photo of Salazar courtesy of the Task Force)

Despite being hit with an unprecedented 300 or more anti-LGBTQ bills introduced in U.S. state legislatures over the past two years, the nation’s LGBTQ community at the same time has seen some important advances and there is reason for optimism, according to a March 19 LGBTQ State of the Movement address delivered by two key movement leaders.

Kierra Johnson and Mayra Hidalgo Salazar, executive director and deputy executive director of the National LGBTQ Task Force, offered a detailed assessment of where things stand today for LGBTQ people in the United States during the organization’s 22nd Annual Creating Change Conference, which was held virtually March 19-20.

Since it began in 1987, Task Force officials have said the Creating Change Conference has served as the LGBTQ movement’s preeminent organizing, skills-building, and networking event.  

Johnson and Salazar said the political attacks on LGBTQ rights and other progressive causes coming in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic have forced LGBTQ leaders and activists to adopt new strategies for responding to the attacks.

“We are doing this in the face of storms that have kept coming,” Salazar said. “In just the last year, there have been relentless attacks to gut voting rights, the right to protest, abortion access, and trans youth health and rights,” she stated in the address delivered jointly by the two women.

“There have been 100 anti-trans bills and over 300 anti-LGBTQ bills considered in state legislatures across the nation,” she continued, adding that a record number of deportations of immigrants, a “barrage” of racial injustice in the U.S. and abroad, and new and ongoing wars and conflicts, “have left many of us feeling afraid, disconnected, and powerless.”

Johnson continued those thoughts by saying, “We know that you are tired. Many of you are afraid and rightfully so…But I know that I’m talking to a group of people who know that these events, these feelings, they’re no reason to stop the work – anything but,” Johnson said. “These are the reasons we do the work. This is why what we do is so important, why you are showing up today, and tomorrow and it is the difference between the light at the end of the tunnel going out entirely and growing brighter and nearer for us and for generations to come.”

Salazar cited what she called optimistic data showing that more people are coming out as LGBTQ than ever before at an earlier age, with young people identifying in greater numbers as bisexual and nonbinary.

“Now some of you may be wondering, is there something in the water?” she continued. “Of course, the answer is no! But more people coming out and the fluidity in how they identify has everything to do with the work you and we have done and do every single day to build a world where people can embrace themselves – and be embraced – in every aspect of their lives.”

As a further sign of optimism, Johnson noted the political climate for LGBTQ people coming from the White House has changed for the better since January 2021.

“After four years of relentless attacks on LGBTQ+ rights, the Biden-Harris administration has brought more LGBTQ+ visibility and begun undoing the damage of Trump’s anti-LGBTQ policies – from protecting the civil rights of every LGBTQ+ person, to ensuring that LGBTQ+ Americans are leaders at every level of the federal government,” Johnson said.

“Together with you, we have successfully backed more queer, women, people of color candidates to join the White House than ever before,” Johnson told conference participants.

Among the LGBTQ White House appointees, she and Salazar said, are Gina Ortiz Jones, a lesbian and Iraq war veteran serving as the U.S. Undersecretary of the Air Force; Pete Buttigieg, who is serving as the first openly gay Cabinet Secretary confirmed by the U.S. Senate; Admiral Dr. Rachel Levine, who is serving as director of the U.S. Public Health Service at the Department of Health and Human Services and who became the first openly transgender person ever confirmed by the U.S. Senate; Reggie Greer, a Black gay man serving as White House Director of Priority Placement and Senior Adviser on LGBTQ+ Engagement; Ambassador Chantale Yokmin Wong, the U.S. Director of the Asian Development Bank who became the first out lesbian and first LGBTQ person of color with the rank of ambassador in U.S. history; and Mehgan Maury, a former National LGBTQ Task Force official now serving as Senior Adviser to the Director of the U.S. Census Bureau and the first nonbinary member of the Biden administration.

“Contrary to what many would have us believe, we have also made progress in the states,” Johnson stated in her remarks. She and Salazar pointed to bills providing various types of LGBTQ supportive services or protections that have passed in New Jersey, Oregon, Colorado, Washington State, and New Mexico in the past two years.

