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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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European Union

Surge in transphobic rhetoric across Europe sparks concern ahead of EU elections

ILGA-Europe released comprehensive report on Thursday

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The German Reichstag in Berlin in 2022. EU elections will take place in June. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

As the European Union prepares for the upcoming elections in June, an increase in anti-LGBTQ sentiments and transphobic rhetoric in particular from politicians across the continent has sparked concern.

A comprehensive report that ILGA-Europe released on Thursday reveals a stark rise in hate speech from politicians in 32 European countries, with 21 of them being EU member states.

The 13th Annual Review of the Human Rights Situation of LGBTQ People in Europe and Central Asia sheds light on a concerning trend of hate speech targeting the LGBTQ and intersex community. A significant portion of these statements has been directed at trans people in various EU member states that include Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czechia, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Romania, Portugal, Slovakia, Spain and Sweden.

Icelanders participate in Reykjavík Pride in the Icelandic capital in 2022. Iceland is among the countries in which anti-transgender rhetoric has increased in recent years. (Photos courtesy of Inga Straumland/Reykjavík Pride)

Politicians have increasingly utilized anti-trans rhetoric, often weaponizing children as part of scare tactics to generate opposition to trans minors’ access to healthcare and educational restrictions. This strategy extends to a broader trend where politicians argue that limiting information about LGBTQ individuals is necessary to protect minors.

The report underscores the detrimental impact of demonization by politicians and attempts to introduce restrictive legislation. These actions have contributed to a rise in suicide rates and mental health issues, particularly among young LGBTQ individuals. Moreover, the report notes an escalation in violent protests outside schools and libraries, creating unsafe environments for young people.

The fear-mongering tactics have further exacerbated attacks on LGBTQ people. 

Out of the 54 countries covered in the review, only six reported no hate crimes in 2023. In the remaining 48 countries, verbal and physical violence, with a focus on trans people, were prevalent. Only one EU member state reported no hate crimes.

“The very core values and standards upon which the EU was founded are being called into question,” said ILGA-Europe Advocacy Director Katrin Hugendubel.  

She emphasized that human rights, especially those of LGBTQ people, are facing a significant challenge from far-right forces. Hugendubel highlighted the divisive nature of exploiting LGBTQ rights to undermine democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

In response to these alarming trends, ILGA-Europe will launch the “Come Out 4 Europe” campaign next week. The campaign aims to provide candidates for the European Parliament with an opportunity to demonstrate their commitment to supporting and protecting the rights of LGBTQ people. 

“LGBTQ rights are under attack, and children are being harmed in the process,” ILGA-Europe Executive Director Chaber stressed. 

The “Come Out 4 Europe” campaign will call for clear political commitments on safeguarding human rights, democracy, and freedom from candidates in the upcoming European Parliament elections in June.

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Politics

New Biden campaign hire is the first LGBTQ national organizing director

Roohi Rustum joins the reelection effort from the DNC

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President Joe Biden at the Rose Garden of the White House (Screen shot/Independent UK)

The Biden-Harris reelection campaign announced on Wednesday that Roohi Rustum has been tapped to serve as its national organizing director, becoming the first woman of color and the first LGBTQ person to serve in this role for a general election presidential campaign.

Rustum, who is Bangladeshi-American, was most recently the interim national organizing director for the Democratic National Committee, where she led early organizing efforts for the campaign in Arizona and Wisconsin and also directed “get out the vote” initiatives for key 2023 races like Kentucky’s gubernatorial and Virginia’s state legislative elections, which saw sweeping Democratic victories.

Prior to her role with the DNC, Rustum was national relational organizing director for the Biden-Harris 2020 presidential campaign, and she also worked on the organizing infrastructure for Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg’s 2020 presidential campaign.

“This campaign will prioritize face to face voter contact and run a strong, present, brick and mortar operation — while also employing the best lessons from 2020 and 2022 on effective campaigning in online spaces,” said Biden-Harris 2024 Battleground States Director Dan Kanninen. “I can’t think of anyone better to build a field army that can do both than Roohi.”

