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Club Q massacre survivors testify before Congress

Hearing focused on rise of anti-LGBTQ extremism, violence

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Club Q bartender Michael Anderson testifies before the House Oversight Committee on Dec. 14, 2022. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Two survivors of the Club Q massacre on Wednesday testified during a House Oversight Committee hearing that focused on the rise of anti-LGBTQ extremism and violence in the U.S. 

Michael Anderson, a Club Q bartender, noted he grew up in Central Florida and “was taught in my private religious school and by many conservative voices to hate who I was, that being born gay was something to reject.”

Anderson told the committee that he “waited, silent and suffering” until he came out as gay at 16. Anderson also said gay bars and clubs “helped me embrace who I was and formed me into the man I am today.”

“On Nov.19th, 2022, a deranged shooter entered Club Q armed with an assault rifle, a pistol, an incredibly disturbing amount of ammunition and an even more disturbing amount of hatred in their heart, all while cowardly hiding behind a bulletproof vest,” said Anderson. “This shooter entered our safe space and our home with the intention of killing as many people as possible, as quickly as possible. They used a military style weapon that exists solely for the intention of killing other human beings and began to hunt us down as if our lives meant nothing.”

James Slaugh told the committee that he was at Club Q with his partner and sister when the gunman opened fire.

The gunman shot Slaugh in his arm, and his partner in his leg. Slaugh’s sister was shot more than a dozen times.

“The events of Nov. 19 were a nightmare come true,” said Slaugh. “Five wonderful people were still murdered: Ashley Paugh, Raymond Green Vance, Daniel Aston, Derrick Rump and Kelly Loving. We miss each of you.”

“Club Q was a second home and safe space to all of us,” he added. “Outside of these spaces we are continually being dehumanized, marginalized and targeted. The fear based and hateful rhetoric surrounding the LGBTQ community, especially around trans individuals and drag performers leads to violence. We shouldn’t have to fear being shot when we go to our safe spaces.”

Matthew Haynes, Club Q’s founding owner, in his testimony thanked local and state officials and LGBTQ rights groups — specifically One Colorado, Inside Out Youth Services in Colorado Springs and GLAAD — “for the efforts and support they have all provided to our community during this time.”

“We should not be meeting under these pretenses,” said Haynes. “I know that we as a community are in the thoughts and prayers of so many people, including many of you, unfortunately these thoughts and prayers alone are not saving lives, they are not changing the rhetoric of hate.”  

Colorado prosecutors earlier this month indicted the suspected gunman with 305 charges that include first-degree murder, attempted first-degree murder and bias-motivated crime.

The hearing took place a day after President Joe Biden signed the Respect for Marriage Act during a ceremony on the White House’s South Lawn. (Only 39 House Republicans voted for the measure when it received final approval on Dec. 8, the same day that Russia released WNBA star Brittney Griner in exchange for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.) It also took place against the backdrop of a proliferation of anti-LGBTQ bills that lawmakers across the country have introduced; an increase in online hate speech, harassment and threats based on sexual orientation and gender identity and anti-LGBTQ violence.

“To the politicians and activists who accuse LGBTQ people of grooming children and being abusers, shame on you,” Anderson told the committee. “As leaders of our country, it is your obligation to represent all of us, not just the ones you happen to agree with.” 

“Hate speech turns into hate action, and actions based on hate almost took my life from me, at 25 years old,” added Anderson. “I beg you all to consider your words before you speak them, for someone may use those words to justify action – action that may take someone’s life.”

Haynes in his testimony noted he received “hundreds of hate mail and emails” after the Club Q massacre. 

“I woke up to the wonderful news that five mentally unstable faggots and lesbians and 18 injured,” read one of them. “The only thing that I’m mad about is that the faggots had courage to subdue the wonderful killer. I hope more shootings happen again. Have a blessed day.”

“The shooter was doing God’s work, five less fags not enough,” said another. “Those that stopped him are the devil.”