“And finally, to those of you – advocates, organizers, change makers – in Florida, Georgia, Ohio, Texas and Michigan – thank you for your tireless work and non-stop efforts to stop the devastating bills ravaging their way through your state legislatures and making their way to the desks of your governors,” Johnson said.

“You are showing the country and the world that trans kids matter, that Black Lives Matter, that saying Trans and Bi and Lesbian and Gay matters,” added Johnson. “While we’ve had some setbacks in these sessions, the work you’ve done means those losses are temporary. You are building long-term sustainable power,” Johnson said.

“Together we will use all the tools in our toolbox – from the streets to the courts to the pews and pulpits, to the media to the ballot box – to overturn and overcome these wretched attacks and take back our democracy from extremists who will do anything to sustain the status quo or worse, roll back the gains we’ve won,” according to Johnson.

Following is the text of the full remarks delivered by Kierra Johnson and Mayra Hidalgo Salazar in their LGBTQ State of the Movement Address on March 19 before the Creating Change Conference as provided by the National LGBTQ Task Force:

Johnson: Welcome to the State of the Movement 2022. Convening virtually was not what we envisioned for Creating Change this year. Like you, last spring we were hopeful that we would soon turn a corner and leave our COVID-19 lives behind. Then Delta and Omicron dished a dose of reality that was more devastating than we thought possible. We saw the light at the end of the tunnel, and then swiftly the tunnel got longer, until the light was all but impossible to see.

Johnson: We are now beginning our third year under the cloud of a global pandemic. While we’ve necessarily become pros at adapting to these changing conditions: moving the work forward, getting our kids to school, taking care of elders, navigating other health crises and wearing masks everywhere we go, COVID continues to have a deep impact on our health and well-being and on our community’s ability to fight back. Like you, we also hold the tension of trying to stay focused on how we show up in our work to build a different world, while acknowledging the challenges of shouldering sickness, the passing of friends and family, and the frustration of dreams deferred.

Salazar: And, because we are brilliant, creative and resourceful, we also found new and beautiful ways of building and being in community – like virtual events with magical moments we only dreamed possible, became reality.

Salazar: We are doing this in the face of storms that have kept coming. In just the last year, there have been relentless attacks to gut voting rights, the right to protest, abortion access, and trans youth health and rights. There have been 100 anti-trans bills and over 300 anti LGBTQ bills considered in state legislatures across the nation. And if that wasn’t enough to overwhelm us, the record deportations of immigrants under the Biden administration, the barrage of racial injustice here at home and abroad, and new and ongoing wars and conflicts, have left many of us feeling afraid, disconnected, and powerless. At any given moment, we are experiencing changes moving at an unbearable pace.

Johnson: We know that you are tired. Many of you are afraid and rightfully so. Be tired. Be angry. Be frustrated, confused, sad, be ALL of those things. But I know that I’m talking to a group of people who know that these events, these feelings; they’re not a reason to stop the work — anything but. These are the reasons we do the work. This is why what we do is so important, why you are showing up today, and tomorrow and it is the difference between the light at the end of the tunnel going out entirely, and growing brighter and nearer for us and for generations to come.” Congresswoman Ocasio Cortez recently reminded us that a resigned cynical working class that has given up is exactly what our opponents want. But she also reminds us that things are changing and that it is up to us to share good news and enjoy the good news and remind each other that we are having success and we are winning.

Salazar: Data is showing us that more people are coming out as LGBTQ than ever before and they are coming out earlier, with young people identifying in higher numbers as bisexual and nonbinary. Now some of you may be wondering, is there something in the water?! Of course, the answer is no! But more people coming out and the fluidity in how they identify has everything to do with the work you and we have done and do every single day to build a world where people can embrace themselves—and be embraced—in every facet of their lives.