Along with Rustum’s new role, the campaign announced on Wednesday that Alana Mounce will serve as its political director, and Meredith Horton will be national director for voter protection and access.

“I’m thrilled to have these battle-tested operatives join our team. This is a team with unparalleled expertise, creativity, and grit that will be critical to winning this November,” Biden-Harris 2024 Campaign Manager Julie Chavez-Rodriguez said.

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European Union

Czech lawmakers reject marriage equality bill

Lawmakers agree to ‘compromise’ measure

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(Bigstock photo)

The lower house of the Czech Parliament rejected a bid to allow same-sex marriage in the Central European country Wednesday afternoon, instead passing a compromise bill that expand the rights of same-sex couples in registered partnerships and allow them to adopt each other’s biological stepchildren. 

The bill heads to the Senate, where some senators have vowed to continue fighting for full equality.

Czechia has allowed same-sex couples to form registered partnerships since 2006, but these accorded limited rights compared to marriage. Notably, same-sex couples were barred from adoption, and were not allowed a widow’s pension or joint property rights.

Lawmakers were debating a bill that would have legalized same-sex marriage, as well as a set of proposed amendments that would have instead expanded the rights of couples in registered partnerships. While a parliamentary committee had recommended that lawmakers vote on the proposals from the most expansive to the least expansive, Parliament instead reversed that order. In the event, the proposal for full equal marriage didn’t even come for a vote as the compromise amendment was passed first. 

Under the compromise bill passed Wednesday, registered partnerships will be renamed “partnerships,” and same-sex couples will have all the same rights as married couples except with regard to adoption. Joint adoption will not be allowed, and partners will only be allowed to adopt each other’s biological children.

The compromise bill passed with 118 votes in favor, 33 against and 23 abstentions. A proposal that would have allowed full joint adoption rights received 66 votes in favor to 54 against with 64 abstentions, but failed because it required a majority of lawmakers present, or 93 votes, to pass.  

Czech marriage equality advocacy group Jsme Fér says the result was disappointing.

“It is a sad day for thousands of families with children who have two moms or two dads and hundreds of thousands of LGBT people. It is a sad day for justice and equality in our country,” the group posted on X following the vote.

Same-sex marriage has been a live political issue in Czechia for the past several years. Polls have consistently shown wide support for same-sex marriage in the country, but support among lawmakers has long lagged public opinion.

Civil society had also mobilized to support same-sex marriage, with groups representing university students, artists, business groups and large corporations joining campaigns urging legislators to support equal marriage. 

Ahead of the vote Wednesday, President Petr Pavel, who campaigned last year on a promise to support same-sex marriage, urged lawmakers to support equality.

“I recognize the principle of freedom and equality of every person from the point of view of law and see no reason to limit rights based on sexual orientation. I believe we are a tolerant society and we will rectify these rights as soon as possible. There is no change in this position of mine,” Pavel wrote in a post on X.

The compromise bill now heads to the senate, which will need to pass it before it can become law. At least one senator has said he will urge his colleagues to insist on full marriage equality.

“A watered-down version of same-sex marriage is heading to the Senate. I am sorry that the majority of MPs were against equal marriage for all. In the Senate, we still have a chance to fix it, I am ready to file a PN. I don’t want to continue the regime of two categories of people,” Sen. Lukáš Wagenknecht of the Pirate Party wrote on X.

But the bill may face an uphill battle in the Senate, which is slightly more conservative than the lower house. Last month, the Senate rejected ratifying the Istanbul Convention on Domestic Violence, a European treaty meant to protect women, over concerns that the convention would expand LGBTQ rights. In fact, the treaty does not mention LGBTQ people, but anti-LGBTQ forces have been mobilizing against it in Eastern Europe. 

As in many countries in Eastern Europe, support for same-sex marriage has become a proxy for support of Western or pro-European Union values. Of the 27 EU countries, 16 allow same-sex marriage, the most recent being Greece and Estonia. A further five recognize some form of civil union, while a civil union bill has been proposed by Poland’s new government and another civil union bill is before the Lithuanian Parliament.  

The next Czech parliamentary election is not expected until October 2025.

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