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Karine Jean-Pierre on her firsts: ‘I am a Black, gay, immigrant woman’

High praise for first out WH press secretary

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Karine Jean-Pierre is no stranger to progressive politics.

She takes on the role of White House press secretary as part of a long career working on building political coalitions and as a spokesperson for advocates before coming to the Biden administration, which has won her close allies and admirers who continue to cheer her on. Jean-Pierre’s new position as top spokesperson for President Biden — and the first Black, first openly gay person to become White House press secretary — is the latest endeavor she pursues in that broader mission.

Rahna Epting, executive director of MoveOn.org, knew Jean-Pierre from when she worked at the progressive organization and she quickly became a rising star “because she’s so incredibly skilled at communicating in a way that real people understand.”

“She was incredibly relatable to people that were watching her at home on TV,” Epting said. “And she could speak to you know, she she did that role during the Trump era for MoveOn and she really spoke to the hearts and minds of what people were feeling and thinking during that time.”

It was during Jean-Pierre’s time with MoveOn when she was serving as a moderator for a panel with Kamala Harris and famously rose to block an animal-rights activist who was physically threatening the candidate.

When protests emerged during the Trump era over policies such as his travel ban on Muslim countries, efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and the two impeachment votes seeking to remove Trump from office, Epting said Jean-Pierre was key in MoveOn.org being at the front lines of those efforts.

“Karine was on TV and she was representing the movement in ways that sparked or electrified the energy that was actually being felt out there,” Epting said.

Jean-Pierre, 45, has a distinctive story of rising to become White House press secretary as an immigrant from a Haitian family whose parents brought her to the United States, where she was raised in Queens, N.Y., from the age of five. Jean-Pierre cared for her younger siblings growing up as her mother worked as a home health aide and her father worked as a taxi driver.

Despite these humble beginnings, Jean-Pierre nonetheless reached astonishing heights. After receiving her master’s degree from the School of International & Public Affairs at Columbia University, Jean-Pierre went on to work for President Obama, serving as regional political director for the White House Office of Political Affairs during the Obama administration’s first term, before returning to the White House after Biden was elected president.

Michael Strautmanis, now executive vice president for public engagement at the Obama Foundation, worked with Jean-Pierre in the 2008 presidential campaign and at the White House under Obama and said the first thing that came across to him was how she “always had it covered.”

“She never came and asked me for advice on something where she didn’t already have one or two or three possible solutions to the challenge that she always had,” Strautmanis said. “She was always very, very well prepared, so she just sort of stood out to me.”

Jean-PIerre brings all this background to the role of White House press secretary in addition to achieving many firsts in the appointment as a Black woman, an LGBTQ person and an immigrant. Her partner is Suzanne Malveaux, a CNN reporter and former White House correspondent.

In her maiden briefing on Monday as White House press secretary, Jean-Pierre said the opportunity granted to her in her new role was not just an achievement, but the culmination of work from many who came before her.

“I am obviously acutely aware that my presence at this podium represents a few firsts,” Jean-Pierre said,. “I am a Black, gay, immigrant woman, the first of all three of those to hold this position. I would not be here today if it were not for generations of barriers — barrier-breaking people before me. I stand on their shoulders. If it were not for generations of barrier-breaking people before me, I would not be here.”

Asked by April Ryan of The Grio, a Black news outlet, about the many firsts she achieved by taking on the role as White House press secretary, Jean-Pierre recognized the signal that sends and brought up an article from a newspaper that went to her elementary school in Hampstead, N.Y.

“And these kids wrote me a letter,” Jean-Pierre said. “And in the letter, they talked about how they can dream bigger because of me standing behind this podium. And that matters. You know, as I started out at the beginning: Representation matters. And not just for girls, but also for boys.”

A White House spokesperson said Jean-Pierre was unable to make the Washington Blade’s deadline in response to an interview request for this article. Among the questions the Blade planned to ask was whether or not she feels a special obligation to represent and speak for the communities in her role as White House press secretary.

It wasn’t a straight line for Jean-Pierre to get to the position as White House press secretary. Although she worked for Harris in the Biden campaign, she came to the White House as deputy White House press secretary under Jen Psakl, who was responsible for Biden. (At the start of the Biden administration, Politico reported that Jean-Pierre’s relationship with the vice president became strained and Jean-Pierre was effectively estranged in the final five months of the campaign.)

