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Biden gets lackluster reviews on response to monkeypox outbreak

Comparisons made to inaction during coronavirus, HIV/AIDS

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President Biden is facing criticism his administration is moving too slow on monkeypox. (White House photo)

For a population still suffering through the coronavirus pandemic and with lasting memories of HIV/AIDS, the monkeypox outbreak is triggering memories of a U.S. government unable to respond quickly to the emergence of a new disease — and many who see mistakes being repeated are giving lackluster and even negative reviews of the Biden administration’s handling of the issue.

Criticism has emerged from voices in the LGBTQ community, where monkeypox has primarily spread, especially among gay and bisexual men, as well as among public health experts amid the perception the Biden administration has fallen short in vaccine distribution as only two cities — New York and D.C. — are offering vaccines on a pre-emptive basis and immediate distribution is halted despite reports that 1 million vaccines are in reserve overseas.

Lindsey Dawson, associate director of HIV Policy and director of LGBTQ Health Policy for the Kaiser Family Foundation, acknowledged Monday in an interview with the Blade there’s “certainly been criticism the administration was slow to act” in the past six weeks, although she tempered her remarks in hopes the Biden administration would ramp up efforts in time to curb the virus.

“The amount of vaccinations available right now, it’s really quite limited,” Dawson said. “As of last week, about 40,000 vaccines have either been shipped out or are being processed for allocation to jurisdictions. That isn’t nationwide; that was for about 15 jurisdictions, and the supplies that we’re getting are fairly limited. And so, that means that only in certain places, will there be vaccinations available.”

Dawson added the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention has promoted vaccines as a kind of post-exposure prophylactic for those who think they may have been exposed to monkeypox, stopping short of guidance making vaccines more generally recommended for populations that may be at risk, such as gay and bisexual men. New York City and D.C. are two jurisdictions that are giving vaccines out on a more general basis.

The Biden administration late last month unveiled a multi-step plan to take on monkeypox, which included the distribution of 296,000 vaccine doses with plans to distribute at total of 1.6 million in the coming months, which is enough to vaccinate 800,000 people because they are a two-dose series. Although HHS announced the purchase of an additional 2.5 million vaccines, the timeline completing the distribution isn’t until 2023 — which critics say is far too late for a disease already beginning to spread.

One prominent point of contention is the failure to distribute 1 million doses of monkeypox vaccine owned by the United States and in freezer storage at a Bavarian Nordic facility in Denmark, according to a June 28 letter to the White House from PrEP4All and Partners in Health. The medication has yet to be deployed fully despite concerns about the spread of monkeypox, which is transferred by skin-to-skin contact. The reason for the delay is the Food & Drug Administration dropped the ball and failed to conduct a timely review of vaccines and refuses to distribute the agency’s counterpart the European Union has approved, the letter says.

Josh Barro, a gay political commentator and journalist, called the failure of the U.S. government to distribute the vaccines “absolute insanity” and more evidence of failure by the FDA to meet speedy deadlines in approvals.

“Literally we have bought these doses already and they’re sitting in a freezer in Denmark until some bureaucrats decide to allow them into the US,” Barro wrote.

The FDA, CDC and FDA didn’t respond Wednesday to the Blade’s request to comment on the slow rollout of vaccines and the 1 million doses reportedly in storage in Denmark.

Evidence of the Biden administration falling short on monkeypox is already leading observers to make comparisons to HIV/AIDS and the coronavirus, when the U.S. government was criticized for inaction. President Trump was accused of dropping the ball on coronavirus with delays in testing and erratic messaging — as well as even lying to the American public about its seriousness — as President Biden  faced early criticism for a vaccine-only approach and failing to make good on campaign promises to shut down the virus. During the HIV epidemic in 1980s, activists with the grassroots group ACT UP held die-in protests at government offices and the Food & Drug Administration because the U.S. government was too slow in approving and distributing potential treatments.

