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In first, gay Democrat and gay Republican face off in congressional race

GOP candidate was present at Stop the Steal rally

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Robert Zimmerman, a Democratic candidate, (left) is taking on George Santos, a Republican (right) in New York's 3rd congressional district.

The race in New York’s 3rd congressional district is seen as critical in the mid-term elections as Republicans are poised to retake the House and Democrats are trying to preserve their razor-thin majority. But the New York race holds another important distinction as the two candidates — Robert Zimmerman and George Santos — are openly gay, marking the first time out gay candidates from the two major parties have squared off in a House race.

In separate interviews with the Washington Blade, the candidates had markedly different takes on the nature of the historic first, with one saying his sexual orientation influenced his approach to politics and the other utterly rejecting its importance.

Zimmerman, a progressive Democrat and communications official who supports causes like LGBTQ rights, abortion rights, and gun reform, said being gay and closeted in his youth living on Long Island in the 1970s shaped his view of politics.

“I went to speak to an educator I trusted, and he suggested to me I try a doctor to make me better, because in those days, that was the path, conversion therapy,” Zimmerman said. “And I certainly didn’t do that, but it just reflects how isolating that period was, but I guess out of that period, that sense of isolation, it helped me to look at the world around me and see a lot of other folks who felt unseen and unheard, and it helped me find my voice that brought me to protest lines, brought me into political activism.”

The first protest for Zimmerman, he said, was in front of the Democratic Party’s headquarters. He’s now a member of the Democratic National Committee in New York. Zimmerman said his political activism also brought him to the office of his member of Congress, where he became a congressional intern and later a member of his senior staff.

Santos, a conservative Republican, downplayed the importance of being a gay congressional candidate and said he doesn’t make it an issue in his campaign, although he conceded,”it feels awesome that the opportunities are equal for everybody in this country.”

“It’s great to see that opportunities are equal to all in this country,” Santos said. “It’s always been that way. … So I don’t make it a campaign issue as far as I don’t campaign on that issue. It’s not a campaign issue for me. I think it’s a distraction, really about the real issues plaguing our country right now. I’d rather talk about that stuff all day long than talk about my sexual preference.”

Key issues for Santos, he said, were many of the same issues Republicans are running on as part of the 2022 mid-term elections, such as inflation, the cost of energy, and crime, which he said are issues that affect every American to varying degrees regardless of their socioeconomic status.

Although he downplays the significance of his sexual orientation, Santos would have the distinction if elected as the first openly gay Republican in Congress since the departure of former Rep. Jim Kolbe in 2009. Santos would also have the distinction of being the first openly gay non-incumbent Republican candidate elected to Congress.

Not exactly fitting the mold of gay members of Congress seen in the past, Santos has aligned himself with a conservative ideology. He has called abortion rights “barbaric,” and spoken favorably about the Florida “Don’t Say Gay” bill signed into law by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Footage exists of Santos saying he was at the Ellipse for the rally with former President Trump that preceded the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

Santos didn’t deny that he was present at the “Stop the Steal” rally, but said he “did not go” to the U.S. Capitol building on Jan . 6 and downplayed the significance of his presence at the rally.

“I just don’t see how that’s relevant to this interview, and to what we’re doing in 2022,” Santos said. “I just really think the American people deserve journalists to really focus on the future. I really liked this interview to be about proposals and what I’m going to present in Congress come 2023 instead of looking at two years ago, and really reminiscing on that.”

Amid news stories of Republican candidates continuing to deny the outcome of the 2020 election, Santos indicated he wasn’t among them. Asked whether President Biden won the 2020 election, Santos replied, “He’s the president of the United States, I never contested that.” Asked whether Biden is president because he won the election, Santos replied, “Of course.”

Albert Fujii, spokesperson for the LGBTQ Victory Fund, said the records of both candidates made it easy for the organization, which endorses openly LGBTQ people running for public office, to decide whom to support.

“Victory Fund proudly endorsed Robert Zimmerman because of his life-long LGBTQ advocacy, commitment to public service and fierce pro-equality and pro-choice vision for America,” Fujii said. “We believe abortion rights are LGBTQ rights and since our inception have always required candidates be pro-equality and pro-choice to receive our endorsement.”

Fujii added Santos never approached the Victory Fund to seek an endorsement. Gay Republicans have sometimes criticized the organization as being a partisan tool of Democrats.

