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House Republicans defend book bans in subcommittee hearing

Democratic ranking member raised objections

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U.S. Reps. Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.) and Aaron Bean (R-Fla.), ranking member and chair of the U.S. House Committee on Education & the Workforce's Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education Subcommittee (Washington Blade photo by Christopher Kane)

During a hearing of the U.S. House Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education Subcommittee on Thursday, Chair Aaron Bean (R-Fla.) defended book bans that have disproportionately targeted works with LGBTQ characters and content.

The congressman raised objections to the Biden-Harris administration’s appointment last month of openly gay nonprofit leader and former Obama administration official Matt Nosanchuk to review the practice of pulling books from school libraries.

Responding to the remarks from Bean, who said the “book ban czar” would “potentially penalize” local school boards “for simply reviewing books,” a U.S. Department of Education spokesperson said in a statement to the Washington Blade:

“Across the country, communities are seeing a rise in efforts to ban books – efforts that are often designed to empty libraries and classrooms of literature about LGBTQI+ people, people of color, people of faith, key historical events and more.

“These efforts are a threat to student’s rights and freedoms. To address this issue, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) brought on Deputy Assistant Secretary Matt Nosanchuk, whose portfolio will include serving as the Department’s coordinator on responding to book bans, among other topics and responsibilities.

“OCR will continue its work to support the public and school communities in understanding the civil rights impact book restrictions can have, in violation of federal law, and take enforcement action when necessary.

“In the coming weeks, OCR will hold trainings for schools, libraries, teachers, and other education stakeholders to help them navigate their duty to provide equal access to education and a supportive learning environment for all. The Department of Education remains firm in its commitment to ensure all students are protected from all forms of discrimination.”

A witness called by the Democratic members of the subcommittee, Jonathan Friedman, director of free expression and education programs at PEN America, said on Thursday that the range of restrictions and bans happening across the country today is “wildly unprecedented.”

“We’ve been doing this work on and off for about 100 years,” he said, and there is now a “movement to encourage people to censor ideas” despite First Amendment jurisprudence on these matters, much of which comes from cases that were decided a half century ago.

U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.), the Democratic ranking member of the subcommittee, said that despite her Republican colleagues’ assurances months earlier that they were not interested in addressing book bans, “Now, today, the majority is holding a hearing specifically about what books should or should not be allowed in school libraries.”

“And I’ll note that this is the U.S. Congress, not a school board meeting,” she said.

Republicans have defended book bans by arguing parents must be able to exercise their right to determine which materials their children can access, but Bonamici said “parental rights” is a pretext used by MAGA politicians to enact censorship laws that are coordinated by a “well-funded, vocal minority of parents and conservative organizations pushing their own personal agenda on others.”

“We can all agree that books in school libraries should be age appropriate,” she said, “And we all used to agree that the federal government should not dictate school curricula or what books are in school libraries.” 

The congresswoman’s opening remarks came after Bean addressed some titles, by name, that he found objectionable, including Maia Kobabe’s “Gender Queer: A Memoir” and “Lawn Boy,” a semi-autobiographical coming of age novel by Jonathan Evison.

According to the American Library Association, last year these books were respectively the first and seventh most banned and challenged, both for their inclusion of LGBTQ and sexually explicit content. The works, both critically acclaimed, are not intended for readers of all ages.

Objections raised by conservatives to these two books is not out of step with how proponents of book bans tend to focus on materials addressing matters of race, sexual orientation, and gender identity. Bonamici highlighted research by PEN America, which found that “41 percent of banned content focuses on LGBTQI+ themes, protagonists or characters,” while “40 percent focuses on characters of color.”

Meanwhile, “At least seven states have passed draconian laws in the past two years subjecting school librarians to years of imprisonment and fines for providing books deemed to be explicit, obscene, or harmful,” the congresswoman noted.

Book bans are unpopular. A 2022 poll by the ALA found seven in 10 Americans are opposed to the practice. Representatives from the organization, who were in attendance on Thursday, participated in another hearing on Wednesday addressing book bans, which was convened by Interfaith Alliance and included U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.).

In a statement to the Washington Blade, ALA President Emily Drabinski responded to the exchanges between lawmakers and witnesses during Thursday’s hearing:

“ALA wholeheartedly agrees with today’s witnesses, who when asked by Rep. Suzanne Bonamici whether they believe diverse perspectives and materials are essential to any library, all responded with a resounding yes,” Drabinski said.