But Jean-Pierre quickly won high praise in her role as a Biden spokesperson. In May 2021, when she gave her first on-camera briefing as a substitute for Psaki, Jean-Pierre was considered effectively to have knocked the ball out of the park and reportedly won a round of applause from her colleagues upon retuning to the press office.

Ester Fuchs, who was an instructor for Jean-Pierre when she was at Columbia University’s School of International & Public Affairs and later her colleague when she returned as a lecturer, said key to understanding Jean-Pierre’s success in communications is her balance of optimism and realism.

“She showed really a deep understanding of American politics, and particularly divisions in American politics,” Fuchs said. “But she was very much committed to the idea that the American Dream was still real for people like her, but with a kind of realpolitik understanding of what were the roadblocks, and always very committed to equity and fairness and making sure that people who were new immigrants or from high -needs population had a chance to be heard.”

The high praise Jean-Pierre receives from her former colleagues and friends undermines the argument in conservative media she was selected for the role of White House press secretary only because she checks off numerous boxes in the base of the Democratic Party’s coalition. Tucker Carlson of Fox News, for example, aired a segment last week deriding the appointment as the latest example of identity politics. Carlson mocked supporters for saying being LGBTQ is “the only thing you need to know” about Jean-Pierre, essentially ignoring the commitment and achievement she has made in getting there.

But there’s also a boon of having a good personality. Jean-Pierre’s smile as a means of being effective in disarming and comforting people was one of her features that came up two times independently among the people close to her the Blade consulted for this article.

Strautmanis said he’ll be watching to see whether or not Jean-Pierre’s humor comes out in her new role in White House press secretary as well as her capability to make people around her implicitly trust her, but ultimately predicted she would “kick ass.”

“She just engenders a tremendous confidence,” Strautmanis said. “And so, I think that’s the other thing that people are going to see, which is that as she speaks, you’re just gonna have a sense that, ‘You know, I trust what this person is saying,’ and I think that’s a really hard thing to do in that in the work that she’s done before in that job. But I think that’s why she transitioned from being a political staffer into communications, because she has that ability in communications to be up front, be direct, be honest, and yet still kind of push forward a particular agenda. I think that’s a rare combination.”

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Congress

Gay man wins Democratic congressional primary in Ill.

Eric Sorensen running for retiring U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos’ seat

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Eric Sorensen (Photo courtesy of Eric Sorensen)

Illinois Democrats are hoping to send a gay person to Congress for the first time in the state’s history.

Voters in the 17th Congressional District in northwest Illinois on Tuesday voted to have Eric Sorensen, a former meteorologist, become the Democratic nominee for the district’s U.S. House of Representatives seat currently held by retiring Democratic Congresswoman Cheri Bustos.

“THANK YOU to everyone who was a part of this movement,” Sorensen wrote on Twitter following his primary victory. “From day one this campaign has been built on three pillars: Trust, science, and communication. I’m honored to be your #IL17 Democratic nominee for Congress.”

Sorensen, who bested his closest primary opponent by more than 13,000 votes, has centered much of his campaign messaging around the issue of mitigating the effects of climate change.

Sorensen’s candidacy and potential to become the state’s first openly gay member of Congress has been met with celebration from those advocating for more of such representation on Capitol Hill. After Sorensen claimed victory on Tuesday, advocacy groups and political organizations like Equality PAC and the LGBTQ Victory Fund were quick to offer their support.

“It has never been more important to defend our pro-choice, pro-equality majority in Congress,” Victory Fund President Annise Parker said in a statement. “As a meteorologist, Eric spent the last two decades keeping his local community safe by telling the truth and promoting a pro-science agenda. His success tonight is a testament to his continued leadership and grassroots support, as well as a highly effective ground game focused on candid conversations about how to make government work for all Americans.”

Hoping to keep the district from flipping to Republican control in a midterm year that is expected to be an uphill battle for Democratic congressional majorities, Sorensen has also gained the backing of the district’s current congresswoman. Bustos took to Twitter following Sorensen’s victory to announce her support.

“Illinoisans deserve a representative who will fight for working families, help build our local economy and continue to lift up Midwestern voices,” Bustos wrote. “Eric will do that.”

Sorensen’s ultimate ascension to Illinois’ 17th Congressional District seat, however, is not assured. Though the district leans Democratic, it is widely labeled as a competitive race following nationwide redistricting of congressional maps ahead of this year’s midterms.

