Obama ends last vestige of HIV travel ban

President Obama announced that his administration will end the long-standing policy that banned immigration by people with HIV infection.

President Obama announced October 30 that his administration will end the long-standing policy at Health and Human Services that banned immigration by people with HIV infection. He announced the policy change during a ceremony at the White House where he signed a bill to reauthorize the Ryan White program to help people with HIV and low incomes.

President Bush signed legislation last year that ended a 1993 statutory ban specifically against people with HIV. That law was called the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). But it did not end the policy of the Health and Human Services Department that excluded people with a “communicable disease of public health significance.” That policy also excluded people with HIV. And many HIV and civil rights organizations said the law Bush signed did not really end the discrimination against people with HIV.

“Practically speaking, with the ban once again under the purview of HHS, nothing has changed for people living with HIV traveling through or immigrating to the United States,” said the Community HIV/AIDS Mobilization Project (CHAMP).

In his remarks at a White House ceremony, President Obama noted that he and wife Michelle Obama had taken an HIV test during a visit to Kenya to help combat the stigma attached to HIV. He said his administration, on Monday, would take “another step toward ending that stigma.” He said HHS would publish a final rule on Monday that will eliminate the ban effective with the new year.

“This is a battle that is far from over,” said Obama, noting that 1.1 million people in the U.S. are living with HIV and 56,000 are newly infected each year. He also noted that, although gay men comprise “two to three percent of the population,” they account for “half of all cases.”

He credited Presidents Clinton and Bush for beginning the process of eliminating discrimination against people with HIV.

“We are finishing the job,” he said.

Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese issued a statement thanking President Obama for taking the actions.

“Today’s actions signal both to Americans and to the world that the United States is a nation that will care for those most in need at home and will no longer close the door to HIV-positive people abroad,” said Solmonese. “Today, President Obama has extended one of our nation’s proudest responses to the HIV/AIDS epidemic and finally erased on our of most shameful.”

President Obama also thanked the HIV community organizations for its “consensus statement” in working to renew reauthorization of the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resource Emergency (CARE) Act. Congress last week voted to extend the program for another four years. The program provides medical care and medication to more than half a million people with low incomes to have HIV infection. Congress must now wrestle with funding for the measure.

The HIV immigration ban has been in place since 1987, when the Health and Human Services department under President Reagan, adopted a policy of barring entry to the U.S. of anyone with AIDS or who tested positive for HIV infection. The ban was later made into law through legislation introduced by Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC) and the policy was enacted in December 1987.

The ban has been enormously controversial, putting the United States in the company of only a dozen countries worldwide that banned people with HIV. In 1990, when San Francisco hosted the International Conference on AIDS, many participants boycotted the conference and protested outside the conference. A subsequent conference scheduled for Boston was quickly re-located to Amsterdam as a result.

Through the years, there was some effort to soften and revise the ban. President George H.W. Bush instituted a policy of allowing some people with HIV to obtain a 10-day waiver if they were coming into the country to attend a scientific forum. Although President Clinton signed the bill in 1993 that codified the HIV ban, did grant a waiver of the ban in 1994 for the Gay Games in New York and Atlanta in 1996. The Bush administration granted a waiver in 2006 for the Gay Games in Chicago.

President signs hate crimes law

President Obama on October 28 announced his signing of the long-sought federal hate crimes prevention law.

obama_hatecrimesSaying “no one in America should ever be afraid to walk down the street holding the hands of the person they love,” President Obama on October 28 announced his signing of the long-sought federal hate crimes prevention law.

The legislation, formally known as the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, was included as an amendment within the National Defense Authorization Act. President Obama signed the defense-spending bill Wednesday afternoon, with defense department officials and members of Congress in attendance. He then hosted a reception at the White House to draw special attention to the hate crimes measure. Both events took place in the East Room of the White House.

During the signing ceremony, President Obama mentioned the inclusion of the hate crimes legislation within the funding bill.

“After more than a decade of opposition and delay,” said Obama at the 2:30 ceremony, “we’ve passed inclusive hate crimes legislation to help protect our citizens from violence based on what they look like, who they love, how they pray, or who they are.” He also singled out the parents of Matthew Shepard, a gay Wyoming student killed in a brutal hate crime in 1998.

“I promised Judy Shepard, when she saw me in the Oval Office, that this day would come, and I’m glad that she and her husband Dennis could join us for this event,” said Obama. “I’m also honored to have the family of the late Senator Ted Kennedy, who fought so hard for this legislation. And Vicki and Patrick, Kara — everybody who’s here — I just want you all to know how proud we are of the work that Ted did to help this day — make this day possible.”

In addition to the Shepard family, openly gay Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.) was a guest at the 2:30 signing ceremony.

During the reception that began at 6 p.m., President Obama also recognized family members of James Byrd, who was killed in a horrific hate crime in 1998 in Texas because he was an African American.

In his remarks, President Obama singled out several administration officials and members of Congress for their help in securing passage of the measure, including Attorney General Eric Holder, House speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, and all three openly gay Representatives – Tammy Baldwin, Barney Frank, and Jared Polis. He also thanked the chief House co-sponsor Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) and the chief Senate sponsor, the late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.).