“Yet censorship persists at record levels. ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom documented 1,269 demands to censor library books and resources in 2022, and the majority of those books are about or authored by LGBTQ+ people and people of color. Preliminary data suggests that 2023 will be another record-breaking year.

“Providing youth access to a wide variety of reading material in which they can both see themselves and experience the lives of others benefits the individual readers and the community. It will take the whole community to protect the freedom to read. It’s time to come together to end book bans.”

On Friday, Drabinski will participate in a plenary session for PFLAG’s biennial National Convention entitled, “Let Freedom Read! Read With Love to Support Inclusive Books and Education.”

“At a time when a small, but vocal pro-censorship faction is irresponsibly using religion as a smokescreen to justify an assault on our constitutional rights, it is imperative that we are reminded that freedom of religion is adjacent to freedom of speech as part of the First Amendment for a reason,” former ALA Executive Director Tracie D. Hall said in panel discussion during Wednesday’s hearing.

“They are and remain innately connected because an assault on one indisputably compromises the other,” she said.

Characterization of restrictions as ‘book bans’ is disputed

Bean repeatedly raised objections to Democrats’ use of the term “book bans” to describe practices like school boards’ removal of certain books from school libraries, noting that these materials remain widely available at public libraries and through retailers like Amazon.

In his remarks before the subcommittee, U.S. Rep. Burgess Owens (R-Utah) held up a Bible as he argued that the most egregious book ban from the U.S. Supreme Court in 1963, with a decision banning Bible reading in schools.

On Wednesday, Raskin, an attorney who taught constitutional law for more than 25 years, noted how GOP members of Congress have repeatedly mischaracterized the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence on the matter for purposes of defending their efforts to ban books based on their personal feelings towards them.

The Supreme Court’s 1963 ruling in Abington School District v. Schempp holds that “no state law or school board may require that passages from the Bible be read or that the Lord’s Prayer be recited in the public schools of a state at the beginning of each school day — even if individual students may be excused from attending or participating in such exercises upon written request of their parents.”

The decision came a year after Engel v. Vitale, which found that it was unconstitutional, per the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, for state officials to create and encourage public schools to recite an official prayer.

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Congress

McConnell to step down from Senate leadership in November

Ky. Republican has been in chamber since 1985

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Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the longest serving Senate leader in history, announced on Wednesday that he will step down from his position in November but will continue serving the remainder of his term, which ends in January 2027.

Aides said that McConnell’s decision was unrelated to concerns about his health, which followed two instances last year in which he froze when delivering public remarks after suffering a concussion from a fall.

The Senate leader is facing pressure to endorse former President Donald Trump’s run for a second term in the White House, which a GOP colleague told the Guardian is likely to come despite the rift between the men that deepened in 2020 when McConnell refused to co-sign the lie that President Joe Biden’s election was illegitimate.

“I am unconflicted about the good within our country and the irreplaceable role we play as the leader of the free world,” McConnell said in his announcement from the Senate floor, in what appeared to be an acknowledgment of his ideological differences with Republicans who support Trump’s brand of isolationist foreign policy.

Serving in the Senate since 1985, McConnell was first elected as the Republican leader in 2006 and has since won each of the consecutive nine elections, most recently staving off a challenge from U.S. Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) last November.

McConnell opposed LGBTQ rights throughout his career

Since the mid-2000s, McConnell has leveraged his power in the Senate to fight against marriage equality, as documented by the GLAAD Accountability Project. He also opposed the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, which established same-sex marriage as a constitutional right.

McConnell opposed the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and more recently blocked a vote on an amendment that would have stopped Trump’s ban on military service by transgender service members.

Also during Trump’s presidency, McConnell appointed anti-LGBTQ activist Tony Perkins to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

He voted against employment protections for LGBTQ federal workers and LGBTQ inclusive policies on hate crimes and, in the 1990s, joined the late U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms’s (R-N.C.) efforts to protect U.S. Department of Agriculture employees who were critical of the agency’s pro-LGBTQ policies and to prohibit the use of federal funds by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for collecting information about teenage sexual behavior.

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Partisan disagreements imperil efforts to redress harms of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’

Challenges come despite bipartisan interest in addressing the problem

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U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) and U.S. Rep. Lori Chavez-DeRemer (R-Ore.) (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Despite bipartisan agreement over the need to bring justice to U.S. service members who were harmed by discriminatory military policies like “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” competing legislative efforts have divided members of Congress and sparked accusations that both Democrats and Republicans are “playing politics” with the issue.

Following the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in 2011, thousands of veterans who were discharged other than honorably over their sexual orientation continue to face barriers finding housing and employment, with many unable to access federal benefits that otherwise would be available to them.

