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Jane Rigby awarded Presidential Medal of Freedom



NASA astrophysicist Jane Rigby, the senior project scientist for the space agency's James Webb Space Telescope, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Joe Biden on May 3, 2024, at the White House. (Photos courtesy of NASA)

Sitting among a diverse and venerable group of Americans from every walk of life on the dais in the East Room of the White House on May 3 was lesbian and NASA astrophysicist Jane Rigby, awaiting her turn to be honored by President Joe Biden who would bestow the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, on her.

Rigby, an astronomer who grew up in Delaware, is the chief scientist of the world’s most powerful telescope who alongside her team operating NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, studies every phase in the history of the universe, ranging from the first luminous glows after the Big Bang, to the formation of solar systems capable of supporting life on planets like Earth, to the evolution of the solar system. 

A member of Penn State’s Class of 2000, Rigby graduated with a bachelor’s degrees in physics and astronomy. She also holds a master’s degree and a PhD in astronomy from at the University of Arizona. Her work as the senior project scientist for NASA’s Webb Telescope includes studies on how galaxies evolve over cosmic time and she has published more than 140 peer-reviewed scientific papers.

Rigby was named to’s 2022 list of 10 individuals who shaped science and to the BBC’s list of 100 inspiring and influential women in the same year. Rigby had postdoctoral fellowships at Carnegie Observatories in Pasadena, Calif., before landing her job at Goddard Space Flight Center. In 2013 Rigby was awarded the Robert H. Goddard Award for Exceptional Achievement for Science.

A founding member of the American Astronomical Society’s Working Group on LGBTQ Equality in January 2012, now called the Committee for Sexual Orientation and Gender Minorities in Astronomy, Rigby serves as its Board Liaison until her term expires this June.

The lesbian astrophysicist in an interview for SGMA’s website spoke about her experiences including coming out:

“I’ve been out since 2000. My story’s simple — I fell in love with a fellow grad student in the department. It was a close-knit department, so hiding would have been ludicrous. Nor did I want to hide the best thing in my life! So, we were out as grad students. I certainly heard people say awful homophobic things at work there. They weren’t directed at me, and they weren’t said by people with power over me. If I recall, I was much less afraid of homophobic discrimination at work, than I was afraid of the two-body problem, and the lack of support we would receive as a same-sex couple in astronomy. That fear turned out to be justified. I’ve seen numerous different-sex couples get a wide range of support in solving the two-body problem, which was never offered to us,” she told the interviewer.

She reflected on American astronaut and physicist Sally Ride, her childhood role model who had an impact on her career:

“One of my biggest role models when I was young was Dr. Sally Ride. A few years ago, on her deathbed, Dr. Ride chose to write in her obituary that her life partner had been a woman. Dr. Ride was the most influential woman scientist when I was growing up — the person that made me say, “I want to do THAT when I grow up.” It was because of her that I realized that astrophysics was a profession, that physics was a subject girls could study, that NASA needed astrophysicists. So I’m so … amused, I suppose, that Sally Ride was this influence on my life’s path, at a time when I was completely unaware that it was even possible to *be gay* — and at the same time, she was gay, in love, and deeply closeted to keep her job.”

The interviewer noted that “for some women being gay is a cause for concern at the work place. Some say they were unsure about how to turn their sexual orientation into a positive aspect of their work persona.” Then asked Rigby what is your view on this?

“My experience is that absolutely I am a *better* astronomer because I’m queer. For a few reasons. First, I see things different than my colleagues. On mission work, as we weigh a decision, my first thought is always the community impact: ‘If we do things this way, who benefits, and who gets left out in the cold?’ Will this policy create inclusion, or marginalization? I think about science in terms of community-building. What team do we need to tackle a given science problem, with skills that are different from mine? Absolutely I think that way because I’m an outsider, because I’ve been marginalized. And because community-building is central to LGBTQ culture,” she said.

Married to Dr. Andrea Leistra, Rigby, her wife and their young child reside in Maryland not far from her workplace at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in suburban Washington and when not studying the universe is often found on the neighboring Chesapeake Bay wind boarding, a favored pastime.

Also honored in the ceremony Friday were a former U.S. vice president, a civil rights worker and martyr, two former Cabinet secretaries — one a former U.S. secretary of state, a speech writer for the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., an Olympian and gold medalist, and one of the most powerful woman political leaders and the speaker emeritus of the U.S. House of Representatives, among others, and LGBTQ advocate Judy Shepard.



The White House

Advocacy groups condemn Biden immigration executive order

Directive ‘catastrophic’ for LGBTQ asylum seekers



President Joe Biden (X screen capture)

President Joe Biden on Tuesday issued an executive order that prohibits migrants from asking for asylum in the U.S. if they “unlawfully” cross the Southern border.