A first and a follow-up

Rep. Baldwin issued a statement calling the hate crimes measure “the nation’s first major piece of civil rights legislation for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people to become law.” It is also “the first federal law to explicitly protect transgender Americans.”

Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, also praised the measure, saying it “marks the first time that we as a nation have explicitly protected the LGBT community in the law.”

“And this law,” he said, “sends a loud message that perpetrators of hate violence against anyone will be brought to justice.”

But the Hate Crimes Prevention Act signed today follows by 19 years the Hate Crimes Statistics Act signed in 1990. That law, which was a landmark achievement at the time, required the U.S. Justice Department to count crimes based on “race, religion, sexual orientation, or ethnicity” and to publish those statistics annually. The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force played a pivotal role in securing passage of that bill, which was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush. It was also heavily involved in passage of the prevention law.

Both the Human Rights Campaign and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force were among 29 gay advocacy groups that signed onto a statement for release following the signing. The statement said President Obama’s signing of the legislation “fulfilled a campaign promise.”

“Our deepest hope and strong belief is that this new law will save lives,” said the statement.

The statement noted that more than 1,200 hate crimes target victims because of their sexual orientation or gender identity every year.

“As a results of this legislation, if local jurisdictions are unable or unwilling to investigate or prosecute hate crimes based on sexual orientation or gender identity, the Justice Department can now step in,” said the groups. “And that’s why the LGBT community never stopped working for this historic day.”?

The White House did not immediately release a list of guests attending the reception, other than members of Congress and the two families. But President Obama thanked openly gay philanthropist David Bohnett and his partner Tom Gregory for “helping host” the reception. White House LGBT press spokesperson Shin Inouye said the reception was held “in partnership” with the Bohnett Foundation and that the Foundation “paid the costs of the reception.”

Obama’s ambassadorial appointment takes count near 100

President Obama on October 7 issued a statement announcing the nomination of an openly gay man to serve as the nation’s ambassador to New Zealand and Samoa.

Just three days away from a national LGBT March on Washington, President Obama on October 7 issued a statement announcing the nomination of an openly gay man to serve as the nation’s ambassador to New Zealand and Samoa.

David Huebner, a founding board member of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), is a lawyer currently living in Shanghai, where he heads the China Practice and International Disputes Practice of the U.S. law firm of Sheppard Mullin. He did not respond to an email for an interview.

Huebner’s nomination brings to 61 the number of openly LGBT people nominated by President Obama to serve in his administration. Denis Dison, a spokesperson for the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund which has led an effort to promote openly LGBT people for such appointments, said the group’s Leadership Institute estimates another 25 to 35 openly gay people have received appointments, bringing Obama’s total, so far, to approximately 100.

Dison noted the administration releases announcements about only those appointees above a certain hierarchal level.

Dison said President Clinton appointed a total of about 140 openly LGBT people to his administration. President Bush appointed three.

“If 10 months into his administration, President Obama is close to 100” appointees, said Dison, “he’s on a path to appointing the most” openly LGBT appointees of any president.

Huebner is originally from Pennsylvania but has lived for many years in Los Angeles, where he served on the state Law Revision Commission and taught at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law. He currently serves, pro bono, as legal counsel for GLAAD, a service the organization says he has provided for more than a decade.

“We congratulate David and know he will bring the determination and expertise that he has brought to his work at GLAAD to this new post,” said GLAAD’s new President Jarrett T. Barrios. “His commitment to public service is unrivaled and for over a decade as a founding national Board Member and today as our legal counsel, GLAAD and the LGBT community have been the beneficiary of his commitment, dedication and skill.”
The first openly gay ambassador was James Hormel of San Francisco, who served the Clinton administration as ambassador to Luxembourg (population half-a-million). The second, was Michael Guest, appointed by President George W. Bush to serve in Romania (population 22 million). New Zealand and Samoa have a combined population of about four million.

New Zealand and Samoa are off the east coast of Australia in the South Pacific. Samoa is just west of the U.S. territory of American Samoa and was, at one time, called Western Samoa.

Both Samoas were hit last month with an earthquake-produced tsunami that killed 184 people.

According to the New Zealand Herald, Huebner will be replacing a restaurateur who served the double-post under President Bush.

In addition to Huebner, the administration recently appointed long-time LGBT activist and law professor Chai Feldblum to serve as one of only five members of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The position is considered particularly significant given the improved chances, under a Democratic Congress and administration, for passing the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA). Feldblum, as part of the commission, will have considerable influence in the writing of federal regulations to enforce such a law. She will also be the first openly LGBT person to serve on the commission.

Feldblum and one other nominee are, so far, the only openly LGBT nominees to raise a hackle out of right-wing conservatives. A Catholic News Agency story on October 1 suggested Feldblum supported a “radical 2006 manifesto that endorsed polygamous households.” Feldblum says the claim is false.