Political outsiders have rated New York’s 3rd congressional district as “leaning Democratic.” Although some initial polling was favorable to Santos as Republicans had an advantage with inflation and gas prices being a major issue, the tide appears to have turned nationwide after the Supreme Court ruling against Roe v. Wade served as a wakeup call to the Democratic base.

Zimmerman said the ruling in the Dobbs case has stirred a high level of activism, predicting LGBTQ rights would be next on the chopping block due to the concurrence of U.S. Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, who called for revisiting the decision in favor of same-sex marriage.

“You’re seeing a level of energy and activism as a result of the Dobbs decision,” Zimmerman said. “That is truly unprecedented for a midterm election When you take away 50 years of protection for women, and people also understand that’s just the opening bid. They’re coming after our rights of the LGBTQ+ community next, and they’re coming after our rights in so many other areas. You’ve seen a level of engagement, coalition building, and activism that is really unprecedented.”

Santos, presenting a different take on the Dobbs decision, said he thought the ruling “was great” and “gave the states back its power of the Tenth Amendment.”

“I don’t think it affects us here in New York,” Santos said. “I do understand that there’s other states with different decisions, but that’s precisely what the Tenth Amendment does — it gives the rights back to the state so that on a more hyperlocal concentrated issue, the people’s constituency, get to pick what they think is best for them.”

Thomas’s concurring opinion in the Dobbs decision is also not a threat, Santos said, although he criticized it as an “unfortunate moment.”

“He had an unfortunate moment in a dissenting opinion that the majority did not sign on,” Santos said. “Clearly, that’s why it has no legal value. It’s nothing more than a legal essay. A legal essay written by a Supreme Court justice with — I’m just going to go out on a limb and say not the brightest moment in his career.”

One of the consequences of the Dobbs decision was the introduction in Congress of legislation knowns as the Respect for Marriage Act, which would seek to codify same-sex marriage into law regardless of whether or not the Supreme Court decides to revisit it.

Santos, asked whether he’s in favor of the bill, replied, “If the bill is put through committee properly? Yes.” Santos went on to say he had calls from Republicans about the legislation and told them it’s the law of the land and a matter of “if you feel comfortable supporting my right to marry my spouse of my choosing.”

“My only hang up with it is I really wish to give it more legitimacy and not leave any questions open for pundits on both sides of the aisle … let’s just get it passed,” Santos said. “I mean, I have no issue. Of course I’d vote for it.”

When the Blade pointed out he appeared to be leaving the door open to vote “no” based on objections of not going through the regular order of the committee process, Santos denied that was the case: “I didn’t say that. I just said I want it to be that way, so there’s no questions about it. I never in any instance suggested to you I would say ‘no.'”

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Mississippi

Art used to spotlight people of color lost to AIDS in the South

National AIDS Memorial, Southern AIDS Coalition created Change the Pattern exhibit

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The National AIDS Memorial and Southern AIDS Coalition have announced a new initiative to raise awareness about the impact of HIV/AIDS among communities of color in the South. (Photo courtesy of the National AIDS Memorial)

The National AIDS Memorial has joined forces with the Southern AIDS Coalition to stage a series of art exhibitions and educational forums to honor Black and Brown people in the South who have been lost to HIV/AIDS.

The initiative, titled Change the Pattern, began in Jackson, Miss., on Wednesday with curated quilt exhibitions, displays, educational forums, advocacy, storytelling and quilt-making, according to a press release from the National AIDS Memorial. A $2.4 million grant from the biopharmaceutical company Gilead Sciences, Inc., funded Change the Pattern.

More than 500 hand-stitched quilt panels from the area were featured in what the National AIDS Memorial says is “the largest display of the AIDS Memorial Quilt ever” in Mississippi.

“By creating an empowering message and safe spaces for conversation, we can uplift, inspire and make progress toward ending the HIV epidemic, challenge cultural stigmas and continue the legacy of advocacy that the quilt represents,” said National AIDS Memorial CEO John Cunningham in the release. 

Change the Pattern was announced in honor of Southern HIV/AIDS Awareness Day during the Southern AIDS Coalition’s annual Saving Ourselves Symposium that took place in August. 

The conference, which was heavily attended by LGBTQ activists from the South, featured 100 quilt panels, and attendees participated in quilt-making workshops to make new quilt panels representing their loved ones.

Interested LGBTQ advocacy organizations in the South were invited to apply for funding to support local quilt-making workshops in their communities so as to ensure that the legacies of Black and Brown people are captured through newly-sewn panels on the quilt through the Memorial’s Call My Name program, according to the National AIDS Memorial press release. 

