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Democratic lawmakers reintroduce ‘lavender scare’ firings review bill

Thousands of LGBTQ federal government employees lost jobs during anti-communist purge

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U.S. Rep. Joaquín Castro (D-Texas) speaks at an LGBTQ Victory Fund National Champagne Brunch in D.C. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Three Democratic lawmakers on Thursday introduced a bill that seeks to rectify the harm caused to LGBTQ federal government employees who were fired during the so-called “lavender scare.”

“Today, as the United States confronts renewed threats to LGBTQI+ rights at home and abroad, we need to remember the far-reaching consequences of institutionalized homophobia,” said U.S. Rep. Joaquín Castro (D-Texas) in the statement that announced he and U.S. Reps. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) and Dina Titus (D-Nev.) introduced the Lavender Offense Victim Exoneration (LOVE) Act in the U.S. House of Representatives. “The so-called ‘lavender scare’ handed power to blackmailers and homophobes, stripped thousands of hard-working Americans of their jobs, and weakened our national security.” 

The ‘lavender scare’, as it was called, saw the firing of thousands of gay employees throughout the federal government — particularly the State Department — from the 1940s to the 1960s as anti-communist sentiment raised suspicion toward certain minority groups in multiple spheres of American society.

The LOVE Act has been introduced before previous Congresses, including in both 2019 and 2020. While the bill in 2020 was also authored by Castro and Cicilline, U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) introduced the 2019 measure.

“It is long past time for the U.S. government to recognize the stories of the LGBTQI members of the State Department who were treated unfairly during the ‘lavender scare,’ and to offer them and their families a measure of justice,” Menendez said in a statement after introducing the 2019 bill.

In addressing what its sponsors identified as harm done to the LGBTQ community as a result of the ‘lavender scare,’ the newest LOVE Act proposes measures to be implemented within the State Department similar to those in previous forms of the bill.

Among its provisions, the bill would mandate the investigation of cases of those in the State Department targeted by the ‘lavender scare’ decades ago. In addition, the legislation would require the creation of an Advancement Board within the State Department to aid LGBTQ diplomats and their spouses both within the department as well as in their interactions with foreign countries.

On the congressional front, the bill would call for Congress to issue a formal apology for the role it played in the propagation of the ‘lavender scare.’

Subsequent bans on employment under the federal government for members of the LGBTQ community have made resurgences in the decades since the ‘lavender scare.’ 

The Obama administration in 2016 ended a ban on transgender Americans serving in the military that had been in place since the 1960s. The Trump administration reinstated the policy, but President Biden again reversed the ban within days of his inauguration.

“And what I’m doing is enabling all qualified Americans to serve their country in uniform, and essentially restoring the situation as it existed before, with transgender personnel, if qualified in every other way, can serve their government in the United States military,” Biden said.

Castro framed the proposed legislation as an important step toward both ensuring both reparation for the events of the ‘lavender scare’ as well as preventing such discrimination from occurring in the future.

“As we celebrate Pride Month, I’m proud to introduce the LOVE Act, which is an important step forward to address the harms of the ‘lavender scare’ and protect today’s State Department employees from discrimination,” Castro said.

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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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Congress

House passes resolution that calls for Brittney Griner’s immediate release

Detained WNBA star’s trial to begin on July 1

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A participant in the Capital Pride parade parade in D.C. demands Brittney Griner's release. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

In a resolution passed on June 24 by the U.S. House of Representatives, lawmakers called on Russia to immediately release detained WNBA star Brittney Griner. 

Griner was first arrested in Russia in the days leading up to its invasion in Ukraine. Authorities have charged her with drug trafficking after claiming that she attempted to pass through Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport while in possession of cannabis oil. 

The House’s resolution, introduced in May by U.S. Reps. Greg Stanton (D-Ariz.), Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.) and Colin Allred (D-Texas), made multiple demands of Russia, including that the country “immediately release Brittney Griner,” provide her with consular access and humane treatment and that the U.S. “raise the case of Brittney Griner and to press for her release” in all its dealings with the Russian government.

“This legislation insists on our embassy personnel having access to Ms. Griner and restates our commitment to freeing her now,” Lee said in a statement after introducing the resolution. “We continue to pray for her family and we will continue to work together as three members of Congress, along with others, to spread the message that she is held wrongfully and must be freed now.”

The resolution also expressed support for both Griner’s family and for “all prisoners unjustly imprisoned in the Russian Federation.”

Allred, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, took to Twitter following the passage of the resolution.

“I’m proud the House has spoken in passing our resolution and calling for Brittney Griner’s swift release,” Allred wrote. “Every day an American is held abroad is a lifetime, and I will keep working with @POTUS to do all we can to bring home every American detained abroad.”

Griner’s WNBA team, the Phoenix Mercury, welcomed the House’s passage of the resolution this past weekend.

“[Rep.] Stanton and many others are continuing to work with the White House, State Department and Brittney’s family to secure her safe return home,” the team wrote on Twitter.

The resolution comes after reporting revealed missteps on the part of the U.S. government in handling communication related to Griner’s detention. 