Senior administration officials on Tuesday told reporters before Biden announced the directive that it will take effect “when high levels of encounters at the Southern border exceed our ability to deliver timely consequences, as is the case today.” The Associated Press reported this figure is 2,500 “border encounters between ports of entry” a day. 

“Today, I’m announcing actions to bar migrants who cross our Southern border unlawfully from receiving asylum,” said Biden at the White House. “Migrants will be restricted from receiving asylum at our southern border unless they seek it after entering through an established lawful process.”

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, U.S. Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.), New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, U.S. Reps. Jim Costa (D-Calif.), Marc Veasey (D-Texas), Salud Carbajal (D-Calif.), Mike Levin (D-Calif.), Greg Stanton (D-Ariz.), and Tom Suozzi (D-N.Y.) joined Biden at the White House alongside San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg, El Paso (Texas) Mayor Oscar Leeser, Edinberg (Texas) Mayor Ramiro Garza, Harlingen (Texas) Mayor Norma Sepulveda, Laredo (Texas) Victor Treviño, Brownsville (Texas) Mayor John Cowen, Bexar County (Texas) Sheriff Javier Salazar, and Santa Cruz County (Ariz.) Supervisor Manuel Ruiz.

El Paso, Edinberg, Harlingen, Laredo, Brownsville, and Santa Cruz County border Mexico.

U.S. Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.), Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and James Lankford (R-Okla.) in February unveiled an immigration overhaul bill they described as “the strongest border security package in decades to reassert control of the border, end catch and release, enhance security, fix the asylum system, and support border communities.” Senate Republicans blocked the measure.

“I’m moving past Republican obstruction and using the executive authorities available to me as president to do what I can on my own to address the border,” said Biden.

“Frankly, I would have preferred to address this issue through bipartisan legislation, because that’s the only way to actually get the kind of system we have now — that’s broken — fixed, to hire more Border Patrol agents, more asylum officers, more judges,” he added. “But Republicans have left me with no choice.” 

Biden stressed migrants who “come to the United States legally … by making an appointment and coming to a port of entry” will still be able to ask for asylum.

“If an individual chooses not to use our legal pathways, if they choose to come without permission and against the law, they’ll be restricted from receiving asylum and staying in the United States,” he said. 

“This action will help us to gain control of our border, restore order to the process,” Biden added. 

Biden further stressed the ban “will remain in place until the number of people trying to enter illegally is reduced to a level that our system can effectively manage.”

U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) in a statement sharply criticized the executive order.

“By reviving Trump’s asylum ban, President Biden has undermined American values and abandoned our nation’s obligations to provide people fleeing persecution, violence, and authoritarianism with an opportunity to seek refuge in the U.S.,” said the California Democrat.

The Council for Global Equality said the executive order is “catastrophic for LGBTQI+ asylum seekers and other asylum seekers from vulnerable populations — and it’s highly unlikely to help move the electoral needle.” Immigration Equality Director of Law and Policy Bridget Crawford reiterated this point.

“President Biden is playing craven political games with the lives of refugees, including LGBTQ people fleeing persecution, instead of implementing workable solutions,” she said.

The Organization for Refuge, Asylum and Migration works with LGBTQ migrants and asylum seekers in Tijuana, Mexicali and other Mexican cities that border the U.S. 

ORAM Executive Director Steve Roth in a statement to the Washington Blade said the executive order will harm “LGBTIQ asylum seekers and other vulnerable individuals seeking refuge from persecution.” He also said the directive “will put more LGBTIQ asylum seekers in harm’s way in dangerous Mexican border towns and puts added pressure on refugee-serving organizations throughout Mexico.”

The State Department currently advises Americans not to travel to Mexico’s Tamaulipas state, which borders Texas, because of “crime and kidnapping.” It also recommends Americans to reconsider travel to the country’s Baja California, Sonora, and Chihuahua states that border California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas respectively. 

“President Biden’s unlawful policy flies in the face of U.S. refugee law and removes the critical protections and paths to safety of these asylum seekers, leaving them vulnerable and with no resources,” Roth told the Blade.

Los Angeles LGBT Center Chief Impact Officer Terra Russell-Slavin noted Biden issued the executive director days after he issued a Pride Month proclamation. Russell-Slavin, like other activists, also referenced the previous administration’s policies they said harmed LGBTQ migrants and asylums seekers.

“The Biden administration cannot have it both ways: They cannot ‘celebrate’ Pride Month while turning their backs on LGBTQ+ individuals who are seeking the rights our movement is based on,” said Russell-Slavin. “We strongly condemn this executive order, and urge the president to immediately reverse this harmful action.”