Haynes told the committee that now “is a critical time for national, state, local elected officials, community and religious leaders to drop the politics and work with LGBTQ leaders and small business owners like me to support and affirm LGBTQ events, venues, communities and must importantly people.” 

“We need safe spaces like Club Q more than ever,” he added. “And we need you, as our leaders, to support and protect us.” 

Democratic New York Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, the committee’s outgoing chair, in her opening remarks noted the Club Q gunman’s “depravity robbed us of five innocent lives” before she read the victims’ names.

“In attacking Club Q, the shooter attacked the sense of safety of LGBTQI people across the country,” she said. “The attack on Club Q is not an isolated incident, but a trend of broader intimidation.”

Inside Out Youth Services President Jessie Pocock in her testimony noted at least one of the massacre’s victims had previously visited her organization. 

“This is not ok. This is not normal,” said Pocock.

Human Rights Campaign President Kelley Robinson told the committee the Club Q massacre “is just one example of the violence that has shattered LGBTQ+ lives, families and communities in the past few years.”

“Violence and discrimination against LGBTQ+ communities is the tragic result of a society that devalues our lives — particularly the lives of black and brown transgender and gender non-conforming people,” said Robinson. “And this hate and violence is on the rise.”

Robinson in her testimony cited openly gay California state Sen. Scott Wiener, who received a bomb threat earlier this month that contained his home address and described him as a “pedophile” and a “groomer.”

“Fueled by nearly unfettered access to guns, and political extremism and rhetoric that is deliberately devised to make our community less safe, less equal and less free,” said Robinson. “Violence has become a lived reality for so many in our community.”

Human Rights Campaign President Kelley Robinson testifies before the House Oversight Committee on Dec. 14. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

GLAAD President Sarah Kate Ellis, National Center for Transgender Equality Policy Director Olivia Hunt, Ilan Meyer of the Williams Institute, Charles Fain Lehman of the Manhattan Institute and Equality Florida Communications Director Brandon Wolf also testified.

Wolf in 2016 survived the Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando, Fla., that left 49 people dead and 53 others injured.

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Congress

Ritchie Torres speaks about mental health struggles

Openly gay N.Y. congressman appeared on ‘GMA3’

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U.S. Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-N.Y.) (Screen capture via GMA3 Twitter video)

New York Congressman Ritchie Torres has spoken out about his struggle with depression and the importance of mental health in the wake of U.S. Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.)’s recent hospitalization for clinical depression. 

Torres, a Democrat who is the first openly gay Afro-Latino member of Congress, told “GMA3” hosts DeMarco Morgan and Eva Pilgrim on Tuesday that he had “an obligation to tell” his “story in the hopes of breaking the shame and silence, and stigma that too often surrounds the subject of mental health.”

Torres views his coming to terms with his mental health issues — while also being open about it — as a form of “public service” to the American people. 

“We live in a society that historically has shamed people for experiencing mental illness, that has framed mental illness as a failure of character or a failure of willpower. And I’m here to send a message that mental illness is nothing of which to be ashamed, that there are millions of Americans who struggle with depression and anxiety,” Torres explained. 

Even before being elected to Congress, Torres, 34, spoke freely about his past experiences concerning mental health issues and how they affected him. While campaigning, one of his opponents tried to use his depression as a counterpoint to prove that he was not worthy of being in public office. 

From then on, Torres vowed to “never again would I allow my mental health to be weaponized,” he told Time magazine

He emphasized the importance of psychotherapy and medication as a means of controlling his depressive episodes and going through his day by day as a congressman.

He noted, however, that “there are people who have trouble accessing mental health care.” 

“And even if you do, the process of experimenting with psychiatric medications can be draining and debilitating, because there’s no one size fits all,” he added. 

Torres said he hopes that Congress can pave the way for more mental health care for the millions of Americans who need it.

“Our healthcare system is fundamentally broken and Congress is no closer to fixing it,” he argued. 

