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Blade speaks exclusively to U.S. envoy for global LGBTQ rights

Jessica Stern named to position in June 2021

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Jessica Stern, the special U.S. envoy for the promotion of LGBTQ rights abroad, spoke exclusively with the Washington Blade ahead of Pride month. (Photo courtesy of OutRight Action International)

The special U.S. envoy for the promotion of LGBTQ rights abroad in an exclusive interview with the Washington Blade ahead of Pride month highlighted the White House’s efforts in support of LGBTQ rights around the world.

Jessica Stern pointed out to the Blade the State Department’s decision to offer passports with an “X” gender marker “is an important example of how we’re expanding resources to people who are targeted because of gender identity and expression.” She also noted U.S. embassies and consulates over the last year have publicly condemned violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Andrea González, a transgender activist in Guatemala who was shot to death on June 11, 2021, near her Guatemala City home, participated in the State Department’s International Visitors Leadership Program.

Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Brian Nichols is among the U.S. officials who condemned González’s murder. William Popp, the U.S. ambassador to Guatemala, and U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Samantha Power visited the headquarters of González’s group, Reinas de la Noche, to express their condolences over her death.

Andrea González in D.C. (Photo via Facebook)

The U.S. Consulate General in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, condemned the so-called honor killing of Doski Azad, a trans woman whose brother reportedly shot her in the head and chest in January after she returned to the region. The State Department in May 2021 in a statement to the Blade described the so-called honor killing of Ali Fazeli Monfared, an Iranian man whose relatives murdered him after they learned he was gay, as “appalling.”

Doski Azad (Photo via Instagram)

Stern noted the Biden administration’s continued support of LGBTQ rights abroad also includes marriage equality in countries where activists say such a thing is possible through legislation or the judicial process.

“The administration acknowledges that married or not, LGBTQI+ people, couples and their families deserve full equality, access to legal protections and should have their families legally recognized,” she said. “All of this is consistent with President Biden’s commitment to LGBTQI+ equality and marriage equality specifically.”

President Biden in February 2021 signed a memo that committed the U.S. to promoting LGBTQ rights abroad as part of his administration’s overall foreign policy. The White House four months later named Stern, who was previously the executive director of OutRight Action International, as the next special U.S. envoy for the promotion of LGBTQ rights abroad.

Biden, who is Catholic, was vice president in 2012 when he publicly backed marriage equality during on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” He spoke in favor of the issue before then-President Obama did.

A law that allows same-sex couples to marry and adopt children took effect in Chile in March.

Same-sex couples in Switzerland will be able to legally on July 1 after voters last November overwhelmingly approved a “Marriage for All” law.

Lawmakers in Cuba continue to consider a new family code that could pave the way for marriage equality on the island. Honduran President Xiomara Castro, who took office in January, has publicly backed marriage equality in her country.

The Privy Council’s Judicial Committee in London in March upheld a Bermuda law that rescinded marriage rights for same-sex couples. The same judicial body, which is an appellate court for British territories, also ruled same-sex couples don’t have a constitutional right to marry in the Cayman Islands.

A privately-owned coffee shop in Havana on Dec. 16, 2018, notes its support of marriage equality for same-sex couples. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Stern last month spoke at the 2022 ILGA World Conference that took place in Long Beach, Calif.

She spoke with the Blade before she traveled to Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam. Stern will also visit Lithuania, Sweden and the Netherlands before she returns to the U.S. on June 8.

Malaysia is one of the upwards of 70 countries in which consensual same-sex sexual relations remain criminalized. Iran, Saudi Arabia and Mauritania are three of the handful of nations in which homosexuality remains punished by death.

State Department spokesperson Ned Price, who is openly gay, during a May 2021 interview with the Blade said the decriminalization of consensual same-sex sexual relations is one of the Biden administration’s five priorities in its efforts to promote LGBTQ rights abroad. Stern noted that “among a wider set of priorities, marriage equality is one element of our longstanding and ongoing commitment to advance the rights of LGBTQI+ persons.”

“All human beings should be treated with respect and dignity and should be able to live without fear, regardless of who they love,” she said.

Stern acknowledged potential critics of the White House’s efforts to champion marriage equality and other LGBTQ-specific issues around the world. Stern stressed, however, the “only thing that holds us back is hatred and intolerance.”

“We see autocracy is on the rise globally. We see that democratic institutions and democracies themselves are being undermined and we see LGBTQI+ people are often the canary in the coal mine,” she said. “We need to fight back against these homophobic and transphobic trends.”

Jessica Stern speaks at the 2022 ILGA World Conference in Long Beach, Calif., on May 2, 2022. (Photo courtesy of Andy Perez/ILGA World)

The State Department on April 28 released a report on the implementation of Biden’s memo.

USAID and the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief a few weeks earlier announced they delivered more than 18 million doses of antiretroviral drugs for Ukrainians with HIV/AIDS. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy last August after he met with Biden at the White House pledged his country will continue to fight anti-LGBTQ discrimination.