Dawson said COVID is different from monkeypox for many reasons, but lessons could be applied to the new outbreak in terms of messaging, testing, and vaccine distribution based on COVID demonstrating “how challenges with mounting a quick response and COVID likely impacted transmissions.”

“And certainly it took a while for vaccinations to be widely available at COVID,” Dawson said, “And so, I think the important lesson there with all infectious diseases be that COVID or monkeypox is that getting out in front of an outbreak and preventing future transmission is essential.”

To be sure, the monkeypox outbreak isn’t nearly on the scale of the HIV/AIDS or COVID-19 pandemic, which have spread far and wide and claimed millions of lives. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the total number of recorded monkeypox infections in the United States as of two days ago is 767. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy & Infectious Diseases, told the Blade in a conference call with reporters last month the risk of gay and bisexual men contracting monkeypox is not high, but the numbers could increase. Monkeypox generally isn’t a fatal disease.

The LGBTQ watchdog group GLAAD, which has strong connections to both media and entertainment, has teamed up with the White House in its messaging on monkeypox, with a heavy emphasis on LGBTQ influencers and a closed press meeting on Wednesday. The White House didn’t respond to the Blade’s request to comment for additional information.

Sarah Kate Ellis, CEO of GLAAD, said in a statement to the Blade the initiative would supplement ongoing efforts to combat monkeypox taken by the.Biden administration and public health officials.

“Getting accurate information out about monkeypox virus (MPV) is critically important to the LGBTQ community and all communities, and we need to continue to hear from public health leaders about what’s being done to combat the virus and inform the public,” Ellis said. “GLAAD is helping convene those who can help get the word out about this threat to public health and to ensure accurate and respectful reporting to keep everyone safe. Media must continue to hold public health officials accountable to accurate data gathering, testing, treatment, and vaccine distribution to stop the spread of MPV.”

Elsewhere, localities are stepping up efforts to implore the Biden administration to do more on monkeypox as vaccines remain in limited supply for reserved for distribution in certain jurisdictions.

In San Francisco, District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman announced Tuesday his introduction of a resolution urging the Department of Health & Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention to accelerate efforts on monkeypox vaccines, calling for a vaccine prioritization plan and streamlined testing as well as enough vaccine doses for high-risk populations, including gay and bisexual men, transgender people, and sex workers.

“This should be a preventable public health crisis – unlike COVID-19, we did not have to wait for new vaccines to be developed,” Mandelman wrote on Twitter. “It begs the question: would monkeypox have received a better response if it wasn’t primarily affecting queer people?”

Equity concerns for a population sensitive to racial disparities are also at the top of list among observers and public health experts with experience in health outreach to LGBTQ patients, especially in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic having a disproportionate impact on Black people.

Dawson expressed concern about localities like New York and D.C. focusing its messaging on monkeypox through social media, which she said may not be visible to workers unable to access it during the day.

“To the extent that vaccination and testing are difficult and burdensome to people, they’re going to be less likely to take it up,” Dawson said. “And people who do take it up are probably people who have more privilege, right? They can take time off work, or they are aware of these slots opening up because they’ve seen that on social media and they’re on social media in the middle of their workday, and so it does raise potential equity challenges there.”

In New York City, despite being a locality deemed a priority spot for monkeypox vaccines, officials are also demanding a better response. Lynn Schulman, a city council member, spearheaded a letter to the CDC with the LGBTQIA+ caucus declaring efforts on monkeypox to have fallen short.

“The biggest concern is the lack of vaccines,” the letter says. “New York City has recently received additional doses of vaccine from the federal government, but vaccine supplies remain low. Currently, if an individual would like to get vaccinated, DOHMH has no appointments available. At a time when we are still dealing with COVID infections, this is unacceptable.”

Dawson said to make a more comprehensive assessment of the Biden’s administration’s approach to monkeypox she’ll observe the pace at which vaccines become more readily available to the public.