Johnson: After four years of relentless attacks on LGBTQ+ rights, the Biden-Harris administration has brought more LGBTQ+ visibility and begun undoing the damage of Trump’s anti-LGBTQ policies— from protecting the civil rights of every LGBTQ+ person, to ensuring that LGBTQ+ Americans are leaders at every level of the federal government Together with you, we have successfully backed more queer, women, people of color candidates to join the White House than ever before including:

Salazar: Gina Ortiz Jones, a gay woman and Iraq veteran serves as the 27th U.S. Under Secretary of the Air Force – she identifies as an Ilocano, a member of a Filipino ethnolinguistic group. KJ: Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, who is the first openly gay Cabinet Secretary confirmed by the U.S. Senate MHS: Admiral Dr. Rachel Levine, Head of U.S public health efforts at the Department of Health and Human Services, who is the first openly transgender person ever confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

Johnson: Reggie Greer, a Black gay man now serves as White House Director of Priority Placement and Senior Advisor on LGBTQ+ Engagement. MHS: Ambassador Chantale Yokmin Wong U.S. Director of the Asian Development Bank, the first out lesbian and first LGBTQ person of color with the rank of ambassador in U.S. history.

Johnson: AND our own Mehgan Maury, who led our Queer the Census campaign and now serves as Senior Advisor to Director Robert Santos at the Census Bureau, the first non-binary member of the administration’s team.

Salazar: And we need more action, support, and resources from the White House to address the escalating attacks on our humanity and our rights. We need progress that goes beyond the pre[1]Trump status quo. The rights of LGBTQ+ people must be solidified to capture the full breadth of our experiences and face the onslaught of growing racism, xenophobia, homophobia and transphobia. MHS: And there is a bill in congress right now — The Equality Act – that if passed would move us forward in holding elected officials accountable at the federal level and in every state, expanding and protecting the civil rights of LGBTQ people, people of color and women.

Johnson: With each year more cross-movement, cross issue, cross community partnerships are created, and they are deepening. Whether creating new messages and frames to engage the community and address the state attacks on LGBTQ people, to creating interfaith strategies to assert a progressive religious and spiritual perspective to beat back discriminatory religious exemptions, to inspiring and supporting more BIPOC, Young People and Queer people to vote Commented [MS1]: i don’t want to uplift this as a win, especially while we are at/on the brink of another war Commented [MS2]: moving and advocate directly with legislators, we are fortifying our foundation for the hard work ahead!

Johnson: Contrary to what many would have us believe, we have also made progress in the states! New Jersey enacted a law that adds gender nonbinary to medical data collection. Oregon passed a law to add LGBTQ people to priority populations definition for workforce development programs and increases funding. Colorado passed a bill to support older people from diverse, racial, cultural, socioeconomic, gender and ability groups in community planning; health services and infrastructure.

Salazar: Washington State passed two bills – one that preserves a person’s ability to access abortion care, making the language trans-inclusive. And another that makes incarcerated folx medical records confidential, including for trans-affirming care and gender identity. New Mexico passed a bill to stop LGBTQ people from being blamed for people assaulting or murdering them, barring use of the so-called Panic defense.

Johnson: And finally, to those of you—advocates, organizers, change makers—in Florida, Georgia, Ohio, Texas and Michigan – thank you for your tireless work and non-stop efforts to stop the devastating bills ravaging their way through your state legislatures and making their way to the desks of your Governors. You are showing the country and the world that trans kids matter, that Black lives matter, that saying Trans and Bi and Lesbian and GAY matters. While we’ve had some setbacks in these sessions, the work you’ve done means those losses are temporary. You are building long term sustainable power. Together we will use all the tools in our toolbox— from the streets to the courts to the pews & pulpits, to the media to the ballot box—to overturn and overcome these wretched attacks and take back our democracy from extremists who will do anything to sustain the status quo or worse roll back the gains we’ve won.