Stern noted Canada and Germany are among the other countries that have pledged to support LGBTQ rights abroad as part of their respective foreign policies.

“Every administration sets its own priorities. We know what a positive impact President Biden’s staunch support of LGBTQI+ rights has had on this community domestically and on our support for LGBTQI+ people internationally,” she said. “Thankfully, governments around the world are increasingly normalizing the idea that LGBTQI+ people are entitled to recognition under the law and affirming that their rights need to be an explicit part of a human rights agenda.”

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The White House

Biden executive order to bolster efforts to secure release of Americans detained abroad

Brittney Griner remains detained in Russia

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President Joe Biden (Screenshot from C-SPAN)

President Joe Biden on Tuesday signed an executive order that will bolster his administration’s efforts to secure the release of Americans who are detained or being held hostage abroad.

The executive order, which is based on the 2020 Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage-Taking Accountability Act, a retired FBI agent who Iranian authorities arrested in 2007, reinforces what a press release describes as “the administration’s tool kit in key ways.”

  • Reinforces the U.S. government’s efforts to support families of Americans wrongfully detained or held hostage overseas;
  • Authorizes agencies to impose costs and consequences, including financial sanctions, on those who are involved, directly or indirectly, in hostage-taking or wrongful detentions to support expanded and ongoing interagency efforts; 
  • Directs relevant parts of the U.S. government to bolster their engagement and sharing of relevant information, including intelligence information, consistent with the protection of sources and methods, with families regarding their loved ones’ status and U.S. Government efforts to secure their release or return, as appropriate; and
  • Charges experts across the interagency to develop options and strategies to deter future hostage-taking and wrongful detentions.

“It reaffirms the fundamental commitment of the president of the administration to bring home those Americans held hostage (and) wrongfully detained abroad,” said senior administration on Monday during a conference call with reporters.

Another senior administration official added the executive order “reinforces U.S. government efforts to support the families of Americans wrongfully detained or held hostage overseas by directing parts of the federal government to bolster their engagement with such families and their sharing of relevant information, including intelligence information, with families regarding their loved one’s status, and the government’s efforts to secure their release or their return.”

“This EO (executive order) reflects the administration’s commitment not just to the issues generally, but to the families in particular and it has been informed by the government’s regular engagements with them and other stakeholders who have and continue to undertake important constructive advocacy efforts on behalf of their loved ones,” they said. “President Biden and those across the administration will now draw on this EO to advance our efforts and we hope to do so in an active conversation with family members and outside stakeholders.”

The executive order also creates a “D” indicator in the State Department’s travel advisories that notes the countries in which American citizens are at risk for “wrongful detention.” Burma, China, Iran, North Korea, Russia and Venezuela are the first six countries named. 

“We’re committed to provide us citizens with comprehensive safety and security information about foreign countries so they can make informed travel decisions before they before they head overseas,” said another senior administration official during Monday’s conference call. “The United States opposes wrongful detention and the practice of using individuals as political bargaining chips everywhere. These practices we know represent a threat to the safety of all US citizens traveling and living abroad.”

Biden signed the executive order against the backdrop of WNBA star Brittney Griner’s continued detention in Russia.

Brittney Griner (Photo by Kathclick via Bigstock)

Officials at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February detained Griner — a Phoenix Mercury center and two-time Olympic gold medalist who is a lesbian and married to her wife, Cherelle Griner, — after customs inspectors allegedly found hashish oil in her luggage. 

The State Department has determined that Russia “wrongfully detained” her.

Griner’s trial, which began on July 1, continues, even though she has pleaded guilty to charges that she smuggled drugs into the country. The White House is under increased pressure from Griner’s wife and family, teammates and LGBTQ activists to secure her release.

A senior administration official on Monday’s call did not directly respond to a question about how the executive order will help secure Griner’s release.

“There are a number of ways in which it would affect cases like that case in the wrongful detainee category,” said the official. “The executive order directs those across the executive branch to share consistent accurate information with the families of those who are deemed wrongfully detained, to ensure that they receive support and assistance throughout the ordeal, and to work with parts of our government to try to impose costs on those responsible.”

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The White House

Jill Biden addresses LGBTQ donors at Equality PAC fundraiser

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Jill Biden urged action an Equality Act fundraiser.

First lady Jill Biden expressed solidarity with members of the LGBTQ community Monday at a D.C.-based fundraiser hosted by the Equality PAC, urging action amid fears same-sex marriage is under threat in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade.

“Right now we’re fighting the battles we thought we had already won,” Jill Biden said. “And we don’t need to guess where the extremists are going next because they’ve already told us in the Dobbs decision.”

The Equality PAC is a congressional political action committee led by the openly gay and lesbian members of the U.S. House. Among the notables seen in attendance who spoke at the fundraiser were Reps. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) and David Cicilline (D-R.I.), who co-chair the caucus. The event was held at the Long View Gallery.

