HUD clarifies LGBT housing discrimination protections

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced new guidance to help LGBT people who encounter discrimination in housing. Two LGBT leaders familiar with housing issues say the move is “very significant” and “much needed.”

Shaun Donovan
Shaun Donovan

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) on July 1 announced new guidance to help LGBT people who encounter discrimination in housing. Like a recent move by the Department of Labor, the HUD announcement is more of a clarification than a new policy—but two LGBT leaders familiar with housing issues say the move is “very significant” and “much needed.”

The new guidance, announced by HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan at HUD’s LGBT Pride Month Celebration, states that, although the Fair Housing Act (FHA) does not explicitly cover sexual orientation- or gender identity-based housing discrimination, such discrimination may be covered by the FHA in other ways. For example, the guidance explains, gender-identity discrimination may be seen as gender discrimination, and discrimination against a gay man because of fear he will spread HIV/AIDS may constitute illegal discrimination on the basis of a perceived disability, HIV/AIDS.

The HUD guidance also instructs staff to inform individuals about state and local LGBT protections that may apply to them. It notes that approximately 20 states, the District of Columbia, and over 60 cities, towns, and counties do specifically prohibit discrimination against LGBT individuals. HUD will retain jurisdiction over complaints filed by LGBT individuals or families as appropriate, but will “jointly investigate or refer matters to those state, district, and local governments with other legal protections.”

Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF), said the reforms are “much-needed… especially in the context of this rocky economic climate that has already left so many people fearful of losing the roofs over their heads.”

“LGBT people remain particularly vulnerable in seeking or retaining housing due to widespread bias, discrimination and a lack of housing protections,” said Carey. “Explicitly including LGBT people and our families in housing policies in order to better protect them and ensure fairness marks a proper governmental response and step toward rectifying a long-standing inequity.”

Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, called HUD’s announcement “very significant.” It should be commonsense that discrimination on the basis of gender identity is prohibited by the FHA’s ban on gender-based discrimination, she said, but it’s not.

A national study by NGLTF and the National Center for Transgender Equality last year found that 11 percent of the more than 6,400 transgender people surveyed had been evicted and 19 percent had become homeless because of their gender identity. (Keisling notes, however, that some of the cases of homelessness could have been from loss of jobs through employment discrimination, not housing discrimination alone.)

Keisling added that, while HUD went as far as it could to clarify protections under existing law, additional legislation is still needed because of the additional clout an explicitly LGBT-inclusive federal nondiscrimination law carries.

The original Fair Housing Act was enacted in 1968 in response to widespread housing discrimination against people of color. At first, it prohibited discrimination based on race, color, religion and national origin. It was later amended to add prohibitions on discrimination based on sex, disability, and familial status. Individuals seeking redress under the Fair Housing Act may bring a lawsuit in federal district court or file an administrative complaint with HUD.

There are currently three bills pending in the House—introduced by Reps. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), Joe Sestak (D-Penn.), and Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.)—that would amend the Fair Housing Act specifically to prohibit discrimination in housing on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

Nadler, who chairs the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, held a hearing on FHA revisions in March, at which NGLTF’s Carey testified. His LGBT housing nondiscrimination bill has only two co-sponsors, though; Sestak and Towns’ have none, making it seem unlikely that any of the bills will move before the end of this session of Congress in the fall.

Despite a lack of legislative change, however, HUD has taken several other steps under President Obama to address sexual orientation- and gender identity-based discrimination.

HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan has proposed policy changes that would stop discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity in HUD’s core housing programs, require those who participate in HUD programs to comply with local anti-discrimination laws that cover sexual orientation and gender identity, and end mortgage-loan discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The policies are being drafted and must go through a period of public comment before being enacted.

HUD has also commissioned the first-ever national study of discrimination against LGBT people in the rental and sale of housing, and is currently seeking public comment at hud.gov to help design the study.

Like HUD, the Department of Labor recently issued an LGBT-related policy clarification, stating on June 22 that the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) allows an employee to take unpaid leave to care for the legal children of the employee’s same-sex partner.

Keisling said she has heard some within the LGBT community call such moves by the Obama administration “token things”—but she believes they reflect a deeper change.

“Throughout the federal government now, they’re really taking a look to make sure all the things they do are fair for all people. . . . These are really huge decisions and huge advancements. They are pieces we want.”