“We see those appointments open up and shut down again just minutes later because the demand is just outpacing the availability,” Dawson said. “So it’ll be really important to watch. How likely are vaccines to get get to jurisdictions … Right now, certainly demand is outpacing the vaccinations available, but we could get to a point where we are with COVID vaccines now, where work actually has to be done to encourage uptake of vaccinations.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misattributed a quote about local governments to the Biden administration. The Blade regrets the error.

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LGBTQ and intersex communities in Pakistan forge ahead

Colonial-era criminalization law remains in place

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(Photo courtesy of Hussain Zaidi)

Pakistan is a country that is notorious for its human rights violations, and the LGBTQ and intersex community is one of the most vulnerable groups in the country. Despite the challenges, the community is fighting for their rights and slowly making progress.

Since homosexuality is illegal in Pakistan, the LGBTQ and intersex community is often forced into hiding. This makes it difficult to estimate the size of the community, but it is thought that there are tens of thousands of LGBTQ and intersex people living in Pakistan. Many of them live in wealthy areas of Karachi, the country’s largest city, without fear, as do community members in similar parts of Pakistan.

The community, however, continues to face many challenges in Pakistan. They experience discrimination and violence both from individuals and the government. 

In 2018, for example, the Pakistani government passed a law under Section 377 of the country’s colonial-era penal code that made same-sex marriage punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Homosexuality remains criminalized in Pakistan.

In addition to the criminalization of LGBTQ and intersex Pakistanis, the community also continues to face discrimination and violence that family members often perpetuate.

Many LGBTQ and intersex people face verbal, emotional and even physical abuse from their families due to societal and religious pressures. This can lead to them dropping out of school or foregoing higher education altogether. 

Discrimination in the workplace and education system forces many LGBTQ and intersex Pakistanis to remain in the closet, and those who are out often cannot find work or continue their education. Access to health care — including testing and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases and infection — is an ongoing challenge.

A law that permits transgender people to legally change the gender on their national ID cards and other official documents, allows them to vote and bans discrimination based on gender identity in employment, health care, education and on public transportation took effect last year. Pakistan’s Supreme Court in 2009 ruled in favor of recognizing trans people as a third gender on identity cards. Discrimination against trans Pakistanis remains pervasive in spite of these advances.

Pakistan’s LGBTQ and intersex rights organizations fight for change

Some of the country’s LGBTQ and intersex advocacy groups organizations are based in Lahore, but most of them are in Karachi. 

Pakistan’s first gay rights organization was founded in Lahore in 1994. There are now more than 20 groups that are working to spread awareness and understanding about the LGBTQ and intersex community.

O, also known as O Collective, was founded in Lahore in March 2009 by activists dedicated to the protection of the rights of sexual minorities, specifically LGBTQ and intersex people. They are committed to the education and support of queer communities, sexual minorities, and their families and friends. O provides a safe space for the community to meet and discuss issues such as sexual health and legal rights.

The Naz Health Alliance is a public health NGO that works with the government and other stakeholders to provide technical assistance to public health programs, conduct research, provide capacity building, advocate for policy changes and social inclusion, and create awareness regarding the sexual health and human rights of MSM (men who have sex with men) and transgender communities. 

The group also works towards building a healthy and inclusive society by addressing social exclusion faced by the MSM and transgender community. Qasim Iqbal founded the Naz Health Alliance in 2011.

Uzma Yaqood founded the Forum for Dignity Initiatives in 2013.

FDI is a research and advocacy organization that aims to improve the lives of sexual and gender minorities in Pakistan through education, health and other social services that are sensitive to their respective identities. The organization works to ensure women, young people and trans individuals are able to live their lives without fear.

Jannat Ali — who describes herself as an “artivist” — is the executive director of Track T, a trans rights organization that is based in Lahore.

Her organization in 2018 organized Pakistan’s first-ever trans Pride parade that nearly 500 people attended. The country’s first-ever Pride parade — which violence marred — took place in Karachi the year before.

Ali in March 2021 launched a program with episodes on Instagram and YouTube. She is the first openly trans person to host her own show in Pakistan.

