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Zelenskyy travels to U.S.

Ukrainian president met with American counterpart, addressed Congress

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Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and U.S. President Joe Biden. (White House photo public domain)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Wednesday met with President Joe Biden at the White House.

Zelenskyy arrived at the White House shortly after 2 p.m. ET. Biden and first lady Jill Biden greeted him.

The Ukrainian president told Biden in the Oval Office that he came to the U.S. to offer “all my appreciations from my heart and from the heart of all Ukrainians.” Zelenskyy later spoke to a joint session of Congress.

Russia launched its war against Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022. Wednesday’s trip marks the first time that Zelenskyy has traveled outside his country since the war began.

Zelenskyy in 2021 pledged Ukraine would continue to fight discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity after he met with Biden at the White House. 

Zelenskyy less than six months after the war began said he supports a civil partnerships law for same-sex couples. Ukrainian lawmakers last week unanimously approved a media regulation bill that will ban hate speech and incitement based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

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The White House

Senate confirms Biden’s 200th judicial nominee

Diverse group includes 11 LGBTQ judges

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Vice President Kamala Harris and President Joe Biden at the White House on Jan. 5, 2023. (Screenshot via White House YouTube channel)

With the U.S. Senate’s confirmation of his 200th judicial nominee on Wednesday, President Joe Biden surpassed the number who were appointed to the federal bench by his last two predecessors at this point in their presidencies.

Among them are 11 LGBTQ judges, the same record-setting number who were nominated and confirmed under former President Barack Obama over the course of his two terms in office.

In a statement celebrating the milestone, Biden highlighted the diverse identities, backgrounds, and professional experiences of the men and women he has appointed over the past four years.

They “come from every walk of life, and collectively, they form the most diverse group of judicial appointees ever put forward by a president,” he said, noting that “64 percent are women and 62 percent are people of color.”

“Before their appointment to the bench, they worked in every field of law,” Biden said, “from labor lawyers fighting for working people to civil rights lawyers fighting to protect the right to vote.”

The president added, “Judges matter. These men and women have the power to uphold basic rights or to roll them back. They hear cases that decide whether women have the freedom to make their own reproductive healthcare decisions; whether Americans have the freedom to cast their ballots; whether workers have the freedom to unionize and make a living wage for their families; and whether children have the freedom to breathe clean air and drink clean water.”

The LGBTQ judges who were confirmed under Biden include Beth Robinson, the first LGBTQ woman to serve on a federal court of appeals, Nicole Berner, the 4th Circuit’s first LGBTQ judge, Charlotte Sweeney, the first LGBTQ woman to serve on a federal district court west of the Mississippi River, and Melissa DuBose, the first Black and the first LGBTQ judge to serve on a federal court in Rhode Island.

Echoing the president’s comments during a briefing with reporters on Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre noted Biden’s appointment of the U.S. Supreme Court’s first Black woman, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson.

“We’ve confirmed more Hispanic judges circuit courts than any previous administration,” she said. “We’ve confirmed more Black women to circuit courts than all previous presidents combined.”

Jean-Pierre added that while these milestones are “great news,” there is still “much more work to be done.”

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White House acknowledges IDAHOBiT, reiterates support for global LGBTQ rights

WHO on May 17, 1990, declassified homosexuality as a mental illness

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Pride flags fly from an apartment's terrace in Warsaw, Poland, on April 11, 2024. The International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia commemorates the World Health Organization's declassification of homosexuality as a mental illness. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

The Biden-Harris administration on Friday used the annual International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia to reiterate its support of LGBTQ and intersex rights around the world.

“On the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia, my administration stands in support and solidarity with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI+) people around the world as they seek to live full lives, free from violence and discrimination,” said President Joe Biden in a statement. “This is a matter of human rights, plain and simple.” 

“The United States applauds those individuals and groups worldwide working to defend the rights of LGBTQI+ people wherever they are under threat,” he added. “We are grateful for the contributions that LGBTQI+ people make every day across our nation.”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken echoed Biden.

“On this day, we reflect upon the violence and discrimination lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI+) persons worldwide suffer and re-commit ourselves to opposing these acts,” said Blinken in his own statement. “This year, like every year, we state unequivocally: LGBTQI+ persons deserve recognition of their universal human rights and human dignity.” 

IDAHOBiT commemorates the World Health Organization’s declassification of homosexuality as a mental disorder on May 17, 1990.

