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Senate’s Respect for Marriage Act designed to withstand legal challenge: Padilla

‘Might there be legal challenges to it? I hope not. But in the case that there are, I believe it will be upheld’

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Senator Alex Padilla and Vice President Kamala Harris
Senator Alex Padilla and Vice President Kamala Harris. (Photo credit: Office of Senator Padilla)

Update: A bipartisan group of 62 senators voted Wednesday afternoon to open debate on the Respect for Marriage Act, with a vote by the full chamber expected as early as Thursday

The Senate’s version of the Respect for Marriage Act (RFMA) was written to “provide the strongest protections possible while being very thoughtful to ensure the best legal defense” in the face of a possible litigated challenge, Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Ca.) said.

“Might there be legal challenges to it? I hope not. But in the case that there are, I believe it will be upheld,” Padilla told the Washington Blade by phone on Wednesday, ahead of the Senate’s expected procedural vote on the legislation.

It is the prerogative of any senator to propose additional amendments to the RFMA, as with any legislation, but the appetite among the bipartisan coalition of lawmakers backing the bill is for none to be added at this stage, said Padilla, who is among its co-sponsor.

The California senator credited Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wi), the Democratic lead on negotiations over the bill, with securing “the Republican support necessary to overcome the filibuster.”

“I’m grateful that my Republican colleagues were willing to see the light and act accordingly here,” Padilla said.

As written, the RFMA “makes clear that the federal government will not discriminate in marriage on the basis of sex or race [while requiring that] states must acknowledge marriages happening in other states,” said Cathryn Oakley, state legislative director and senior counsel at the Human Rights Campaign, America’s largest LGBTQ organization.

The legislation “is really important as insurance for what’s happening next,” she said during a media briefing jointly hosted by HRC and GLBTQ Legal Advocates and Defenders (GLAD). “We don’t know what lays in front of us,” Oakley said.

Writing a concurring opinion earlier this year in the case of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas signaled his interest in revisiting the high court’s ruling establishing constitutional protections for same-sex marriage.

“Part of the urgency” to pass the RFMA during this legislative session “has been the fallout from the Dobbs decision at the Supreme Court, where extremists undid 50 years of Roe v. Wade protections and jeopardized other rights,” Padilla said.

“With a target on [same-sex] marriage, we appreciate that Congress is stepping up to do something,” GLAD’s Senior Director of Civil Rights and Legal Strategies Mary Bonauto said during the media briefing this morning.

“This bill is careful with how to thread the needle,” she said, “protecting state and federal marriages without addressing a host of other issues.”

“There are limitations to the bill,” Oakley conceded. “But what it is doing is really important – symbolically, legally, and practically,” she said, noting that there are more than 1,100 federal rights and benefits conferred through marriage that will be protected for same-sex couples through passage of the RFMA.

“Not to get ahead of ourselves,” Padilla said, but the RFMA will hopefully pave the way toward eventual passage of the Equality Act, which would expand civil rights protections to prevent discrimination against LGBTQ Americans in employment, housing, credit, jury service, and federally funded programs.

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The White House

Press secretary addresses ‘gut-wrenching’ death of Nex Benedict from the briefing room

‘Every young person deserves to feel safe and supported in school’

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White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre delivers a briefing on Feb. 23, 2024 (Washington Blade photo by Christopher Kane)

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre began Friday’s press briefing by expressing how “absolutely heartbroken” she was to learn about the death of nonbinary Oklahoma teenager Nex Benedict.

“Every young person deserves to feel safe and supported in school,” she said. “Our hearts are with Nex Benedict’s family, friends, entire school community in the wake of this horrific and gut wrenching tragedy.”

Jean-Pierre added, “I know that for many LGBTQ+ students across the country this may feel personal and deeply, deeply painful. There’s always someone you can talk to if you’re going through a hard time and need support.”

“The president and his administration launched the 988 line to help, and we have a line dedicated to serving LGBTQ+ young people that can be reached by dialing 933 and pressing 3,” she said. “Through devastating tragedies like these we must support each other and lift one another up.”

Authorities are still investigating the circumstances surrounding Benedict’s death on Feb. 8, which allegedly came the day after they were attacked in a restroom at Owasso High School, which followed months of bullying from peers.

This week, political leaders including Vice President Kamala Harris, Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) and Jean-Pierre issued statements on X, formerly Twitter.

In recent years the state of Oklahoma has become a hotbed of anti-LGBTQ legislation, including an anti-trans bathroom bill signed into law by Gov. Kevin Stitt in 2022.

Many LGBTQ advocates responded to news of Benedict’s death by calling out the escalation of hostile policies and rhetoric targeting transgender and gender-diverse communities, which advocates have warned can carry deadly consequences.

Human Rights Campaign President Kelley Robinson has urged federal investigators at the Justice and Education Department to get involved in the case.

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Africa

Kenyan advocacy groups join fight against femicide

30 women have been murdered in the country this year

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Kenyan flag (Photo by rarrarorro/Bigstock)

Some LGBTQ rights groups in Kenya have devised new security strategies to protect female community members from the risk of femicide that has been on the rise in the country in recent years. 

The strategies employed include hiring trained security response teams, emergency toll-free numbers for swift intervention and training queer women on safety as they go about their daily lives in homophobic societies.  

The LGBTQ rights organizations’ move to come up with their safety measures is driven by laxity by security agencies that they accuse of “personal bias, discrimination and victimization” of the complainants based on their sexual orientation whenever they seek help.

Consensual same-sex sexual relations are outlawed in Kenya under Sections 162 and 165 of the Penal Code and the queer rights groups the Washington Blade interviewed said the authorities exploit this criminalization. 