Jannat Ali at WorldPride 2021 in Copenhagen, Denmark (Photo courtesy of Jannat Ali)

Hussain Zaidi is a recent Swarthmore College graduate who has worked tirelessly to ensure trans people can access public health care in Pakistan. Zaidi spoke with the Washington Blade about how Pakistani’s view LGBTQ and intersex communities and what can be done to ensure their safety.

“LGBTQ+ communities are typically seen as communities adopting a Western framework for sexuality that is incongruent with the cultural norms within Pakistan,” said Zaidi. “There is an indigenous culture in Pakistan where queerness and trans bodies can thrive, but our conception of this cultural praxis and way removed from global narratives of LGBTQ+ freedom and self-autonomy.”

Zaidi added “labels for the LGBTQ+ community are considered illegitimate and propaganda arguing that Pakistani individuals on the queer/trans spectrum are coopting identities oriented towards Western frameworks and lenses.” 

“Even within communities that would be considered LGBTQ+, we see people rejecting the LGBTQ+ framework and instead arguing for the acceptance of local, indigenous praxis of transness and queerness,” added Zaidi. “So overall the social landscape of LGBTQ+ rights is complex and intersectional, with the perception of the label differing based on what class, status, educational level and background the Pakistani acting as the perceiver comes from.”

Zaidi said safety for LGBTQ and intersex Pakistanis “starts first by doing the work to understand how communities in Pakistan want to represent themselves in broader Pakistani culture.” 

“Practicing the construction of systems of protection for LGBTQ+ allied people requires a culturally sensitive and community-informed approach,” said Zaidi. “Often foreign organizations providing aid and support expect programming to revolve around terminologies and ideas that are globally accessible and originated from/digestible by the West. Due to this, the important work of understanding how to support existing communities in establishing and advocating for their identities and rights goes ignored or under-prioritized.” 

“By understanding what existing communities want, a community-informed strategy to safely advocate for LGBTQ+ aligned people can be implemented that also doesn’t put the community itself at risk in any way,” added Zaidi. “There are not many organizations doing work of this nature, due to the level of public censorship and policing that is arranged by dissenting opponents to the LGBTQ+ framework. By guaranteeing basic systems of protection and safety, we can expect the number of people and organizations committed to supporting variant sexual and gender identities to increase.” 

U.S., German embassies support LGBTQ, intersex activists

The U.S. Embassy in Pakistan works to raise awareness and understanding of LGBTQ and intersex issues and people in the country. 

It organizes community and educational events to build connections and support among LGBTQ and intersex Pakistanis and works to fight discrimination and oppression based on sexual orientation or gender identity. The embassy, which is located in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, in 2011 hosted an LGBTQ and intersex event.

“Mission Pakistan works to strengthen and support the LGBTQI+ community,” tweeted the embassy on May 17, which is the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia. “We strive every day to ensure the human rights of the LGBTQI+ community are respected and protected from oppression. We continue to press for full equality.”

The German Embassy in Karachi in 2021 also hosted an event for queer Pakistanis.

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District of Columbia

Wanda Alston Foundation chosen as Casa Ruby receiver

Judge approves move at recommendation of D.C. Attorney General

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June Crenshaw is the Wanda Alston Foundation’s executive director. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

A D.C. Superior Court judge on Friday, Aug. 12, appointed the Wanda Alston Foundation as the city’s receiver for the LGBTQ community services center Casa Ruby in a role in which the Alston Foundation will assume full control over Casa Ruby’s operations and finances.  

Judge Danya A. Dayson stated in an order she issued at 2:27 p.m. on Friday that she appointed the Alston Foundation for the receivership role at the recommendation of the Office of the D.C. Attorney General, which asked the judge to place Casa Ruby in receivership in a court motion filed on Aug. 3.

Founded in 2008, the Wanda Alston Foundation provides housing and support services for D.C. homeless and at-risk LGBTQ youth ages 18 to 24 and advocates for expanded city services for LGBTQ youth, according to a statement on its website.