Blinken in his statement notes LGBTQ and intersex people around the world “continue to face insidious forms of stigma and discrimination.”

Dominica last month became the latest country to decriminalize consensual same-sex sexual relations. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni in May 2023 signed his country’s Anti-Homosexuality Act that, among other things, contains a death penalty provision for “aggravated homosexuality.”

“Even as more countries make meaningful advancements towards full equality; LGBTQI+ persons continue to be sentenced to death for daring to live their sexual orientation or gender identity, subjected to coercive conversion ‘therapies’ and ‘normalization’ surgeries, discriminated against while receiving health services, restricted from exercising fundamental freedoms, and denied the dignity of same-sex partnership and fulfillment of family,” said Blinken. 

“As we reflect upon the injustices that LGBTQI+ persons and their allies endure, we must not forget that today is fundamentally a day of action,” he added. “On this day and every day, the United States stands with LGBTQI+ persons around the world. We will continue to advocate for the rights of LGBTQI+ persons not just because we have a moral imperative to do so, but because it helps to strengthen democracy, bolster national security, and promote global health and economic development.”

The Tonga Leitis Association is among the myriad LGBTQ and intersex rights groups around the world that acknowledged IDAHOBiT.

The Human Rights Campaign announced advocacy groups in 24 countries that include Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cambodia, Estonia, Morocco, and Peru received grants through its Global Small Grants Program. These funds, according to a press release, will allow them to “advance LGBTQ+ equality.”

“This year, the Human Rights Campaign is honored to mark the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia by highlighting the powerful impact of the Global Small Grants Program,” sand HRC Global Advocacy Associate Director Andrea Gillespie. “IDAHOBIT is a great opportunity for reflection of both the great strides made in our movement and just how far we need to go to achieve equality for all.” 

“As the anti-rights and anti-gender movement seeks to rollback progress on LGBTQ+ rights globally, HRC is proud to stand in solidarity with our partners around the world facing new anti-LGBTQ+ legislation and policies, and redouble our commitments to the important work of HRC’s Global Alumni Network,” added Gillespie. 

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The White House

EXCLUSIVE: White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre on speaking out and showing up

On the two-year anniversary of her appointment, she says, ‘representation matters’

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White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Karine Jean-Pierre sat down with the Washington Blade for an exclusive interview in her office on Tuesday, a week before the two-year anniversary of her appointment as America’s first Black and first openly queer White House press secretary.

Her history-making tenure has come at an especially fraught time for LGBTQ people.

The Biden-Harris administration has been widely celebrated as the most pro-equality in history. Over the past four years, rights and freedoms were expanded through the passage of landmark legislation and the enactment of bold new policies by federal agencies like the FDA and U.S. Department of Education, while the president elevated record-breaking numbers of LGBTQ appointees to serve in the highest levels of government.

At the same time, conservative Republicans have led an unprecedented legislative assault on queer people, especially transgender and gender-expansive youth, which has been accompanied by an escalation of dangerous fear and hate-mongering rhetoric against the community and spikes in bias-motivated acts of violence as well as depression, anxiety, self-harm behaviors, and deaths by suicide.

On these matters Jean-Pierre has often spoken out, addressing reporters from the lectern in the West Wing’s James S. Brady Press Briefing Room in remarks that have often gone viral and driven news coverage.

Reflecting on her tenure, the 49-year-old press secretary explained why she is uniquely positioned to leverage her influence as the most visible spokesperson for President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, and the administration — at this pivotal moment for LGBTQ people both at home and abroad.

Leadership comes from the top

“Representation matters,” Jean-Pierre said. “And the president was certainly very aware of that, and wanted to make sure that he put together the most diverse administration,” she said, “and he did that.”

About 14 percent of appointees in the Biden-Harris administration identify as LGBTQ, including U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Adm. Rachel Levine, assistant secretary for health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In his first term, Biden has appointed a record-breaking 11 LGBTQ judges to the federal bench, tying with the number who were confirmed under former President Barack Obama over the course of eight years.

“I am in this job because the president of the United States believed and wanted me to speak on behalf of him and said, ‘You have my voice, and you know how to speak for me, and this is the role that I want’ — I mean, that’s why he chose me,” she said.

Jean-Pierre stressed that she is able to condemn “these bad bills, these awful bills, these really hateful, prejudiced, anti-LGBTQ+ bills” because of “this president” — and not just by virtue of his appointment of her to the role of press secretary, but also because “he believes it is important to speak out.”