Kevin Jennings, founder of the national Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLESN), was appointed in May to serve as the assistant deputy secretary in the Department of Education. (The position does not require confirmation.) Jennings, a native of Massachusetts, is to head up the department’s Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools. The Family Research Council and right-wing news organizations, including Fox News and the Washington Times, are calling for Jennings resignation, claiming he failed to report an incident he heard about in which a teenaged male told him, 21 years ago, that he had had a sexual relationship with an older man.

High Court scratches two gay-related appeals

It was the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court, during the 1987 March on Washington, that one of the movement’s largest and most intense moments of direct action was staged.

There was no dramatic sit-in demonstration planned by October’s March on Washington for the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court. It was there, during the 1987 March on Washington, that one of the movement’s largest and most intense moments of direct action was staged. Thousands of gay civil rights supporters stood together at the bottom of the court’s entrance and systematically defied police orders to stay off the court’s open gathering plaza. In protest of the high court’s 1986 decision, Bowers v. Hardwick, upholding state laws prohibiting consenting same-sex sexual relations, hundreds of the demonstrators stepped onto the plaza, sat down, and were arrested.

The 2009 March included no such demonstration directed at the U.S. Supreme Court in large part because the high court has since reversed itself on Hardwick. It ruled, in 2003’s Lawrence v. Texas decision, that state “sodomy laws” were unconstitutional. It also ruled, in 1996’s Romer v. Evans, that state laws cannot be based on animus towards gay people.

But the Supreme Court has not become a reliably hospitable place for LGBT people. And while gay legal groups do not –so far– see any cases before the court that they intend to become involved in this session, there are scattered cases involving LGBT issues.

The Supreme Court refused during its official opening day orders October 5 to hear the appeal of a Michigan school district which was seeking to dismiss a lawsuit filed by the parents of a student who was being repeatedly harassed as a “queer” and “faggot.” The 6th Circuit federal appeals court ruled in January that the case, Hudson Area Schools v. Patterson, should proceed to trial.

Court records indicate other students repeatedly harassed the Patterson student, calling “queer,” “gay,” and “faggot,” writing anti-gay slurs and drawings on his books and locker, and urinating on his clothes. Despite the Patterson student seeking help from school officials, the harassment escalated with a student sexually assaulting him in a locker room. The assailant was eventually dismissed but the coach in charge of the locker room later commented to the Patterson son and others in the locker room that they should “not joke around with guys who can’t take a man joke.”

Because the Supreme Court refused to hear the school’s appeal, the parents’ lawsuit will now be heard in a federal district court in Detroit.

Religious crusades

The Supreme Court also refused October 5 to hear an appeal from an Episcopal Church in Los Angeles that sought to break away from the national denomination because the denomination allowed the consecration of a gay bishop, Gene Robinson of New Hampshire.

The St. James parish in the diocese of Los Angeles broke away from the denomination in 2003 and tried to take the church property with them. But the denomination fought the parish’s efforts to take the property, and the California Supreme Court agreed.

By refusing to hear the St. James Parish appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court has left the ruling of the California court intact. But the California decision affects no other states, and, importantly, there are similar cases percolating in other states. For instance, the entire Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth, Texas, has a lawsuit underway attempting to acquire church property with its separation. And, the Supreme Court’s refusal of St. James v. Episcopal Diocese does not preclude it from taking up a similar case from another state.

There are several cases reaching the high court now that test the government’s power to regulate or support the behavior of people and entities who offer religious or other First Amendment justifications for their actions.

In Choose Life v. Illinois, an anti-abortion group petitioned the state for the right to have its motto “Choose Life” stamped onto a series of automobile license plates. By state law, the group needed two things to make that happen: several thousand signatures from residents willing to buy license plates with the specialized slogan, and approval from the general assembly. Choose Life got 25,000 signatures –a number that “far exceeded” the minimum required, according to court documents. But the plan was shot down in a legislative subcommittee. The anti-abortion group filed a lawsuit, arguing that it violated their First Amendment right to freedom of expression.
The 7th Circuit federal court of appeals ruled that the state had a “reasonable rationale that messages on specialty license plates give the appearance of having the government’s endorsement, and Illinois does not wish to be perceived as endorsing any position on the subject of abortion.” The U.S. Supreme Court this month refused to hear the group’s appeal of that decision.

The court also refused this month to hear an appeal, Frazier v. Smith, from the parents of a Florida public high school student who refused to stand in class during the pledge of allegiance. The school policy said that was OK, but only if the student, Cameron Frazier, brought in a written request from his parents asking that he be excused from participating. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the 1940s that a state cannot force students to recite the Pledge. But Cameron refused to even stand and his parents sued, saying the requirement to stand also violated his First Amendment rights. The 11th Circuit split the baby: It said the school could not require students to stand during the pledge but that it could require parental permission for students who chose to exercise their right not to stand.

Cases involving the pledge are springing up all over the country, many testing whether the words “under God” violate the constitutional rights of students who don’t believe in god. A federal judge in New Hampshire last month ruled that federal law does not require anyone to recite the pledge and that a state law requiring school children to recite it was “a civic patriotic affirmation, not a religious exercise, and inclusion of the words ‘under God’ constitutes, at most, a form of ceremonial or benign deism.”