During a virtual court hearing on Thursday, Aug. 11, Dayson approved the AG office’s request to place Casa Ruby under receivership. During the hearing, Adam Gitlin, chief of the AG office’s Public Integrity Section, announced that the AG office had two organizations under consideration for the Casa Ruby receiver – the Alston Foundation of D.C. and the Baltimore-based LGBTQ services organization Safe Haven, which has announced it planned to open a facility in D.C.

Gitlin asked the judge if the AG’s office could have one more day to make a final decision on which of the two groups should be named as the Casa Ruby receiver, and Dayson granted his request.

Among those who spoke at the Aug. 11 hearing was June Crenshaw, the Wanda Alston Foundation’s executive director. Crenshaw told the judge her organization has long supported the mission of Casa Ruby and it was prepared to do all it could to continue that mission in its role as receiver.

In a seven-page order issued on Aug. 12 approving the AG’s recommendation that the Alston Foundation be appointed as receiver, Dayson restated her earlier findings that the AG’s office provided sufficient evidence that a receivership was needed. Among other things, she pointed to the AG office’s allegations that Casa Ruby and its founder and former executive director Ruby Corado violated the District’s Nonprofit Corporations Act. 

“The District alleges in its petition that Defendant violated the Act by failing to maintain a lawfully constituted Board of Directors, failing to maintain control and oversight of the Corporation; permitting Ruby Corado, the executive director, to have exclusive access to bank and PayPal accounts held in the name of, or created to benefit, Casa Ruby; and permitting Corado to expend hundreds of thousands of dollars of nonprofit funds without Board oversight and for unknown reason,” Dayson stated in her order.

“Accordingly, it is on this 12th day of August 2022 hereby ORDERED that the District’s motion for appointment of a receiver is GRANTED, and it is FURTHER ORDERED that until further order of this court, the Wanda Alston Foundation, Inc., 1701 Rhode Island Avenue, N.W., 2nd Floor, Washington, D.C. 20036 (the “Receiver”), is hereby appointed as Receiver,” Dayson declared.

Dayson stated in her Aug. 12 order that she has “hereby lifted” her Aug. 3 order granting the AG office’s request that Casa Ruby’s bank accounts and all financial assets be frozen. The Aug. 12 order states that the receiver will now have full control over the bank accounts and Casa Ruby assets.

But the judge adds in her latest order, “Notwithstanding the lifting of the August 3, 2022, freezing Order, Ruby Corado shall not regain access to the affected accounts.”

In addition, Dayson “further” states in her Aug. 12 order that Casa Ruby’s “trustees, directors, officers, managers, or other agents are hereby suspended and the power of any directors or managers are hereby suspended. Such persons and entities shall have no authority with respect to Casa Ruby’s operations or assets, except to the extent as may hereafter be granted by the Receiver.”

The order concludes by directing the receiver to prepare a written report to the court by Sept. 13, 2022, on these issues:

• Assessment of the state of Casa Ruby’s assets and liabilities

• Identification of potential D.C. grant funds that could still be accessed if Casa Ruby met the grant requirements and how Casa Ruby could meet those requirements

• Determine whether Casa Ruby can pay outstanding financial obligations, including but not limited to employees, landlords, and vendors

• A recommendation regarding whether Casa Ruby’s Board should be reconstituted, and it should resume providing services, or instead whether Casa Ruby should be dissolved in an orderly manner pursuant to D.C. Code.

Corado also spoke at the Aug. 11 virtual hearing through a telephone hookup. Among other things, she said she does not oppose the appointment of a receiver.

But Corado disputed the AG office’s allegations against her and Casa Ruby, claiming the group’s financial problems that resulted in its shutdown of most Casa Ruby programs were caused by the D.C. government’s decision to discontinue many but not all city grants providing funding for Casa Ruby.

In its court filings, the AG’s office has disputed Corado’s claims, saying the city grant funds for many of Casa Ruby’s programs were suspended or discontinued because Casa Ruby failed to comply with the grant requirements that all city grantees are obligated to comply with.

