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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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Congress

Rep. Frost talks gun control with the Blade on anniversary of March for Our Lives

26-year-old congressman has been a gun violence prevention advocate since 2012

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U.S. Rep. Maxwell Frost (D-Fla.) (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Author’s note: The full interview with Congressman Frost will be published next week.  

U.S. Rep. Maxwell Frost (D-Fla.), after a week of making headlines for his gun violence prevention advocacy, sat down with the Washington Blade for an exclusive interview on Friday, which marks the five-year anniversary of the founding of March for Our Lives.

The 26-year-old freshman congressman, who before his election was national organizing director for the student-led gun control group, had just introduced his first piece of legislation Tuesday with U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn. that would establish an Office of Gun Violence Prevention within the U.S. Department of Justice.

The proposal’s aim, in part, is to better facilitate the implementation of last year’s Bipartisan Safer Communities Act by establishing a singular office to coordinate that work.

And on Thursday, Frost captured and tweeted a video of a confrontation between U.S. Capitol Police and Patricia and Manuel Oliver, gun control advocates who lost their son Joaquin in the 2018 Parkland, Fla., high school shooting.

The couple had been removed by police from the House Oversight and House Judiciary Committees’ gun rights hearing at the request of GOP Reps. Andy Biggs (Ariz.) and Pat Fallon (Texas).

Frost, who was in attendance, told the Blade the conflict started when Patricia Oliver “just stood up and she said, ‘you took my son’ and she sat down,” but “instead of moving on, the Chair [Fallon] escalated things.”

The congressman said the hearing itself was “a sham” convened for the purpose of attacking the Biden administration’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), the entity within the U.S. Justice Department that investigates violations of laws governing the manufacture, possession, and use of guns.

“The real story here,” said the congressman, “is the fact that there were two parents who lost their son who was in high school, because he was shot to death and died in a pool of his own blood, and now they’re going to spend the rest of their lives fighting for a world where it doesn’t happen to anybody else.”  

Frost noted the Olivers were joined at the hearing by other families, activists, and organizers – all of whom were gathered in Washington, D.C., to advance the mission established by the group of teenaged Parkland survivors who founded March for Our Lives five years ago.

Among these student activists were Cameron Kasky, who identifies as queer, and X González, who is bisexual and uses they/them pronouns.

Frost has repeatedly said he ran for Congress because of his involvement in the gun violence prevention advocacy movement, which began with his volunteering on behalf of the Newtown Action Alliance, a group formed in the wake of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.  

The congressman told NPR the 2016 shooting at Pulse, the gay nightclub in Orlando “where 49 angels were murdered right here because they’re queer” marked one of the most significant moments of his life.

That same year and in that same city, Frost himself survived a gun violence incident.

During his congressional campaign, on the heels of last year’s elementary school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, Frost tweeted: “10 years ago I became an Organizer because of Sandyhook. 3 years later, I’d become a survivor myself. That same year, Pulse. Now I’m running for Congress and 15 lives were taken at another Elementary school. I will not stop until the endless shootings do.”

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House Republicans pass anti-LGBTQ Parents Bill of Rights Act

Measure passed by 213-208 vote margin

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U.S. Capitol Building (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

U.S. House Republicans on Friday passed the Parents Bill of Rights Act, a proposal that would require public schools to share educational materials with parents and also contains provisions that would trigger the outing of LGBTQ students without their consent.

Critics say the legislation’s professed purpose, to equip parents with the information necessary for them to better engage with their children’s educators, is a pretext for its ultimate goals: For schools to censor out content addressing race, or materials containing LGBTQ characters or themes, while also discouraging LGBTQ students from being out at school.

The Congressional Equality Caucus noted the likelihood of that outcome in a statement Friday denouncing the bill, which the group’s chair, U.S. Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), called “dangerous” — pointing to its requirement for “schools to forcibly out transgender students, even if it puts those youth in harm’s way.”

“All children deserve access to a safe and affirming school environment,” Takano said in the statement. “Transgender youth have enough challenges already due to harassment, bullying, and anti-transgender state laws,” he said, adding, “My colleagues who voted for this bill should be ashamed.”

House members voted 213-208 for passage of the Parents Bill of Rights, or House Resolution 5, with Republican U.S. Reps. Andy Biggs (Ariz.), Ken Buck (Colo.), Matt Gaetz (Fla.), Mike Lawler (N.Y.) and Matt Rosendale (Mont.) voting against the legislation with every Democratic member. The bill was first introduced by GOP Rep. Julia Letlow (La.).