Salazar: We are far from powerless. From weighing in on presidential appointments to engaging with civil rights leaders on strategies to ensure that our communities have access to the right to vote. We have been connecting with national and state partners, advising hill staff and Members of Congress and engaging LGBTQ people in a range of issues including the Equality Act and the Texas abortion ban. We have won protections in the workplace and nondiscrimination policies continue to pass in cities and states across the country. Actors, Athletes and musicians are exclaiming their pride and queering the media at every turn igniting a new force of queer and allied activism. Carl Nassib, Kal Penn, Tommy Dorfman, Hikaru Utada, Kehlani and Billy Porter are just a few of the celebrities that have come out in the last year as trans, non-binary, queer, HIV positive, and Pansexual. They are showing up and out as queer pop icons, public figures for a new generation looking for themselves boldly reflected in media, culture and politics. We must remember how we got here. We must celebrate our successes as forward momentum. We have much to be proud of…But we are FAR from done.

Salazar: In January of this year, Gov. Kristi Noem (R-SD) signed into law the first anti-trans bill of 2022. In doing so, she banned transgender girls from playing school sports. From there it has

been almost impossible to keep up with the barrage of attacks. Arizona, Alabama, Indiana, Kentucky, Oklahoma, New Hampshire and South Dakota and just a few of the states that introduced measures that target trans and nonbinary youth, their families and their communities.

Johnson: As if that wasn’t enough, in addition to the unabated and unrelenting state attacks on LGBTQ+ legislation, our communities have also been hit with attacks on reproductive rights, voting rights, and the erasure of the history and impact of BIPOC people in this country. In states across the country, the legislature has waged a triple threat of bad bills targeting our access to information, bodily autonomy, and ability to participate in our democracy. These are the foundation of personal, community and political power!

Salazar: The far-right has bemoaned for years that progressives have been trying to “censor” them, it is indeed the far-right taking steps to censor content of all kinds – from critical race theory to LGBTQ inclusive curricula, effectively erasing the diversity of people in this country and any accurate or inclusive understanding of our shared history. Book bans, which seem like an outdated tactic of fascist dictators, are back in style. The simple act of have a rainbow flag or Black Lives Matter sticker on your classroom door, meant to communicate a safe space, is now off the table. Imagine how our young people must feel as they are stripped of the symbols and information that made them feel safe and affirmed.

Johnson: Access to our most basic right to engage in our democracy is also at stake. The right to vote, our right to protest is being suppressed, curtained, blocked and gerrymandered at every turn.

Salazar: Finally, our self-determination and personal agency is also being threatened. Given the sharp rise in anti-LGBTQ laws passed over the last 8 years and what we are seeing now, it is no surprise we’re now experiencing what the American Medical Association has declared “an epidemic of violence against the transgender community,” most notably the skyrocketing rate of murders against trans women of color. The ability to make decision about who you are, how you walk through the world in your truth and have control over your own body are at the core of the anti-trans bills mentioned above and all the attempts to restrict abortion rights and access to reproductive related healthcare.

Johnson: If this feels familiar there is a reason – 40 years ago it was gay & lesbian teachers that were being targeted — today it’s trans kids and their parents.

Salazar: 40 years ago, it was Anita Bryant who was pulling out worn out tropes about “grooming” – and today it is Governors like DeSantis and Abbott recycling these tropes to spread misinformation about our community.

Johnson: 20 years ago, it was gay, lesbian and bisexual people being accused of trying to destroy the sanctity of (Christian) marriage and today it is loving families and allies of LGBTQ youth being accused of taking away “parental rights” when working for the safety and futures of all youth.

Johnson: Any historian or longtime Movement activist will tell you this cycle Is just that – a constant, sometimes subtle, sometimes direct, concerted effort to use queer people, reproductive freedom and democracy as the bait to push the buttons of conscious and unconscious homophobia, transphobia, sexism, misogyny, racism, Christian hegemony and classism in our country.

Johnson: This is our time, our opportunity to commit to building deeply and broadly across movements. To collaborate across issues and communities. We cannot win if we continue to organize in silos and ignore the WHOLE chess board. There is an opportunity to build intersectional partnerships, engage a larger base, and create solutions that have greater impact on more people. We must fight back. Now, for the remainder of this important election year, in every state facing anti-LGBTQ, anti-choice and anti-voting rights legislation.