“Silence is complicit,” she said. “You know, that’s something that you hear from this president all the time: We cannot be silent in this moment. We cannot. Not when we see these anti-LGBTQ+ bills” nor when attempts are made to restrict reproductive rights or other freedoms.

When vulnerable queer youth are being targeted, Jean-Pierre said, “we have to do everything that we can — as an administration, as the White House, as the federal government — to protect them, and that’s what I get to do” because “this president allows me to speak out and show up.”

Jean-Pierre also pointed to Biden’s remarks in defense of the LGBTQ community and other marginalized groups during his State of the Union addresses and other major speeches.

“One of the things that he has said that always touches me is he says, ‘trans kids are some of the most impressive, brave people’ that he has seen,” she said. The president understands that “This is not about politics. This is about the right thing to do. And protecting lives.”

“And I say all of this to say it matters. It matters who sits behind that Resolute Desk. It matters who’s the president of the United States,” Jean-Pierre said.

The press secretary added that Biden’s actions as president affirm his verbal commitments to protect, support, and defend the LGBTQ community.

“The president signed an executive order to make sure that we were lifting up LGBTQ+ rights on the federal level, to make sure that policies that we were putting out there were taking steps toward protecting families, protecting youth, addressing mental health amongst young people, and in the community, and that was something that was really important for the president to do.”

She described a pivotal moment in the White House when, after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade’s constitutional protections for abortion with a 6-3 ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization (2022), conservative Justice Clarence Thomas signaled his interest in revisiting other cases, including those that established the right to marriage equality.

“So, one of the things that came out of Congress in a bipartisan way was protecting marriage, protecting marriage equality,” Jean-Pierre said, “and I remember when the president signed [the Respect for Marriage Act] in December of 2022, and how beautiful that was knowing that that was protected by law.”

“We have made sure to do what we can on the federal level,” she added, noting that, “Obviously, there’s legislation that we have to continue to push for,” including the Equality Act — which would codify nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ Americans — “but we do what we can from this side of things.”

The importance of diversity of lived experience

The president also understands the value of narrative storytelling in policymaking and governance, Jean-Pierre said, noting how Biden often talks about economic issues by relating to the struggles of working families with his journey from humble beginnings in Scranton, Pa.

Likewise, Jean-Pierre said that drawing from her lived experiences “helps me understand policy a little bit more and telling stories around policies a little bit more.” For example, she sees the danger of anti-LGBTQ laws targeting youth not just because of her identity as a member of the community — but also as the mother of a nine-year-old.

In February, Jean-Pierre spoke out repeatedly after a nonbinary Oklahoma teen named Nex Benedict died, in what was later ruled a suicide, after enduring months of bullying over their sexual orientation and following their state’s passage of a bill prohibiting trans students from using restrooms and facilities consistent with their gender identity.

“I know that for many LGBTQ+ students across the country this may feel personal and deeply, deeply painful,” Jean-Pierre said in remarks to reporters during the opening (the “topper”) of her press briefing on Feb. 23.

“Nex Benedict and so many young people are dying by suicide,” she told the Blade. “And that hurts. That’s an incredibly hurtful thing. Because they were bullied, because they were attacked, because they don’t feel free.”

“As a parent, as a mom, I do everything that I can to make sure that [my daughter] is protected,” Jean-Pierre said. “And what I want for my child, I want for every child, so that does hit differently, because it’s very personal.”

The press secretary recalled how she met two mothers at an event last year and, in separate conversations with the women, learned how they planned to leave their respective home states — Texas and Oklahoma — because they had trans children and felt unable to protect them amid the legislative attacks.

“Can you imagine,” she asked, “you’re raising your child in a community that you are familiar with” when suddenly, “there is a piece of legislation that’s going through the state legislature that gets signed by the governor and it is telling you that your child is in danger?”

Jean-Pierre also recognizes how her professional background and experience have equipped her for the briefing room and other duties of her role as White House press secretary.

Prior to joining Biden’s 2020 campaign and then the Biden-Harris administration, she worked as a political analyst for NBC News and MSNBC, having also served as a senior adviser and national spokesperson for MoveOn, the progressive public policy advocacy group.

Jean-Pierre began her career working on political campaigns and fundraising before joining the faculty of her alma mater, Columbia University, where she was a lecturer in international and public affairs.

“There’s something to growing and experiencing and taking chances and jumping from one thing to another,” she said, “understanding that you’re learning from the last thing and what you’re learning from the last thing you’re going to take to the next experience.”