Such a competitive landscape is coupled with a competitive rival battling Sorensen for the seat.

His Republican opponent, lawyer and Army Reserve Capt. Esther Joy King, previously ran for the seat in 2020, losing to Bustos by just four percent of the overall vote.

Having already secured a number of high-profile Republican endorsements including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), House Conference Chair Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, King has already begun her November messaging campaign after besting her primary opponent by more than 30 percentage points.

“It doesn’t have to be a choice if we elect leaders who will put their constituents first rather than far-left, out-of-touch policies and that’s exactly what I’m running to do,” King said in a statement Tuesday night. “Let’s come together to win this in November.”

Groups like the Victory Fund, however, are remain optimistic that Sorensen’s potential to make history will be within reach when voters enter the polls on Nov. 8.

“Voters are clearly enthusiastic about Eric’s vision for a more equitable future,” Parker said. “We trust Eric will be a vital voice in Congress come November. The stakes have never been higher.”

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National

Fauci: Risk of monkeypox infection not high, but ‘numbers may increase’

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Anthony Fauci, gay news, Washington Blade

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institutes of Health who has been at the forefront of the battles against the HIV/AIDS and COVID-19 epidemics, downplayed Wednesday the idea gay and bisexual men are at high risk of contracting monkeypox as the outbreak begins to spread, but cautioned “the numbers may increase.”

“Given the numbers I would not say right now at this particular point, that it is a quote, high risk, but the numbers may increase, which means we just have got to be careful and pay attention,” Fauci said.

Fauci made the remarks in a conference call with reporters from LGBTQ news outlets on the heels of the Biden administration’s announcement that it would ramp up efforts to confront the emerging spread of monkeypox.

On Monday, the Department of Health & Human Services, announced a nationwide vaccination strategy against monkeypox, which consists of providing nearly 300,000 vaccines with priorities for individuals at risk and areas with high rates of infection. An estimated 750,000 vaccines are expected for delivery by the end of summer, according to HHS.

In response to a Blade question about the risk of gay and bisexual men contracting monkeypox, Fauci said that was difficult to quantify and he “wouldn’t say low, because then…that can be taken out of context,” but went on to express there’s a minimal risk of infection if precautions are taken.

“What we’re seeing given the number of cases and the rate in which they’ve accelerated, it’s clearly out there,” Fauci said. “But when you talk about the large number of gay and bisexual men who have sex with men, that on any given individual contact I think if one is careful, and make sure that both parties in a sexual interaction are aware of lesions that might go unnoticed, then you can go a long way in pure prevention to prevent that from happening, but I think it would be risky to classify it as low, medium or high.”

The U.S. has confirmed 306 monkeypox cases across 27 states and Washington, D.C., the Centers for Disease Control announced Tuesday. That represents a surge of 63 cases from the previous week.

Fauci said the current outbreak is predominantly among men who have sex with men among individuals who have had sexual contact. Monkeypox is technically not a sexually transmitted disease, Fauci said, because it’s spread through skin-to-skin contact, but “because of the close skin to skin interaction that occurs in sexual contact, that appears to be the modality spread.” Monkeypox, Fauci said, is “not fundamentally a lethal infection.”

Raj Panjabi, senior director for global health security and biodefense on the White House National Security Council, was also on the call and said the Biden administration’s monkeypox plan consists of “three pillars” of testing, vaccines, and outreach.

“In terms of outreach, there is no effective response to an outbreak without a community based response,” Panjabi said. “And so we’ve worked to ensure an open dialogue with leaders and stakeholders in the LGBTQIA+ community. What we’ve been doing is to try to understand from those most affected by this outbreak, learn from them, help them stay vigilant within the community to protect themselves from the disease and try to adjust our response according to the gaps that they’ve raised.”

The rise in monkeypox infections comes during Pride month, a time when LGBTQ community is engaged in celebrations and oftentimes in close contract and intimate settings, including sexual activity.

Asked by a reporter with NBC News whether this weekend’s Pride celebrations may have fueled the spread, Fauci said in theory “the risk is probably increased” in Pride activities “because people tend to get involved in sexual networking there,” but precautions at the end of the day would mitigate new infections.

“You don’t want to panic people but you want to get people to appreciate, particularly with the Pride activities that are going on now, to be aware and to just be careful,” Fauci said. “And being careful can be very practical, but making sure that you’re aware of things like skin lesions or lesions around areas of the body, particularly when you’re having a sexual encounter. Those are the things we’re trying to do.”