Johnson: There is a lot at stake in this time but where there are challenges there are opportunities for us to learn, grow and succeed! Our political success will only ever be temporary if we’re not invested in building the power of the people. We win because more and more people are in coalition with us. But we know from the movements that came before ours that to hold onto those successes, our institutions and those in power must be willing to take action with us and we must be vigilant in holding them accountable.

Salazar: Today we are launching Queer the Vote and commit to building a robust and connected base of voters working across issues across communities to rebuild and strengthen our democracy. It is critical that queer people and our allies mobilize to take action, build power and create change whether that’s contacting your elected officials, providing testimony, or donating money and resources. And of course, above all else, if you are eligible, make sure you are registered to vote and turn out at the polls. Claim your power, use your voice, support your community and Queer the Vote!

The kind of change we imagine can take generations, and the Task Force is in this for the long haul – we’ve been at it for almost 50 years, and we won’t stop until we are all free. The pathway to liberation is long and if we are going to make it we must remember what we are working towards. We are organizing for our civil rights. We are demanding that our full humanity is honored and affirmed. And we are fighting for our democracy.

Johnson: We have already imagined the world we want…the world we deserve. Now we must have courage to act with and for our community to bring it into existence. The theme of CC22 is Remixed. A remix: a piece of media which has been altered or contorted from its original state by adding, removing, and/or changing pieces of the item. Our 2022 Creating Change theme Remixed refers not only to having pivoted from an in-person event to a digital one. Remixed is also a vision for how we can evolve as a movement. We have an opportunity to experiment and to play. To be responsive to what is new while benefiting from the wisdom, expertise, and talent of the past. I can’t wait to get back into the studio with you! We look forward to creating new sounds, covering some old tunes and remixing a new movement for the future…by us and for us. Forever together, we are powerful!

Johnson: Be You, Be Well and enjoy the rest of your Creating Change ‘22 remixed experience!

Salazar: Sea tú. Y que lo pasen delicioso. [Be you. And have a delicious time.]

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U.S. Supreme Court

Supreme Court hears oral arguments in 303 Creative case

Dangerous implications for LGBTQ consumers

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U.S. Supreme Court (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday heard oral arguments in 303 Creative v. Elenis, a case that could carry broad implications for whether and in which circumstances states may enforce certain nondiscrimination rules against purveyors of goods and services.

The case was brought by website designer Lorie Smith, who sought to include a disclaimer that her company 303 Creative would not develop wedding announcement websites for LGBTQ couples, but discovered that such a notice would violate Colorado’s anti-discrimination laws, which include sexual orientation as a protected class.

Her lawsuit against the state of Colorado, argued by counsel from the anti-LGBTQ group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), reaches the Supreme Court following the ruling against Smith from the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, which created a circuit split with decisions from the 8th Circuit and Arizona Supreme Court. A ruling is expected to come in June.

The fact pattern in 303 Creative closely mirrors the 2018 case Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, where the Supreme Court declined to rule on the broader legal questions because it found the Commission exhibited hostility toward the religious views of the bakery that refused to design a custom wedding cake for a same-sex couple.

The high court has since moved substantially to the right, with a 6-3 conservative supermajority. Colorado is one of 20 states that enforces laws prohibiting businesses from discrimination based on sexual orientation, and a ruling that would allow for broadly construed exemptions to be carved out for firms based on their First Amendment protections would carry implications well beyond the context of same-sex marriage.

Monday’s oral arguments focused on preexisting and hypothetical cases that were presented by counsel from both parties as well as by the justices, examples whose scope and fact patterns reinforced the breadth of the legal issues at play in 303 Creative.  

Colorado Solicitor General Eric Olson and U.S. Principal Deputy Solicitor General Brian Fletcher pointed to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Rumsfeld v. Forum for Academic and Institutional Rights, 2006, which found that the federal government may withhold funding from universities that, based on their objections to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” refuse to grant military recruiters access to their resources.

ADF CEO, President and General Counsel Kristen Waggoner cited the Supreme Court’s decision in Hurley v. Irish American Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Group of Boston, 1995, which upheld the right of private organizations to exclude participation by certain groups without interference by the state, even if that intervention by the government was for the purpose of preventing discrimination.