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Sorensen: ‘We’re going to do better today for the next generation’

‘Everyone should be speaking out’ against anti-trans extremism

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Rep. Eric Sorensen (D-Ill.) (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Whether on matters concerning climate change or LGBTQ rights, members of Congress ought to focus on making progress for the benefit of the next generation, U.S. Rep. Eric Sorensen (D-Ill.) told the Washington Blade.

“It’s making that decision today to talk about what’s in our future, not what’s in our past, and to say, ‘let’s just do what’s best for our kids,'” Sorensen said during an exclusive interview with the Blade from his office last week.

The congressman, who became the first openly gay member to represent the state of Illinois in either chamber with his election in 2022, has plenty of experience reaching folks with this message.

A meteorologist by trade, Sorensen began his television career at the ABC affiliate KTRE in Lufkin, Texas in 1999 before becoming chief meteorologist for WREX, Rockford, Illinois’s NBC affiliate, and then senior meteorologist at the ABC affiliate WQAD serving the Quad Cities area.

“You know, I was the one talking about climate change to farmers,” Sorensen said.

“Whenever I talk about climate change, I don’t fault anyone for being in a different place in the past,” he said, which helps to avoid positioning conservatives and climate skeptics in a defensive posture.

“We don’t ever have to agree on who’s causing climate change, or what 1.5 degrees celsius or two degrees celsius means,” Sorensen said. “Let’s just say that we’re going to do better today for the next generation, okay? And the same thing with LGBTQ issues, right?”

As it turned out, discussing climate change “wasn’t this third rail that we thought it was,” he said. Likewise, “it was the same thing as when I had my trans friends on television on Good Morning Quad Cities” for National Coming Out Day.

The move was important, Sorensen said, “so that my community could see these are real people…my friend Paula and my friend Chase are real people.” The congressman added, “we talked about how we came out, and we didn’t get any backlash [from the audience], because, you know what? I don’t live in a hateful community.”

Sorensen said the network looked at audience engagement metrics for segments featuring his trans friends, and for segments in which he addressed climate change, and the data repeatedly indicated that viewers were able to easily countenance both.

Some of this might be attributed to the good will he had built with this audience. After all, “I was the one they were turning to when the tornado was bearing down on their family’s home,” Sorensen said.

Regardless, “how do we expect people to understand if we don’t explain these things?”

‘Everyone should be speaking out’ against anti-trans extremism

Last week, Republicans on the U.S. House Education and Workforce Committee passed legislation that would bar transgender women and girls from competing in school sports per Title IX.

The measure, part of a nationwide wave of anti-trans bills, is likely fated to languish in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

On the heels of a press conference to drum up opposition to the bill that was hosted by the Congressional Equality Caucus and its chair, Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), Sorensen said, “I’m disappointed because these are real people.”

“We have to understand that, you know, when we talk about the threat that transgender people face today, if you just look at what is being proposed, what the extreme Republicans are saying, is that there’s now a group of kids or a group of people that don’t deserve to learn what athletics is about,” said the congressman, who is also a co-chair of the Equality Caucus.

Sorensen said the message from Republican members backing this legislation is that “this group [of women and girls] doesn’t deserve to learn teamwork as a kid.”

“It’s terrible,” he said. “Everyone should be speaking out against this. What it just shows is that these Republicans, they’re just stoking fear and division and being extreme, instead of actually solving the problems of the people.”

Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) at the U.S. Capitol on March 8 speaking out against the proposed trans sports ban. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

“I think it’s a point of extreme Republicans to run on this platform instead of solving the problems that we do have in front of us,” Sorensen said.

He noted extremism doesn’t seem to have been a winning message for Republican candidates in the 2022 midterm elections, during which time the GOP’s focus was on issues like the economy and healthcare.

It is remarkable “how things have changed in such a short amount of time,” Sorensen said. “And that’s because the Republicans, these extreme Republicans, have decided that they’re going to to roll through this division and hate.”