“We have contracted two security response focal persons in our organization to respond to violations of LBQ womxn in Kenya,” noted Elly Doe, the executive director of KISLEB, a Kisumu-based organization that champions the rights of lesbian, bisexual and queer women.

Doe, whose organization also advocates against femicide, said KISLEB is part of a special security situation room formed to explore ways of tackling rising cases of insecurity among the LGBTQ community in the country. 

The Initiative for Equality and Non-Discrimination, an LGBTQ rights organization also contacted by the Blade, stated it has been conducting advocacy programs that include creating safer spaces forums to address femicide and violence against women both physical and online.   

One of the forums convened last September in Mombasa, for instance, explored how communities and institutions can work together to prevent violence against marginalized women, effective support for survivors, mentorship and awareness campaigns. The participants included lesbian, bisexual, queer and transgender women, women in politics, sports, media, women living with disabilities and sex workers.    

INEND Communications Officer Melody Njuki, who expressed her organization’s concern over growing cases of femicide, oppression and violence against women, including those who identify as queer that go unchecked is caused by several social factors that include economic exclusion. 

“The intersectional issues faced by marginalized communities and structurally silenced women particularly sex workers and LBQT+ individuals adds complexity to the challenges experienced by victims of femicide due to discrimination, stigma and systemic inequalities exacerbating the vulnerability of women to violence,” Njuki said. 

Both INEND and KISLEB last month joined other LGBTQ rights groups, feminists and dozens of human rights organizations in Kenya in a nationwide street protest against rising cases of femicide and violence against women. 

The Jan. 27 protests were in response to the brutal killing of 16 women across the country since the beginning of the year. Hundreds of women, including those who identify as queer, during a Valentine’s Day vigil donned black outfits and held lit candles and red roses in honor of this year’s femicide victims, whose number had risen to more than 30.

“KISLEB as an organization that champions the rights of the LBQ womxn could not sit back and watch as women are being intentionally violated and killed yet in recent years the number has been rising rapidly and so many culprits go unpunished,” Doe said over her organization’s participation in the protest. “Participating in the protest was our way of expressing our solidarity with other women’s rights organizations in condemning femicide.”

Doe raised a concern over a rise in the number of homophobic threats against queer women, particularly on social media and residential areas, and called for police officers to be sensitized on LGBTQ issues to deal with this menace without discrimination. 

“We have also seen the cases of the murders of the LGBTQ community rising such as a trans woman activist Erica Chandra in August in Nairobi and a nonbinary lesbian woman Sheila Lumumba in April 2022,” she said. 

INEND, together with the National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, and Galck+ which participated in Lumumba’s murder case last December, were disappointed with the court after sentencing the suspect Billington Mwathi to 30 years in jail. The three LGBTQ rights groups described the sentence as “lenient” and said it didn’t meet the justice Lumumba deserved — the suspect raped her before killing her.

The organizations said they wanted Mwathi to receive a life sentence because Lumumba’s killing was not just an act of violence on an individual, but an attack on the dignity and safety of the LGBTQ community.  

INEND, nonetheless, attributes the rise in femicide to victim blaming on the part of the public and some leaders, which leads to a disconnect on the protection of the victims’ rights and its subsequent erosion as witnessed in the LGBTQ community.  

“The road to genocide starts with the dehumanization of the most marginalized, then continues to devour its way up the hierarchy of patriarchal systems,” Njuki said.  

She disclosed INEND was organizing a collective movement dubbed “#EndFemicideKe” to enlighten policymakers on the dire need to enforce strict measures on the killing of women. Njuki, however, commended jurists who are members of the Kenya Magistrates and Judges Association for their partnership with INEND and willingness to show a deeper understanding of human rights particularly the protection of LGBTQ rights.

She cited last year’s launch of a judicial guidebook to help judges better protect queer people’s rights and the High Court’s ruling that allowed the National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission to register as a non-governmental organization in promoting freedom of association.

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Politics

Harris, other political leaders issue statements on Nex Benedict’s death

Nonbinary Okla. teenager died earlier this month

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Nex Benedict, a 16-year-old nonbinary student from Oklahoma, died on Feb. 8 after a fight at their high school. (Family photo)

Vice President Kamala Harris, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, House Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) and Republican Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt are among the political leaders who have issued statements in recent days about the death of nonbinary teenager Nex Benedict after they were allegedly assaulted in a school bathroom after enduring months of bullying.

The 16-year-old’s death on Feb. 8 sparked outrage and questions about the high school’s response to the altercation, which had occurred the previous day. LGBTQ leaders who include Human Rights Campaign President Kelley Robinson have called for federal investigations by the Justice and Education Departments.

Advocates pointed to the anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and policies, particularly targeting transgender and gender-diverse communities, that have escalated in Oklahoma over the past few years, noting that they tend to increase the incidence of bias-motivated hate violence.

In their statements on X, which offered condolences to those mourning Benedict’s death, the vice president and White House press secretary also pledged solidarity with the LGBTQ community, while Pelosi took aim at “the anti-trans fervor fueled by extreme Republicans” and Pocan — who is gay and chairs the Congressional Equality Caucus — promised to keep fighting for “the dignity that nonbinary and trans Americans deserve. ”

Stitt, who in 2022 signed an anti-trans bill prohibiting students from using public school restrooms that do not match the sex listed on their birth certificates, wrote in his statement that “our hearts go out to Nex’s family, classmates, and the Owasso community. The death of any child in an Oklahoma school is a tragedy — and bullies must be held accountable.”

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