The Pentagon has endeavored to address the problem, but advocates say the agency has been too slow to act while service members, rather than the Department, bear the considerable burden of requesting reviews of their papers – a process so complicated that many have had to seek legal counsel for help navigating the bureaucratic red tape.

Gay U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), who chairs the Congressional Equality Caucus, has long worked to address the challenges faced by veterans who are in this position with his Restore Honor to Service Members Act, which he first introduced in 2013 and re-introduced several times over the years, most recently in 2023.

Among the subsequent iterations were the bicameral version introduced in 2019 by Pocan and U.S. Rep. Katie Hill (D-Calif.) along with U.S. Sens. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), and another that was introduced in the Senate last year by Schatz, which was backed by Republican U.S. Sens. Todd Young (Ind.) and Susan Collins (Maine).

The National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2024 was passed in the Senate with provisions taken from the Restore Honor to Service Members Act, including directions for the Pentagon to establish a “Tiger Team” to “build awareness among veterans of the process established [by the NDAA in FY 2020] for the review of discharge characterizations by appropriate discharge boards.”

Pocan, along with caucus co-chairs U.S. Reps. Robert Garcia (D-Calif.) and Chris Pappas (D-N.H.), wrote to U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin last month to request information to facilitate implementation of the department’s decision to (1) review records for service members who were discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” (2) forward cases to their respective secretaries to consider correction through the service boards, and (3) reach out to veterans to make sure they are kept up to speed throughout the process.

Last week, however, another bill targeting the same issue, the Recover Pride in Service Act, was announced by Republican U.S. Rep. Lori Chavez-DeRemer (Ore.) in conjunction with Log Cabin Republicans, the conservative LGBT group.

A spokesperson for the congresswoman told the Washington Blade in a statement, “There’s a significant difference between the two bills. The Recover Pride in Service Act requires the Department of Defense to automatically upgrade all discharges that were solely based on sexual orientation within five years.”

The spokesperson continued, “This key provision would ensure veterans adversely impacted by Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell won’t have to endure an arduous and costly application process and can get their status updated without having to lift a finger. I would also note that just 10 percent of LGBTQ+ veterans have had their discharges upgraded, and that’s because of the application process. Only requiring an outreach group isn’t enough.”

The Recover Pride in Service Act would also, per the press release announcement, establish an “Outreach Unit” to contact service members who were discharged for their sexual orientation along with other reasons specified in their papers. The bill promises to simplify administrative requirements and includes a provision stipulating that “a lack of documentation cannot be used as a basis for denying a review, and the responsibility of finding and producing relevant documentation lies with the DOD, not the service member.”

“If Republicans truly cared about helping veterans discharged under ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ they would have signed on to the Restore Honor to Service Members Act, which has been around for a decade and has support among the broader LGBTQI+ community,” Pocan told the Blade in a statement.

“Instead, they introduced a bill that plays partisan politics with the issue rather than advance it,” he said. “If we really want to do something to help veterans, there is a decade-long effort to get that done. Posing for pictures with a duplicative effort doesn’t get us closer to the goal.”

Log Cabin Republicans Senior Advisor Alex Walton told the Blade by phone last week that “discussions about the Restore Honor to Service Members Act all happened close to eight to nine months ago before we kind of shifted focus when we realized that they weren’t going to cooperate and work with us.”

Walton said that while there was significant interest in joining Pocan’s bill among House Republicans, “they were only going to do it assuming that Democrats were going to match the number of Republicans that co-sponsored the legislation, so you didn’t have 150 Democrats and, you know, 12 Republicans.” A source familiar with the discussions said Pocan was never asked to limit the number of Democratic cosponsors.

Additionally, Walton said, the House Republicans “also wanted a Republican lead,” but Pocan “was unwilling to let that happen.”

Months later, Walton said Pocan and House Democrats remained uncooperative in discussions over the Recover Pride in Service Act, the bill that was ultimately introduced by Chavez-DeRemer.

Meanwhile, he said, “We spoke to over 90 Republican offices, both in the House and the Senate, and we had a lot of conversations about this issue in general. And one of the things that we kept hearing from Republican offices is if a piece of legislation like this is going to pass, you’re gonna have to cut bureaucratic extras that are included in the Pocan version of the bill, and you’re just gonna have to get directly to the problem. And that’s what the legislation does by requiring the DOD to proactively upgrade these discharges.”