“It’s insane,” he said, pointing to legislation like the bill proposed in the Iowa Legislature to ban same-sex marriage “when it’s already been set in stone.”

At the same time, the congressman said, there is ample reason for optimism. For example, “in the state of Illinois we rejected that hate because the state of Illinois elected its first LGBTQ member of Congress.”

And back in the Quad Cities, Sorensen had the chance to meet the next generation of out youth when volunteering at the area’s LGBTQ community center, Clock, Inc. “I just stood there in awe at these kids that were able to be themselves.”

Moving forward, Sorensen said Democrats should continue to prioritize issues that Americans actually care about.

“I don’t feel like we need to defend ourselves,” he said. “You know, if they want to put this wedge issue out there, we need to just be able to say, ‘I’m fighting for Americans. I’m fighting to lower the price of goods, connecting people to health care,'” which includes healthcare for trans folks as well as reproductive care including abortions.

Sorensen said his identity as a gay man was not a central feature of his congressional campaign, but still, for many folks, “the only gay person that they knew was Eric Sorensen on channel eight.”

Overcoming homophobia

Growing up in the 1980s during the AIDS crisis, Sorensen said he asked himself, “Why should I even try?” He told the Blade, “I can see in my head the pictures of a hospital room, and I thought, ‘that’s how I’m gonna die,'” he said, so, “why would I even try, when they’re never going to allow me to be on television?”

Having relocated from Lufkin to Tyler, after a couple of years working as a meteorologist in the comparably larger northeast Texas metropolitan area, Sorensen said his sexual orientation became a problem for his employer in 2003.

“My boss told me, ‘Eric, I need you to go to the conference room after your show’s over,'” the congressman remembers.

Laid before Sorensen was his employment contract, a document he had not seen since he had signed it. “All of a sudden,” he said, “the members of management walk in, and I was told to have a seat while nobody across the table sat down – so they were looking down upon me.”

They had been alerted to Sorensen’s profile on Gay.com and offered him the choice to “be that person,” pointing to a printout of his profile, “or have a job.”

From there, he took a pay cut to return to Illinois where “I got to be out,” he said, “I got to be myself,” while every day at work, “I was telling my mom and dad what the weather was like.”

The congressman added, “If I would have given up in that space in Texas, where would I be? I wouldn’t be here today.”

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Pocan, Congressional Equality Caucus criticize trans sports ban bill

Measure scheduled for markup in House committee on Wednesday

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U.S> Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) speaks at the U.S. Capitol on March 8, 2023 (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) and the Congressional Equality Caucus held a press conference Wednesday at the U.S. Capitol to rally opposition to House Republicans’ proposed legislation that would prohibit transgender women and girls from participating in sports.

The bill was slated for markup by the U.S. House Education and the Workforce Committee later Wednesday.

“I’m assuming by the time it gets to the floor, we have talked to many members of Congress, especially on the Democratic side, we’re gonna fight hard on this,” Pocan said in response to a question from the Washington Blade.

“I have no idea where some of the extreme politicians may try to take this, but the bottom line is they promised us they’re going to lower the costs for the American people they promised us smaller, less intrusive government, and now they’re being the biggest of big brother that can possibly be by trying to determine which kids can play in sports,” Pocan said.

Joining Pocan and the caucus at the press conference were Shiwali Patel, director of justice for student survivors and senior counsel at the National Women’s Law Center, Rebekah Bruesehoff, a trans student athlete, and Jamie Bruesehoff, her mother.

“Today, Republicans are showing their real priorities, political priorities, by considering a trans and intersex sports ban as the opening salvo in their efforts to undermine the rights of LGBTQI+ people,” Pocan said during his prepared remarks.

“Women and girls face real problems on the field, from strained resources to unequal pay and sexual harassment and assault, but rather than dealing with these matters or other challenges like gun violence, members on the Education and the Workforce Committee will spend their first legislative markup targeting a handful of trans girls and women who participate in school sports,” Pocan said.

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