According to past reporting, the U.S. Embassy in Moscow failed to connect Griner with outside phone calls permitted by the Russian government when Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, attempted to call her. Cherelle Griner reportedly called 11 times on June 18 on the couple’s fourth anniversary but was unable to reach her wife due to what the State Department claimed to be a “logistical error.”

While the resolution is being heralded by its supporters, it contains no provisions intended to enforce the House’s demands for the release and humane treatment of Griner and others held by Russia. With less than one percent of criminal defendants in Russia being acquitted, it is unclear whether the resolution will do anything to persuade the country’s courts to permit Griner’s release.

Griner appeared in Russian court on Monday for a preliminary hearing prior to her trial that has now been scheduled to begin on July 1. It was also confirmed by Griner’s attorney on Monday that her detention had been extended for six months pending her trial. 

If convicted, she could face up to 10 years in prison.

“We must keep Brittney’s case on the forefront and make clear to the White House that her release should be one of the highest priorities for our government,” Cherelle Griner said in May.

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Calif. Congress members introduce bill to decrease LGBTQ surrogacy costs

Measure has 17 Democratic co-sponsors

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U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) (Screenshot)

As the future of reproductive rights in the U.S. remain uncertain, U.S. Reps. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and Judy Chu (D-Calif.) introduced a bill on Wednesday aimed at equalizing healthcare access and lowering the costs for LGBTQ people and couples who want to have children. 

The Equal Access to Reproductive Care Act, co-sponsored by 17 other Democratic members of the U.S. House of Representatives and endorsed by multiple reproductive rights groups and LGBTQ advocacy organizations, would seek to reform the nation’s tax system in order to crack down on certain inequities in reproductive healthcare for same-sex families. 

The bill would require the Internal Revenue Service to allow LGBTQ people and couples to claim assisted reproductive treatments as deductions, which decrease one’s net income that determines how much they must pay in taxes to the federal government.

Schiff has asserted that the current tax system, which already often allows heterosexual couples to claim assisted reproductive treatments as deductions, must be changed. 

“Every person regardless of their sexual orientation, gender identity, ability, or relationship status deserves the same opportunity to start and expand a family,” Schiff said in a statement introducing the bill. “But right now, our tax code is sorely outdated and makes it harder for LGBTQ+ individuals and couples to afford treatments to bring children into their families, such as [in vitro fertilization].”

According to the language of the bill, assisted reproductive treatments that would be made more financially accessible would include “any methods, treatments, procedures, and services for the purpose of effectuating a pregnancy and carrying it to term, including gamete and embryo donation, intrauterine insemination, in vitro fertilization, intracervical insemination, traditional reproductive surrogacy and gestational reproductive surgery.”

The IRS has, in the past, asserted that tax deductions for in vitro fertilization and other surrogacy-related costs can be classified as such due to the patient’s own medical conditions that cause infertility. While IVF treatment is included in IRS policy as an expense that could count as deductible, the policy includes it only as a treatment for an inability to have children. In the instance of same-sex couples or LGBTQ individuals, the IRS has argued that surrogacy and IVF are not needed as a result of a medical condition causing infertility, but rather a choice not to have one’s own children.

In a private letter ruling released in April 2021, the IRS detailed its reasoning for denying such deduction requests.

“Only costs and fees directly attributable to medical care for diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease, or for the purpose of affecting any structure or function of the body of the taxpayer, the taxpayer’s spouse, or taxpayer’s dependent qualify as eligible medical expenses,” the IRS wrote. “Expenses involving egg donation, IVF procedures, and gestational surrogacy incurred for third parties are not incurred for treatment of disease nor are they for the purpose of affecting any structure or function of taxpayers’ bodies.”

Past attempts to challenge the IRS’s policy have been unsuccessful in the court system. 

A 2016 lawsuit brought by Joseph Morrissey, a gay man seeking to have children with his partner via a surrogate, argued that the IRS violated the Constitution in denying his request to count the medical costs of surrogacy as a deduction. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit later found that the IRS had not violated Morrissey’s constitutional rights, as the IVF-related care did not pertain to Morrissey’s biological ability to have children.

But in order to provide equitable healthcare to all Americans, Chu believes that passing her bill is necessary.

“Every American deserves access to quality reproductive care and the Equal Access to Reproductive Care Act will even the grounds for taxpaying families seeking deductions on reproductive expenses — regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, ability status or marital status — and will ensure greater access and affordability for critical family planning care,” Chu said.

The lawmakers’ push to secure such equity in healthcare comes amid one of the most tumultuous times in the last half-century for such freedoms. As the nation awaits the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, many are skeptical of the court’s willingness to uphold any nationwide right to abortion and fear the broader affects such a decision could have on rights established by other past cases.

In stressing what he sees as the importance of ensuring reproductive freedoms, Schiff appeared to make a veiled reference to the impending decision in his statement. 

“Now more than ever, we must do everything we can to make sure everyone has access to affordable family planning care, and to protect people’s rights to make health care decisions for themselves and their families,” Schiff said.

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