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The White House

Top White House AIDS official talks to the Blade after Pride Month blood drive

FDA in 2023 eased MSM blood donor restrictions



Francisco Ruiz, director of the White House Office of National AIDS Policy. (Photo courtesy of the White House)

Francisco Ruiz, director of the White House Office of National AIDS Policy, spoke to the Washington Blade by phone following the first-ever LGBTQ-inclusive Pride Month blood drive hosted on Tuesday by the White House Office of Public Engagement in partnership with the American Red Cross.

“The Biden-Harris administration is really steadfast and committed to advancing the science, and the change in the FDA guidelines is a testament to that,” Ruiz said during the event, referring to the agency’s easing of restrictions last year on blood donation by men who have sex with men.

The policy change is “something that, particularly, the LGBTQ+ community has been fighting for, as well as our allies,” he told the Blade. “I think there’s something to be said about saying, ‘Hey, you matter, and you are a contributor to the health and well being of our country” at a time of escalating legislative and rhetorical attacks against the LGBTQ community alongside a rise in bias-motivated acts of violence.

Ruiz added that Tuesday’s event carried powerful symbolic weight. Within 24 hours, all available slots for volunteer donors were filled, and the blood drive took place in the “beautiful, grand” Indian Treaty Room of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, during Pride Month, with rainbow flags flying and LGBTQ people joining Red Cross staff.

The ONAP director, who just stepped into the role in April, described the coordinated effort to get the word out about the FDA’s new blood donation policy, noting “the policy is only as good as folks knowing about it.”

Public education and awareness campaigns are so important, Ruiz said, “so that we can address some of the blood supply issues — making sure that we have an uptake, an increase, of our community members giving and donating blood.”

“There’s been a lot of effort to make sure that we speak to community,” he said. “FDA has put out a series of communications via their channels, as well as their websites, and then they’ve also been leaning into some of our partners who do this great work, like the American Red Cross.”

Ruiz added, “I know a lot of our LGBTQ+ organizations like GLAAD and HRC have been also communicating out,” and “I know that the White House shares some communication also with our partners via the Office of Public Engagement.”

Wins like last year’s issuance of the new guidelines should be celebrated, he said, because there are so many other cases in which moves like these — which are supported by the science and focused on inclusion — do not make it over the finish line.

To this end, Ruiz noted, the American Red Cross and other partners are organizing blood drives for Pride events in cities including Los Angeles and Washington.

“The beauty of Pride events around the country is not only to celebrate and live in the joy of who we are and our humanity, but also to be able to give back to our community,” he said. “And so I think having things like this, like blood drives, having HIV testing events as well, having PrEP conversations, PrEP navigators at these events — I think, you know, we need to bring the joy and the excitement, but also talk about how we take care of ourselves, and how can we give back to our community.”

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The White House

Biden honors Pride Month, issues LGBTQI+ Community Safety Partnership resources

New materials address ‘physical security, online safety, targeted violence prevention’



The White House (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)

President Joe Biden honored Pride Month with a proclamation on Friday calling out “dangerous and hateful anti-LGBTQ+ laws” while the Biden-Harris administration also debuted new resources via the White House LGBTQ+ Community Safety Partnership.

“Advancing equality for the LGBTQI+ community is a top priority for my administration,” the president said, citing his signage of the Respect for Marriage Act, repeal of the anti-transgender military ban, and issuance of “historic executive orders strengthening civil rights protections for housing, employment, health care, education, and the justice system.”

Biden also noted his administration’s work combatting conversion therapy, the HIV epidemic, and “the disgraceful practice of banning gay and bisexual men from donating blood.”

“The Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Homeland Security, and Department of Justice launched a safety partnership to provide critical training and support to the community, including resources to help report hate crimes and better protect festivals, marches, community centers, businesses, and health care providers serving the community,” the president said.

His proclamation came on the heels of a new guide containing key federal resources, which a White House official said will cover “a number of key areas, including physical security, online safety, and targeted violence prevention.”

For example:

  1. The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) offers a training, tools, and best practices to inform risk mitigation efforts, as well as resources to improve physical securityprotect infrastructure during public demonstrations, and securely plan mass gatherings or other special events.
  2. CISA offers a catalog of cybersecurity resources for high-risk communities, such the LGBTQI+ Community.  This catalog not only offers customized tools your organizations can use to assess and mitigate cyber risks but provides organizations with access to rapid emergency response and cybersecurity advice free-of-charge.
  3. The FBI has a step-by-step guide for individuals receiving written, visual, verbal, or physical threats. This guide overviews what to do, and not to do, when you or someone you know is a victim of a perceived hate crime.

The official said representatives from the safety partnership, which the White House introduced last year during Pride Month, led a call on Friday with LGBTQ stakeholders to review the new materials and address questions.

Earlier this month, DHS and the FBI released a public service announcement to raise awareness about the potential targeting of LGBTQ events while the Joint Counterterrorism Assessment Team released a First Responder’s Toolbox containing guidelines designed to “drive community-based relationships through collaborative and inclusive practices.”

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