The application process opened on Sept. 15 with up to 35 eligible organizations receiving as much as $5,000 to support hosting local workshops. 

The first major Change the Pattern Quilt was founded 35 years ago as a visual representation of the need to end stigma and provide equitable resources to communities most impacted by HIV/AIDS, according to Southern AIDS Coalition Executive Director Dafina Ward.

“Change the Pattern is a call to action and change in the South,” said Ward. “Quilt-making has such a deep cultural connection in the Black community and in the South. The sharing and telling of these powerful stories through the quilt, coupled with advocacy and open dialogue, can help end HIV-related stigma and bring the stories of those we’ve lost to light.”

As the Change the Pattern initiative occurs, conversations about how to handle health epidemics within LGBTQ communities of color have become national topics, especially with the prevalence of monkeypox cases amongst Black gay men.

Despite earlier panic about the disease, the Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention in a report released on Wednesday said that individuals who were vaccinated against the disease were less likely to be affected over the summer compared to those who weren’t. 

The effectiveness and duration of immunity after a single dose, however, is not known, and few individuals in the current outbreak have completed the recommended two-dose series, according to the report. 

The most recent CDC data reports that 25,509 monkeypox cases have thus far been confirmed in the U.S. Only one death has been reported.

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U.S. Federal Courts

Doctor, transgender spouse indicted for passing information to Russia

Jamie Lee Henry first active-duty Army officer to come out as trans

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Jamie Lee Henry and their spouse Anna Gabrielian (Photos from social media)

A federal grand jury on Wednesday handed down an indictment of a Johns Hopkins anesthesiologist and her spouse, a doctor and major in the U.S. Army, with conspiracy and for the disclosure of individually identifiable health information related to their efforts to assist Russia in connection with the conflict in Ukraine.

The office of the U.S. Attorney for the District of Maryland in a press release stated Anna Gabrielian, 36, and her spouse, Jamie Lee Henry, 39, both of Rockville, Md., both of whom had secret clearances, were attempting to provide medical information about members of the military to the Russian government.

Gabrielian and Henry met with an individual they believed to be associated with the Russian government, but who was, in fact, an Federal Bureau of Investigation Undercover Agent.

Court documents indicate Gabrielian told the FBI agent posing as a Russian operative that she had previously reached out to the Russian Embassy by email and phone, offering Russia her and her spouses’ assistance.

According to the U.S. Attorney’s office, Gabrielian told the FBI agent that, although Henry knew of Gabrielian’s interaction with the Russian Embassy, she never mentioned Henry’s name to the Russian Embassy.

In the narrative released by the U.S. Attorney’s office, on Aug. 17, 2022, Gabrielian met with the FBI at a hotel in Baltimore. During that meeting, Gabrielian told the FBI she was motivated by patriotism toward Russia to provide any assistance she could to Russia, even if it meant being fired or going to jail. 

She proposed potential cover stories for her meeting with the “Russians” and stressed the need for “plausible deniability” in the event she was confronted by American authorities. Gabrielian also told the FBI that, as a military officer, Henry was currently a more important source for Russia than she was, because they had more helpful information, including how the U.S. military establishes an army hospital in war conditions and information about previous training provided by the U.S. military to Ukrainian military personnel. 

Henry identifies as a “transgender military physician” on their Twitter account.

Henry received public attention in 2015 after becoming the first known active-duty Army officer to come out as trans.

Henry was at one point a member of SPARTA, the nation’s largest nonprofit representing actively-serving trans U.S. servicemembers. A spokesperson for SPARTA, in an emailed statement commenting on the announcement of the arrest and indictment of Henry and their spouse told the Washington Blade:

“Transgender people are as diverse as the societies to which they belong. One’s gender identity neither increases nor decreases a propensity towards alleged criminal activity.”

As stated in the indictment, Gabrielian is an anesthesiologist and worked at Medical Institution 1 in Baltimore.  

Henry, a major in the U.S. Army who held a secret-level security clearance, is Gabrielian’s spouse and a doctor. During the time of the alleged conspiracy, Henry worked as a staff internist stationed at Fort Bragg, the home of the Army’s XVIII Airborne Corps, headquarters of the U.S. Army Special Operations Command and the Womack Army Medical Center.

Gabrielian was scheduled to have initial appearance at 11:30 a.m. on Thursday in U.S. District Court in Baltimore before U.S. Magistrate Judge Brendan A. Hurson. Henry is also expected to have an initial appearance today, although a time has not yet been set.