Much of the discussion during Monday’s oral arguments centered on what kinds of goods and services may be considered public accommodations and which constitute artistic speech or expression by the business provider. Also at issue were questions such as whether their refusal to accommodate certain events – i.e., same-sex weddings – are tantamount to refusing goods and services to members of a protected class of people under the state’s non-discrimination laws.

LGBTQ rights groups fear the implications of a ruling in favor of 303 Creative  

ADF is designated an anti-LGBTQ extremist group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. An amicus brief was filed in support of the government by the corporate law firm White & Case along with a coalition of LGBTQ rights groups and legal advocacy groups: the National LGBTQ Task Force, GLAD, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, Lambda Legal, and the Human Rights Campaign.

“Just two weeks after a shooter killed 5 people, injured 18, and traumatized so many others at Club Q in Colorado Springs, the United States Supreme Court prepares to hear oral arguments in an anti-LGBTQ public accommodations discrimination case from Colorado,” wrote the National LGBTQ Task Force in a statement addressing Monday’s oral arguments.

Liz Seaton, the group’s policy director, highlighted the importance of public accommodations laws and condemned efforts by the opposition to legalize discrimination and segregation in the marketplace. “The brief’s most important argument lifts up the powerful amicus briefs of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law,” Seaton said. “Those two briefs by venerable civil rights organizations provide a detailed history of public accommodations discrimination against Black and Brown people in this country.”

HRC’s statement on Monday touched on similar themes:

“Granting the unprecedented ‘free speech exemption’ sought by petitioners in 303 Creative v. Elenis would be a dangerous change to long standing constitutional and civil rights law. It would inevitably lead to increased discrimination not only related to LGBTQ+ people or weddings, but also for other vulnerable populations including women, people with disabilities, and people of minority faiths. It’s crucial that justices of the Supreme Court reject discrimination and affirm the equal dignity of every American.”

Likewise, the Congressional LGBTQ+ Equality Caucus released a statement exploring the broad implications that could result from the Court’s ruling on 303 Creative:

“…the Supreme Court could issue a broad ruling that not only implicates nondiscrimination laws’ applications to graphic designers but to a wide range of businesses providing goods and services that have an artistic component. A broad ruling for the graphic designer could not only provide a constitutional basis for discriminating against same-sex couples, but also for discriminating against all marginalized people currently protected by public accommodations nondiscrimination laws.”

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Congress

Jim Kolbe dies at 80

Former Ariz. congressman first openly gay Republican House member

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Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.) speaks at a press conference on Feb. 28, 2013 for the filing of an amicus brief supporting the overturning of the Defense of Marriage Act. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Former Republican Congressman James (Jim) Thomas Kolbe, who represented Southern Arizona in Congress for 22 years, died Saturday of a stroke at the age of 80 his husband Hector Alfonso confirmed to Arizona media outlets.

“He belongs to so many people,” his husband said through tears on Saturday. “He gave his life for this city. He loved Tucson, he loved Arizona.”

Republican Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey ordered flags at all state buildings be lowered to half-staff until sunset Sunday in honor of the former congressman. In a series of tweets the Arizona governor lauded Kolbe’s record of public service.

Kolbe was the first openly serving gay Republican in the U.S. House of Representatives having served from 1985 to 2007.  During his 22-year tenure he served as chair of the Subcommittee on Foreign Operations, Export Financing and Related Programs of the House Appropriations Committee.

Former congressman Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.) (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

In 1996, Kolbe held a press conference and outed himself after his vote for the Defense of Marriage Act. This, according to political journalist Jake Tapper, was owed to the fact that Kolbe was under the impression he was about to be outed by a gay publication.

Addressing a gathering of Log Cabin Republicans and other gay Republicans in 1997, he said he didn’t want to be a poster child for the gay movement.

“Being gay was not — and is not today — my defining persona,” Kolbe said during his first speech as an openly gay GOP lawmaker. He also sat on the national advisory board of the Log Cabin Republicans.