“The mission of the Wanda Alston Foundation is to eradicate homelessness and poverty for LGBTQ youth between ages 18 and 24, the group states on its website. The statement adds that the Alston Foundation seeks to accomplish that mission by advocating for LGBTQ youth by “providing programs including housing, life skills training, case management services, linkages to medical care and mental health care and other support services, support in staying and returning to school, and employment support.”

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District of Columbia

Another gay couple assaulted in D.C. in suspected hate crime

Two men holding hands when hit from behind by group of attackers

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Chuck Johnson (left) and J.P. Singh were assaulted in June. (Photo courtesy the couple)

A gay male couple informed the Washington Blade this week that they were assaulted by a group of young men on June 17, at least of one of whom shouted the word “faggots,” while the couple was holding hands walking home on the 1500 block of T Street, N.W. a few doors away from their house.

One of the two men suffered a broken jaw and fractured thumb when two or three of the attackers punched and kicked him in the head and face after knocking him to the ground, according to a D.C. police report that lists the incident as a suspected anti-gay hate crime.

The incident took place about six weeks before another gay male couple was attacked and punched in the head and face by a group of young males appearing in their late teens as at least one of them shouted “monkeypox faggots.” The incident occurred on Aug. 7 along the 1700 block of 7th Street, N.W. in the Shaw neighborhood as the men were walking to a nearby bus stop.

D.C. police, who have released photos of two suspects in the Aug. 7 incident and a photo of one suspect in the June 17 case, say no arrests have been made in either of the cases but both cases remain under active investigation.

The two victims in the June 17 case identified themselves as J.P. Singh, Professor of Global Commerce and Policy at George Mason University, and Charles D. “Chuck” Johnson Jr., CEO and President of the Aluminum Association industry trade organization. They initially identified themselves in a little-noticed article about the incident that they wrote and published on June 23 in the blog Medium in which they also posted a photo of themselves.   

“We, JP and Chuck, are a middle-age interracial gay couple,” the two wrote in the article. “We have been together for nearly 27 years, and live in a gay neighborhood in Washington, DC.  On Friday, June 17, while walking back from the gym at 10 p.m. and holding hands, a group of young African American men assaulted us on our street,” the two wrote.

Their article goes on to explore issues surrounding racial justice and crime, and the possible impact of the Black Lives Matter movement on police response to crime, including anti-LGBTQ hate crimes, among other related issues.

 “Assaults like ours open wounds in our society around race and LGBTQ issues,” they state in the article. “Through writing this article, we want to emphasize context and healing, and not encourage racialized ways of thinking that we associate with divisive tactics.”

Singh told the Blade the incident began on T Street, N.W., steps away from their house and in front of the house of gay D.C. Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Kyle Mulhull. He said a group of the attackers approached him and Johnson from behind and the couple didn’t see the attackers until they were struck with punches.

“Before we knew it, I heard Chuck yell,” Singh said. “And when I turned to him, I felt a punch on my ear.”

According to Singh’s account, the attackers ran toward 15th Street and Johnson ran after them presumably to be able to inform police of their location, with the intent that the attackers could be apprehended.

But Singh said that another group of attackers emerged from an alley and appeared to have joined the first group and began assaulting Johnson again. The D.C. police report says officers responding to a 911 call from Johnson arrived on the scene when Victim 1, who was Johnson, was observed at the intersection of 15th and U Streets, N.W.

“The officers observed that Victim 1 was bleeding from his mouth as a result of the assault,” the report says. The report says the officers call the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department for assistance.

“Victim 1 stated that he and Victim 2 were walking eastbound in the 1500 block of T St., N.W. when 4 to 8 suspects approached from behind and assaulted them with punches,” the report continues. “Victim 1 stated that at least one of the suspects yelled homophobic slurs at him as the assault was perpetrated.

Singh said he accompanied Johnson to the emergency room where he was treated and underwent surgery two days later to treat his jaw, which was broken in two places. Singh said Johnson was also treated for a fractured thumb.

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