Full statement from SPARTA:

“SPARTA, a non-profit advocacy organization representing transgender Service members in the United States, is saddened to learn of the arrest and indictment of Jamie Lee Henry, an officer in the U.S. Army and a medical doctor.

SPARTA has long advocated for the inclusion and total equity for transgender persons throughout the United States uniformed services. Today, thousands are serving honorably and authentically at home stations worldwide.

The actions alleged in the indictment do not reflect Henry’s identity as transgender. Their alleged actions are those of an individual and should not be taken as a representation of transgender people broadly or transgender members of the military specifically.

All people in the United States are entitled to the same rights, including due process and the presumption of innocence in this case. SPARTA does not condone any actions alleged in the indictment and expects the process to play out fairly and equitably as it would for anyone accused of a crime.”

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The unvaccinated are 14 times more likely to contract monkeypox: health officials

Guidance updated to allow shots in places other than forearm

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U.S. health officials are celebrating data finding the monkeypox contraction is lower among people who are vaccinated.

U.S. health officials are celebrating preliminary data on the vaccine used in the monkeypox outbreak, which has led them to conclude eligible persons who didn’t get a shot were 14 times more likely to become infected than those who are vaccinated.

The new data, as described by health officials on the White House monkeypox task force during a call with reporters on Wednesday, comes as the overall number of new cases of monkeypox is in sharp decline, although considerable racial disparities persist in the remaining cases as Black and Latino people are overrepresented in the numbers.

Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, said during the conference call the preliminary data — collected from 32 states between July 2022 and September 2022 — provides an early shapshot of the effectiveness of the vaccine and cause for optimism on the path forward.

“These new data provide us with a level of cautious optimism that the vaccine is working as intended,” Walkensky said. “These early findings and similar results from studies and other countries suggest even one dose of the monkeypox vaccine offers at least some initial protection against infection.”

Walensky during the conference call admitted the data is incomplete in numerous ways. For example, the data is based on information on individuals who have obtained only the first shot as opposed to both shots in the two-shot vaccination process. (The data showing positive results from individuals who have only one shot contradicts previous warnings from the same U.S. health officials that one shot of the monkeypox vaccine was insufficient.)

The data also makes no distinction between individuals who have obtained a shot through subcutaneous injection, a more traditional approach to vaccine administration, as opposed to intradermal injection, which is a newer approach adopted in the U.S. guidance amid the early vaccine shortage. Skeptics of the new approach have said data is limited to support the idea the intradermal injection is effective, particularly among immunocompromised people with HIV who have been at higher risk of contracting monkeypox.

Not enumerated as part of the data were underlying numbers leading health officials to conclude the unvaccinated were 14 times more likely to contract monkeypox as opposed to those with a shot, as well as any limiting principle on the definition of eligible persons. Also unclear from the data is whether individual practices in sexual behavior had any role in the results.

Despite the positive data on the monkeypox vaccine based on one shot, U.S. health officials warned during the conference call the two-shot approach to vaccine administration is consistent with their guidance and more effective.

Demetre Daskalakis, the Biden administration’s face of LGBTQ outreach for monkeypox and deputy coordinator for the White House monkeypox task force, made the case that for individuals at risk obtaining a second dose is “really important.”

“So we see some response after the first [shot] in the laboratory, but the really high responses that we want to really get — that you know, level 10 forcefield as opposed to the level five forcefield — doesn’t happen until the second dose,” Daskalakis said. “So the important message is this just tells us to keep on trucking forward because we need that second dose at arms that people haven’t gotten the first should start their series of two vaccines.”

Also during the call, health officials said they would be expanding opportunities for vaccines as pre exposure prophylaxis, as opposed to practices in certain regions granting vaccines in their limited supply to individuals who meet certain criteria or have had risk of exposure.

The Centers of Disease Control & Prevention, officials said, is also updating its guidance to allow injection of the vaccines in places other than a patient’s arm.

Daskalakis said fear of stigma about getting a noticeable shot in the forearm after obtaining a monkeypox vaccine was a key part of the decision to issue the new guidance on implementation.

“Many jurisdictions and advocates have told us that some people declined vaccine to monkeypox because of the stigma associated with the visible but temporary mark often left on their forearm,” Daskalakis said. “New guidance from CDC allows people who don’t want to risk a visible mark on their forearm to offer a vaccine on their skin by their shoulder or their upper back. Those are areas more frequently covered by clothes.”

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