In 2013, however, Kolbe was a signatory to an amicus brief in support of overturning California’s Proposition 8.

In a private ceremony in 2013, after being together for eight years, Kolbe and Alfonso were married.

Alfonso, a Panamanian native who came to the U.S. on a Fulbright scholarship to pursue studies in special education, had been a teacher for two decades. The couple’s nuptials were held at a private event at the Cosmos Club on Massachusetts Avenue.

“Two decades ago, I could not have imagined such an event as this would be possible,” Kolbe told the Washington Blade in an interview in May 2013. “A decade ago I could not imagine that I would find someone I could be so compatible with that I would want to spend the rest of my life with that person. So, this is a very joyous day for both of us.”

The couple had to endure a year-long separation when Alfonso returned to Panama while immigration issues were being sorted out, although he was granted U.S. residency, also known as a green card.

Kolbe also battled his friend and fellow Republican, U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who opposed the repeal of the Clinton-era “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, which barred military service by gay and lesbian Americans. He repeatedly co-sponsored a bill to scrap the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy at odds with others in his party over the issue.

After he left Congress he continued to be active in Republican politics in 2012 endorsing former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in his race for the presidency against then incumbent President Barack Obama.

In an interview with the Blade at the time, Kolbe responded to the anti-gay language in the draft version of the Republican Party platform. In addition to endorsing a Federal Marriage Amendment, the platform criticized the Obama administration for dropping defense of DOMA in court and judges for “re-defining marriage” in favor of gay couples.

Kolbe predicted the 2012 Republican platform will be the last one to include such language.

“That’ll be the last time that will be in the Republican Party platform,” Kolbe said. “It won’t be there four years from now. It’s got its last gasp. I don’t believe it’ll be there four years from now; I wish it weren’t there now, but I don’t believe it will be four years from now.”

The issue over the rights of same-sex couples to marry ended with Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U.S. 644, the landmark civil rights case in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the fundamental right to marry is guaranteed to same-sex couples by both the Due Process Clause and the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution.

Just this week prior to his death, the Respect for Marriage Act passed the Senate by a vote of 61-36.

That legislation requires the federal government to recognize a marriage between two individuals if the marriage was valid in the state where it was performed and guarantee that valid marriages between two individuals are given full faith and credit, regardless of the couple’s sex, race, ethnicity or national origin. It is expected to pass the House again this week after which it heads to President Joe Biden for his signature.

Early in his career, Kolbe in 1976 ran for a seat in the Arizona Senate in the Tucson-Pima County district and defeated a one-term Democrat. In mid-1982, he resigned from the state Senate to run in the newly created Arizona’s 5th U.S. congressional district, but lost to Democrat Jim McNulty.

He ran again in 1984 winning the seat that he went to hold for over two decades.

According to his biography Kolbe was born in Evanston, Ill., a suburb of Chicago, but when he was five, his family moved to a ranch in rural Santa Cruz County, Arizona. It was there he attended Patagonia Elementary School and Patagonia Union High School, but graduated from the U.S. Capitol Page School in 1960 after serving for three years as a Senate Page for Arizona Republican U.S. Sen. Barry Goldwater.

He matriculated first at Northwestern University and then at Stanford University earning a master’s degree in economics. During the Vietnam era from 1965 to 1969, he served in the U.S. Navy, including a tour in Vietnam as a member of the Navy’s “Swift Boat” force. 

After military service Kolbe served as a special assistant to Republican Illinois Gov. Richard B. Ogilvie. He then moved back to Arizona settling in Tucson where he worked in business.

Accolades for the former congressman included many from Arizona political and business fields of endeavor.

“Pima County and southern Arizona could always count on Jim Kolbe,” Pima County Board of Supervisors Chair Sharon Bronson said in a statement.

Matt Gress, who was recently elected to the Arizona Legislature, called Kolbe a political pioneer.

“Today, because of Jim Kolbe, being a member of the LGBT community and serving in elected office has become irrelevant,” he said in a statement.