With Republicans holding the majority in the House, Walton said, Log Cabin and Republican members wanted a Republican lead sponsor on the bill in the lower chamber, while discussions were held with Senate Democrats with the expectation that a Democrat would be lead sponsor of the Senate version of the Recover Pride in Service Act.

Walton added that Pocan was offered the opportunity to be the lead Democratic member in the House — a claim that is disputed by the source familiar with the talks, who said the Wisconsin congressman was not consulted as the Recover Pride in Service Act was being drafted.

Pocan told the Blade, in a separate statement, that “I’ve had the Restore Honor to Service Members Act available for co-sponsorship for 12 years. Unfortunately, only a few Republicans have been interested in signing on. I welcome additional support. The best way to help our wrongly discharged veterans is to work in a bipartisan fashion with the members who’ve been working on this for a decade.”

He added, “I’ve been focused on getting justice for veterans discharged under ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ for years, which is why part of the Restore Honor to Service Members Act became law several years ago” with the NDAA. “Losing the majority doesn’t mean I should surrender the rest of my bill —that’s not how Congress works. But I do welcome any support from Republicans who haven’t drunk the anti-equality Kool-Aid.”

Walton said that by refusing to work with Republicans in good faith, “Pocan put himself over all of these veterans,” adding, “I’m not disregarding everything Pocan has done for gays and lesbians in Congress. But the reality is that he put himself and his own pride in this legislation over actually getting stuff done.”

Walton stressed the broad ideological base of support for Chavez-DeRemer’s bill among House Republicans, 13 of whom have signed on as co-sponsors. Along with more moderate members, “we have extremely conservative Republicans on this legislation,” he said.

Those co-sponsoring members are GOP Reps. Kat Cammack (Fla.), Andrew Garbarino (N.Y.), Anthony D’Esposito (N.Y.) Nicole Malliotakis (N.Y.), Nancy Mace (S.C.), Derrick Van Orden (Wis.), Juan Ciscomani (Ariz.), Ken Calvert (Calif.), John Duarte (Calif.), Mark Amodei (Nev.), Mike Turner (Ohio), Max Miller (Ohio), and Mike Carey (Ohio).

Several of these House Republicans have voted for anti-LGBTQ military policies, such as prohibitions on Pride month celebrations at U.S. military bases and provisions allowing employees at the Defense Department and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to discriminate against LGBTQ service members if they oppose, for instance, same-sex marriage on religious grounds.

House must pass spending bills by Friday

Meanwhile, House Republicans have held up passage of critical spending bills by insisting on conservative policy mandates that stand no chance of passing in the Senate with Democrats in the majority, nor of being signed into law by President Joe Biden.

If they are not able to reach an agreement by Friday, funding will lapse for military construction, agriculture, transportation, and housing programs. A full government shutdown would be triggered if spending packages are not passed by March 8.

The Equality Caucus, in a post on X Monday, said, “Just a reminder as we barrel towards a gov’t shutdown this week: House Republicans’ partisan funding bills include more than 45 provisions attacking the LGBTQI+ community.”

They added, “The House GOP needs to stop playing games with queer people’s rights & agree to bipartisan funding bills.”

Historically, appropriations packages have been cleared by both chambers with wide bipartisan margins.

During a conference call on Friday, Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson (La.) told GOP members they were unlikely to see many of their policy priorities included in the spending bills. He met with Biden at the White House on Tuesday, alongside other congressional leaders including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), to continue negotiations ahead of Friday’s deadline.

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Marjorie Taylor Greene targets Rachel Levine with transphobic insults

Ga. Republican has long history of attacking health official

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Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

In an X post on Feb. 17, U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) lobbed transphobic insults at Adm. Rachel Levine, assistant secretary for health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the highest ranking transgender government official.

The congresswoman was responding to a video posted by Levine on X, which highlighted the disproportionate harms wrought by climate change on “the physical and mental health of Black communities” along with HHS’s work addressing these issues.

“Here is a man pretending to be a woman claiming the climate is hurting Black Americans more than others” Greene wrote in her post. “This is the Democrat Party. Mental illness on full display.”

The congresswoman has repeatedly targeted Levine, largely over her support for gender-affirming care — medically necessary, evidence-based interventions that are governed by clinical practice guidelines and endorsed by every mainstream scientific and medical society in the world.

Greene’s post on Feb. 17 was not the first time she crossed the line into rank anti-LGBTQ bigotry, however.

Speaking from the House floor in November, Greene misgendered and dead-named the health official while introducing an amendment to “reduce — no, castrate” her government salary to $1.

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