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West Virginia

Eastern Panhandle Pride brings celebration to rural W.Va.

‘Martinsburg is an inclusive city’

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A scene from Eastern Panhandle Pride on June 4. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Smiling faces spilled into downtown Martinsburg, W.Va., on June 4, welcomed by booths swathed in rainbow colors lining the road.

The historic sight marked the first time that Martinsburg welcomed an official Pride celebration to its streets — but not all residents viewed the new event favorably. As the celebration came into full swing, two protesters marched straight to its center, carrying a sign with homophobic slurs and a seven-foot cross.

The protest quickly turned the heads of passersby. As more and more people approached the demonstration, a group of more than 30 attendees formed a circle around the protesters, separating them from the event. Some joined hands and, attempting to drown out the protesters’ hatred, chanted: “Love wins!”

When Joe Merceruio began working at Eastern Panhandle Pride nine years ago, he set out to help unite the community of West Virginia’s easternmost region, working with fellow organizers to create Pride celebrations in a Shepherdstown park.

But when assuming the role of president in 2019, he never anticipated that just three years later, the organization would be invited by the mayor of the panhandle’s largest city to throw a celebration in the Berkeley County, W.Va. seat. “We’ve never had a city reach out to us and ask us to do Pride, it was always the other way around,” he explained.

Born and raised in Martinsburg, Merceruio was moved by the way his community came together at this year’s Pride celebration. After two years of restricted celebrations due to public health concerns, seeing so many people celebrate in person, including many allies, was deeply meaningful, he noted.

Beth Roemer, who helped organize this year’s festivities, said she was especially proud of the way her community peacefully organized against the protesters — especially those young people she credited with leading the charge. The group was “surrounding them in a very passive way so that they couldn’t do any more damage,” she recalled.

Participating in Pride each year has shown Merceruio and Roemer alike the ways their community is changing, fueled by advocacy from LGBTQ individuals and allies within it.

Berkeley County is known for being more conservative, which meant that Roemer “wasn’t sure” exactly “how far we had come” in accepting the LGBTQ community. But her hopes for inclusivity were quickly realized when she saw how many people supported this year’s celebration.

“We had a local business downtown reach out to Joe and I, and he said he just never believed in a million years that we could have Pride downtown,” she added. “He was super happy.”

According to Merceruio, Pride offers an opportunity for community building especially important to rural West Virginians.

“I think you can let the stereotype of West Virginia interfere with the reality of the West Virginia that’s really out there,” he explained. “There is ignorance, there is hatred, but there’s also a tremendous amount of love and support.”

“It really gives people who want a community a chance to see that there is a community in Martinsburg,” Roemer said. At this year’s celebration, Roemer added that she met an 18-year-old woman who was able to attend Pride for the first time after her parents did not support her desire to go growing up. “She goes, ‘Now I have a community,’” Roemer recalled.

As an organization that serves a primarily rural region, Eastern Panhandle Pride operates differently from many Pride organizations in major cities. Merceruio noted that there are some challenges associated with organizing Pride in a rural area, like receiving less attention from sponsors and having to work harder to find and provide resources.

Still, Merceruio said rural Pride celebrations have a certain charm that major Pride celebrations cannot always replicate.

“I have people that have texted me and said, ‘We’re so excited to do this, our 11-year-old daughter has been waiting for this,’” he explained. “I think you get more of a family atmosphere in rural areas.”

Some of Merceruio’s favorite moments from this year’s Pride included this type of “personal interaction” with community members, he added. “I guess that’s a bit more of what you get from a smaller town for Pride.”

At this year’s Pride, Martinsburg Mayor Kevin Knowles spoke directly to attendees, welcoming the celebration to the city’s streets and reading a proclamation officially recognizing June 2022 as Pride month for the city.

“Martinsburg is an inclusive city. We include everybody, no matter where they come from or what they do,” Knowles said at the event. “The city of Martinsburg is moving forward.”

In the near future, Eastern Panhandle Pride hopes to continue to offer programming for the local LGBTQ community and its allies, and to further support community needs through advocacy. For Merceruio, this work is an important part of giving back to the place he calls home.

“I love being from West Virginia. Our culture and our society and our neighbors,” Merceruio said. “It’s got its problems, but it is awesome.”

See photos from the event here!

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