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District of Columbia

HHS secretary discusses federal overdose prevention efforts at Whitman-Walker

Officials held round table with clients, ‘community stakeholders’

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U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra (Public domain photo)

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra and four other high level federal health officials held a roundtable community meeting followed by a press conference at D.C.’s Whitman-Walker Health headquarters on Friday to discuss what they said were “groundbreaking” efforts to address and end the nation’s epidemic of deaths from the overdose of opioid drugs.

A statement released by HHS says Becerra and the other officials, including Dr. Rahul Gupta, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, reached out to Whitman-Walker, which, among other things, operates one of the D.C. metro area’s preeminent substance abuse treatment programs, to commemorate the one-year anniversary HHS’s Overdoes Prevention Strategy program.

“Now, one year after the release of this strategy, our nation is in a much stronger position to treat addiction and save lives,” Becerra said. “We didn’t get here by accident. Thanks to decades of work by advocates, coupled with an unparalleled people-first strategy and unprecedented investment by the Biden-Harris administration, we have made a great deal of progress,” he said.

The officials, including Gupta, pointed out that the Overdose Prevention Strategy over the past year and an updated effort launched this month have focused on greatly expanding availability of the drug overdose antidote medication naloxone.

“Deaths caused by opioids like illicit fentanyl are preventable with naloxone, and today’s announcement means more life-saving naloxone will be in communities across the country,” Gupta said. “The latest data continue to show a hopeful trend of a decreases in overdose deaths, so we must remain focused on fully implementing President Biden’s National Drug Control Strategy that will save tens of thousands of lives by expanding care for substance use disorder, making naloxone more accessible, and dismantling drug trafficking operations,” he said. 

In addition to Gupta from the White House, Becerra was joined at the community meeting and press conference by Dr. Miriam Delphin-Rittmon, assistant secretary for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), which is an arm of HHS; Dr. Debra Houry, acting principal deputy director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Dr. Robert Califf, commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. 

Also participating in the roundtable session and press conference was U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), the nation’s first out lesbian member of the Senate. 

Becerra said he invited Baldwin to participant in the day’s events, among other things, because of her record of advocacy and support for funding of federal substance abuse and overdose prevention programs. 

“One area I’ve championed in Congress is increasing access to overdose reversal medication like naloxone,” Baldwin said. “We know that when you increase access to this safe and effective treatment that you save lives,” she said. “And I’m thrilled to see the Biden administration and especially the Food and Drug Administration taking steps to increase access to naloxone.”

Califf told the gathering one of the FDA’s recently launched efforts is to work with drug manufacturers to arrange for naloxone to become an over-the-counter drug that would further expand its availability. 

From left, HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra, Dr. Rahul Gupta, Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Dr. Robert Calif (at podium) and Dr. Miriam Delphin-Rittmon at Whitman-Walker Health in D.C. on Dec. 2, 2022. (Washington Blade photo by Lou Chibbaro, Jr.)

The roundtable discussion session, which included close to 50 participants, including Becerra and the other federal officials, was closed to the press, according to an HHS spokesperson, because among those participating were Whitman-Walker clients and others who receive services and support for what the officials called substance use disorder.

During the press conference that followed, Becerra spoke of how some of those participating in the roundtable discussion were part of Whitman-Walker’s success stories in helping people overcome substance use problems 

“We’re here because a year ago we decided to go in a different direction at the federal level,” he said at the press conference. “We decided that we’re not moving fast enough, we’re not moving close enough to where we need to be to try to help communities and those folks at Whitman-Walker who are trying to not just get folks into treatment but to save lives,” Becerra said. 

“And that was the great thing about the round table that we just had,” he said. “We heard about how people thrive,” he said, adding, “And one of the clients, Deborah, spoke about how she’s on the verge of getting her degree from college … That’s what we want to see … I want to thank the folks at Whitman-Walker for letting us come today to see how people can thrive and be part of that success.”

Whitman-Walker Health CEO Naseema Shafi told the Washington Blade after the press conference that Whitman-Walker has a long history of partnering with federal government agencies in addressing health issues, including Whitman-Walker’s role as a healthcare facility welcoming the LGBTQ community. 

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