With Democrats’ control of the U.S. Senate, movement on the bill will almost certainly be stopped once it reaches the upper chamber, but it may nevertheless still have a harmful impact on the country’s LGBTQ youth.

For example, the National Institutes of Health published a peer reviewed study last year that found a link between anti-trans legislation and “suicide and depression-related Internet searches” using a dataset comprising 40 bills that were introduced and reached committee, of which three were passed and signed into law.

The caucus’ statement noted HR 5 contains “two provisions that would require schools that take steps to respect a student’s gender identity to forcibly out those transgender youth to their parents” along with another that would allow parents to access their children’s answers to survey questions, answers that might include information about a student’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

The risk that their parents will be able to see their answers will incentivize many students to lie about these and other questions, which the caucus said will undermine the federal government’s ability to collect important demographic, statistical and survey data on America’s LGBTQ youth.

Exacerbating that problem is another provision in the legislation, which requires parents to “opt-in” if their children would be asked to share their sexual orientation or gender identity.

America’s largest LGBTQ advocacy organization, the Human Rights Campaign, also issued a statement Friday condemning HR 5.

“The bill, which picks and chooses which families have rights and which don’t, has occupied the chamber’s time while extremist House leaders continue neglecting the very real and urgent problems facing our schools, such as gun violence, teacher shortages and educational inequality,” the group said in its statement.

HRC also noted the legislation’s potential to trigger forcible outing of LGBTQ youth “would endanger students instead of fulfilling school officials’ obligation to make judgments on a case-by-case basis in the best interests of the students under their supervision.”

The organization said it expects House Republicans to move “in coming weeks” on House Resolution 734, “a bill to ban participation by transgender youth in school sports,” and drew parallels between the Parents Bill of Rights Act and the “curriculum censorship seen in harmful, unnecessary bills passed in state legislatures recently.”

U.S. Rep. Melanie Stanbury (D-N.M.), a member of the Equality Caucus, echoed that message in her statement Friday, writing that HR 5 was “modeled after bills passed at the state level, which have censored the teaching of American history, allowed book bans, and violated the safety and privacy of transgender and LGBTQ+ students.”

The White House issued a Statement of Administration Policy on Monday addressing the bill, writing “the administration does not support HR 5 in its current form because the bill does not actually help parents support their children at school” and “moreover, instead of making LGBTQI+ students feel included in their school community, it puts them at higher risk.”

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Takano to renew House Democrats’ push for the Equality Act

Measure would extend federal anti-discrimination protections to LGBTQ Americans

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Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

U.S. Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), a co-chair of the Congressional Equality Caucus, issued a statement Thursday pledging to introduce the Equality Act during this Congress, legislation that would extend federal anti-discrimination protections to LGBTQ Americans.

The bill would prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in “employment, education, access to credit, jury service, federal funding housing, and public accommodations.”

Four previous versions were introduced in the House by Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) and in the Senate by U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) in 2015, 2017, 2019, and 2021. The Biden administration and congressional Democrats have signaled that the legislation remains a major priority despite the Republicans now exercising their majority control of the lower chamber.

With Cicilline’s planned departure from Congress on June 1 to lead the nonprofit Rhode Island Foundation, Takano thanked and credited his colleague “for his leadership on behalf of our community and stewardship of the Equality Act.”

Cicilline, who drafted the legislation and chaired the Equality Caucus in the last Congress before Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) took over this year, noted the heightened importance of the Equality Act’s passage amid the proliferation of anti-LGBTQ and especially anti-trans legislation.

“With homophobic and transphobic legislation being proposed in state legislatures across the country and here in Congress,” he said, “it is far past time we act to finally outlaw discrimination against the LGBTQI+ community by passing the Equality Act.”

The legislation is also backed by major LGBTQ advocacy groups including the nation’s largest, the Human Rights Campaign. “There is overwhelming support for this bill among the American people and the business community, and we will continue fighting until this bill is signed into law,” said the organization’s President Kelley Robinson.

Robinson also thanked Cicilline for his leadership on the bill and said the Human Rights Campaign looks forward to working with Takano, “an incredible champion for our community” who “is the perfect leader for this effort” to “build on he work Congressman Cicilline started and get the Equality Act signed into law.”

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