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Former Republican members of Congress call for Equality Act passage

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen spearheaded letter

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Former U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

In a letter addressed Tuesday to party leaders on Capitol Hill, 11 former Republican members of Congress urged federal lawmakers to pass anti-discrimination legislation to protect members of the LGBTQ community.

Former U.S. Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), Barbara Comstock (R-Va.), Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.), Susan Brooks (R-Ind.), Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.), Claudine Schneider (R-R.I.), Bob Dold (R-Ill.), Jim Greenwood (R-Pa.), Chris Shays (R-Conn.) and Steve Gunderson (R-Wis.) all signed the letter.

“The status quo is not working for LGBTQ Americans nor is it emblematic of our country’s founding values of freedom, fairness, and equality,” the signatories wrote in the letter addressed to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).

Ros-Lehtinen told the Washington Blade that supporting and urging the passage of nondiscrimination legislation was “the right action to take.”

“That is why I am so proud to have spearheaded this letter, signed by 10 other former Republican members of Congress, encouraging lawmakers to pass this bill so that discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community will be a thing of the past,” Ros-Lehtinen said.

The Equality Act has been introduced in Congress multiple times dating back to the 1970s. Its latest iteration was introduced by U.S. Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) in early 2021 and was later passed by the U.S. House of Representatives. 

“Equality is a founding principle of our country, and everyone knows discrimination is wrong,” Cicilline told the Blade. “I introduced the Equality Act to guarantee that every LGBTQ+ American would be protected from discrimination in all aspects of our lives. With so much anti-LGBTQ+ legislation being proposed and even passed in some state legislatures across the country, we must pass the Equality Act to end discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community once and for all.”

The current form of the legislation would prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in a number of different areas including public accommodations, employment, housing and education. The bill has now awaited a vote in the U.S. Senate for nearly 16 months, where many see it as unlikely that the bill would be able to garner the 60 votes needed to withstand a potential filibuster and subsequent failure to move forward for President Biden to sign.

In lieu of federal legislation, the president has taken alternative, executive steps to codify LGBTQ protections into areas under his jurisdiction. On Wednesday, President Biden held an event at the White House where he signed an executive order aimed at combatting discrimination against the LGBTQ community.

“As President Biden said during his first joint address to Congress, the president has the back of LGBTQI+ people across the country,” the White House said in a statement marking the signing that took place during a Pride Month event. “That is why he [is] taking these bold actions and continuing to fight for full equality for every American — including urging Congress pass the Equality Act and provide overdue civil rights projections for LGBTQI+ people.”

The president’s executive order took aim at the continued practice of so-called conversion therapy and hundreds of discriminatory state laws passed in the last year. The order tasked entities under his command, such as the U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services and Education, with combatting such legislation and harmful practices.

LGBTQ nondiscrimination advocates have similarly been able to make strides in certain areas in recent years without the Equality Act. 

The landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in Bostock v. Clayton County in 2020 ruled that discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity was illegal in employment under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. However, multiple states still permit such discrimination in areas outside of employment. 

Ros-Lehtinen described how she believes passing comprehensive nondiscrimination legislation would make fairness and equity in all states a reality.

“The sad truth is that in our wonderful nation, it is still permissible to discriminate against individuals based on their sexual orientation or gender identity,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “We need federal protections and not a patchwork of state laws that may or may not grant protection from this unfair discrimination. I urge the U.S. Senate to pass the Equality Act which will grant this protection.”

But despite the current wave of anti-LGBTQ legislation in numerous states, largely sponsored by members of her party, Ros-Lehtinen expressed continued optimism that a greater share of her party would soon support efforts to make nationwide LGBTQ protections omnipresent.

“I remain hopeful that members of my Republican Party will move away from extremist views and walk toward the light of acceptance and inclusion of the LGBTQ+ community,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “They are our family members, our neighbors, our work colleagues.”

And, as signaled by the language of the letter submitted to congressional leaders, her fellow signatories agree.

“Bipartisan leadership on this issue is possible,” the former congresspeople wrote. “Americans from all walks of life — across political party, demographics, and geography — support protections and are ready for Congress to act. The current Congress has momentum and the go-ahead from the public to outlaw LGBTQ discrimination once and for all.”

Michael K. Lavers contributed to this story.

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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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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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