“Progress isn’t a line,” Jill Biden said. “It sometimes feels like an ocean, pushing forward and pulling back. But with time and persistence, the shore of injustice does wear away.”

Jill Biden touted President Biden’s actions on behalf of the LGBTQ community, pointing out he signed an executive order against anti-LGBT discrimination, ended the transgender military ban, and appointed LGBTQ federal officials. She also mentioned an executive order President Biden signed in June, which included new prohibitions on widely discredited conversion therapy.

The first lady closed the event urging action and expressing solidarity, although she momentarily tripped over the LGBTQ acronym.

“I want you to know that I will be there beside you every step of the way. It won’t be easy,” she said. “The legacy of the LGD – the LGBTQI community is a hope that has never been crushed.”

Takano also spoke at the event and said Equality PAC raised a total of $217,000 at the event and more than $10.8 million this cycle, envisioning wins for Democrats on Election Day despite expectations of Republican gains.

“We are going to keep our majority and I dare say we’re going to expand it,” Takano said.

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The White House

CDC on monkeypox: ‘We anticipate an increase in cases in the coming weeks’

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The head of the Centers for Disease Control said she expected the reported cases of monkeypox to increase.

Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, warned on Friday the spread of monkeypox, an outbreak that has occurred primarily among gay and bisexual men, would increase in the coming weeks.

“Now as we closely monitor cases, I would like you all to understand that we anticipate an increase in cases in the coming weeks,” Walensky said in a conference call with top Biden administration health officials and reporters.

The increase, Walensky said, is due to three factors: 1) The CDC streamlining its reporting process to allow states to report new cases more quickly and accurately; 2) With more cases in the United States, an increase in the resulting exposure of these cases in the coming weeks; and 3) A significant increase in the number of people seeking laboratory tests and the number of specimens being submitted for testing.

Monkeypox cases in the United States, Walensky said, have reached 1,470 reported cases documented across 44 jurisdictions as of July 14.

Younger gay and bisexual men are primarily affected: The median age is 36 with a range of 18 to 76 years of age, and the vast majority of cases happen among those who identify as men who have sex with men based on demographic information local health departments provided to CDC, Walensky said.

The Biden administration on the same day Walensky disclosed the new data announced an order for another 2.5 million doses of Bavarian Nordic’s JYNNEOS vaccine to respond to the current monkeypox outbreak.

The vaccines, however, won’t arrive soon: According to the Department of Health & Human Services, they’re coming in 2023 as part of the plan for the U.S. government’s available supply of vaccine to reach 7 million by mid-2023, which would be several months after the outbreak has begun.

The Biden administration has been faulted for moving too slowly in responding to monkeypox in criticism reminiscent of inaction during the coronavirus and HIV/AIDS epidemics, including being too slow to distribute vaccines and make testing available. Monkeypox is transmitted by skin-to-skin contact, unlike the other two diseases, and isn’t fatal.

Walensky during the call acknowledged “the demand for vaccines from jurisdictions is higher than our current available supply,” but pushed back on other criticisms as “points of confusion where we’ve been hearing from the public, our partners and media.” The availability of tests, for example, is and has been meeting capacity, Walensky said.

“We have the testing capacity needed,” Walensky said. “We expanded the nation’s monkeypox testing capacity this week, and now have four commercial labs with combined capabilities along with CDC laboratory Response Network … we’ve gone from being able to test 6,000 samples a week to 70,000 samples per week. Having commercial lab testing for monkeypox will also make it more convenient for providers to access tasks by using existing providers to lab relationships, and we have not yet received anywhere near that demand of tests as our capacity now permits.”

Also during the call health officials announced efforts to work on delivery of 786,000 doses currently located in Denmark, which they said will be available pending FDA clearance by the end of July. The inability of the Biden administration to move the vaccines from Europe in a timely fashion has been a source of criticism of the FDA.

Peter Marks, director of the Center for Biologics Evaluation & Research at the FDA, pushed back on that criticism in response to a question from the Washington Blade, insisting the FDA had taken a timely approach to obtaining those vaccines.

“First of all … quite contrary to missing a chance for approval, FDA actively reached out using contacts with the Biomedical Advanced Research & Development Authority to actually move up the submission that was necessary and all of the other events that were necessary to get those doses to be able to be used from what was originally going to be this fall,” Marks said. “And we did that actually, pretty shortly after we realized there was a monkeypox outbreak.”

Marks also said the United States was unable to rely on the European Union’s certification of the vaccines because the FDA relies on its own safety protocols for approval of medication for use domestically.

“We do not in the United States recognize — we don’t have mutual recognition of vaccine inspections for initial licensure from other countries, and that’s because we have our quality standards that have to be maintained,” Marks said. “And we have with all due diligence to make sure that the necessary procedures were undertaken, so that these will be available before the end of July but these doses were originally not scheduled to be approved until sometime in the fall, and that was moved up.”

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