The president, Jean-Pierre said, “had watched me do TV and watched me in my roles prior, and really believed that I was the person that he wanted” for the press secretary role.

Ultimately, “whether it’s making sure I am empathetic, sympathetic to what people are going through as a mom, as someone that belongs to multiple communities, I get to do that. Whether it’s the media and understanding how the media works, how TV works, how communicating with the press works, I’ve done that, so I’m able to bring that to the podium,” she said.

‘Lifting up issues that matter

In the immediate aftermath of Benedict’s death, Jean-Pierre noted that LGBTQ advocacy groups and individuals had sought to “get more attention to what happened there,” while the Biden-Harris administration wanted folks to understand “that we’re watching, we’re seeing what is happening, and we’re going to speak” about it.

“We’re not going to be silent, here,” she said. “We were very purposeful about it.”

In hindsight, Jean-Pierre said, her remarks from the podium made a real impact. “It brings coverage; it brings the White House press corps and others to cover what we’re saying. That is why it is so important what we do at the podium; it is so important what we do in this press briefing room — lifting up issues that matter to the American people.”

The press secretary added, “sometimes it’s not even an issue that’s popular. It’s something that needs to be spoken to, because it is something that could lead to a dangerous situation; something that could oppress a community, harm a community — and we get that; this president gets that, this administration gets that.”

Initially, there was very little press coverage of Benedict’s death, Jean-Pierre said, but “we wanted to really lift up what was happening,” because “it wasn’t just Nex Benedict. It was a story of many, many people in that community who were being bullied, who were being attacked. And we needed to speak to that” especially amid the hundreds of bills targeting the rights of queer youth in Oklahoma and across the country.

In another instance recalling her comments from the briefing room, Jean-Pierre stressed how it was important for the administration to “take on the governor” of Florida, Ron DeSantis (R), over his efforts to target the LGBTQ community by banning books, imposing curriculum restrictions, and limiting educators’ ability to be out at work.

Doing what’s right — regardless of the backlash

Jean-Pierre was quick to brush aside the question of whether she considers the risk of incurring backlash from the right when deciding whether to speak out on matters of LGBTQ rights.

Blowback “happens all the time,” she said. “Every day!” So, “I just don’t pay attention to it. We have to do the right thing and we can’t live in fear, here.”

The choice to be silent about a problem is the choice to be complicit, and not only does silence forestall any progress toward addressing the issue at hand, but it also constitutes an abrogation of one’s responsibility as a leader, Jean-Pierre said.

“The president is very clear about that,” she said. With respect to issues like dangerous anti-LGBTQ legislation, “you can’t be silent” because “people’s lives are at stake.” Ultimately, “The backlash is going to be the backlash, but we’ve got to do the right thing and history will remember where we stood.”

The Biden-Harris administration believes this principle extends to America’s leadership on the international stage, Jean-Pierre said, in her response to a question about U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg’s (R-Mich.) travel to Uganda last year to speak in defense of the country’s draconian Anti-Homosexuality Act.

She stressed that the law, which criminalizes homosexuality and imposes the death penalty in some cases, is “dangerous and undermines the rights of all citizens. And the president has been very clear, the Biden-Harris administration has been very clear, that no one should live — and I’ve said this before — in constant fear.”

Rather, Jean-Pierre said, “They should feel safe in their community, they should feel protected, and no one should be subjected to violence and discrimination. It is not what we believe, whether it’s here in this country or abroad.”

Since the legislation was made effective in May 2023, she noted, “we’ve taken several accountability actions, including restricting visa entry to the United States, restricting economic support to the government, and sanctioning officials who abuse human rights.”

Jean-Pierre added that, “we’re also deeply troubled by the copycat anti-LGBTQ+ legislation around the world,” which is “why it’s important what we do as the United States, because we’re leaders. And when you’re seeing other countries trying to implement and copycat the same thing, you need the United States to stand up and speak out against it. And that’s leadership.”

The administration’s robust response “sends a message around the world, that we do believe in human rights; we do believe that people should be protected; we do believe that violence and discrimination is not OK,” Jean-Pierre said. “And we lead by example.”

Likewise with respect to her comments from the podium, she said. “And [those remarks] went viral, because we spoke to it very loudly, very clearly,” in what was “an important moment for the community here but [also for] the community abroad, to hear from us, [that] we’re not afraid to talk about this because we have to and we understand our role in the world.”

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