Barnes: ‘We’ve carried the ball a long, long way down the field’

The purpose of the small gathering at the Old Executive Office Building in Washington was two-fold: first, to give LGBT media a “snapshot” of what the Obama administration has done, and plans to do, on LGBT issues. And, second, nine LGBT reporters and political bloggers would get to ask a question.

barnes_melody
Melody Barnes

WASHINGTON, D.C. —The purpose of the small gathering on the second floor of the Old Executive Office Building in Washington Thursday afternoon was two-fold. First, White House Domestic Policy Chief Melody Barnes wanted to give LGBT media a “snapshot” of what the Obama administration has done, and plans to do, on LGBT issues.

And, second, nine LGBT reporters and political bloggers would get a chance to ask a question.

It was the first time any administration had arranged to deliver such a briefing to LGBT media and take questions, and some lamented that the access has come 18 months into the administration and, thus far, has not included an interview with the president himself.

But Barnes offered an earnest defense of what the Obama administration has done thus far on LGBT issues—“more than any previous administration,” she said. She pointed to the signing hate crimes legislation into law, issuing of executive memos to expedite tangible benefits where possible, and using the president’s bully pulpit in a variety of settings to advance the public’s understanding of civil rights for LGBT people.

Barnes was pressed to explain why the administration continues to defend laws in court, such as Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), even though the president has repeatedly said both laws should be repealed. Barnes said it’s in part because the president is concerned about setting a precedent that would make it easier for some future administration to pick and choose which laws it would defend, and in part because the president “hasn’t made an argument” concerning the constitutionality of the laws.

“To be clear, he believes DOMA is discriminatory,” said Barnes, noting the administration has indicated so in legal briefs. “But,” said Barnes, “we believe we have an obligation to defend the law if Congress had a rational basis for passing the law.” She added that the president has been “trying to move the country forward and change the narrative” on these issues.

When it comes to prodding Congress to pass pro-LGBT laws, such as the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), said Barnes, the administration is relying on the Congressional leadership.

“We look to the Senate leadership to also say to us, ‘These are issues we are prepared to move forward on’,” said Barnes. “They’re doing that based on a whole number of variables. And when they are talking about moving forward with ENDA, they’re also getting an indication from us that we support it.”

Pam Spaulding, a political blogger at pamshouseblend.com, told Barnes that there is a “big gulf” between what national LGBT organizations consider to be significant progress on LGBT issues and what people at the grassroots think. She suggested a briefing like this one might have gone a long way to mitigate the concern of the grassroots if it had been held earlier in the administration.

Barnes acknowledged the frustration of the grassroots, but emphasized, “We are here now, and that reflects the desire to be engaged.” She also noted that the White House AIDS czar, Jeff Crowley, has been engaging the grassroots through a series of town meetings around the country to talk about AIDS.

“There’s always a desire and effort to do better, and that’s why we are sitting here now,” said Barnes. “

The only surprise came when—in responding to a question about the relative lack of openly gay people on the president’s senior staff—Barnes credited White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel with having pushed for the hospital visitation directive. That directive, signed by President Obama, provided for the Department of Health and Human Services to ensure that hospitals receiving federal funding respect the wishes of an LGBT patient in deciding who can visit them in the hospital. Emanuel has, for years, been seen as a relative obstructionist on LGBT advances—first, in the Clinton White House and, now, in this one.

“There are a number of very senior members of this administration—whether it be Rahm, Valerie [Jarrett] or me or Jim [Messina]—who are not gay or lesbian but for whom these issues are important. We have conversations and provide advice to the president on those issues. It is helpful and important to have people… who are not gay or lesbian or transgender who care about these issues and advocate for them in the White House.”

“There are LGBT senior colleagues who may not have as their portfolio specific LGBT issues,” continued Barnes, “but they come to the table with expertise on personnel, the environment, and host of other issues who do participate in these conversations, who sit at the table and bring their perspective to the conversation on a consistent basis. So while there isn’t an individual…there are many individuals who care about these issues, who drive this set of issues and think about how we move forward.”

Asked whether the White House vetted its decision concerning the DADT certification requirement with anyone in the LGBT community, Barnes answered indirectly, saying the White House “absolutely consults frequently” with the community. She pointed specifically to staffers Brian Bond and Tina Tchen in the White House Office of Public Liaison, as the point persons to ensure such consultations.

“Brian and Tina are talking to and considering and hearing the positive and negative as we go through the process of both developing policy and articulating what our policy is,” said Barnes.

“We’ve carried the ball a long, long way down the field,” said Barnes. “There’s still work to be done but we’ve carried it a long way down the field.”

Presidential Pride Proclamations: A measure of presidents and progress

President Barack Obama has for the second time issued a proclamation in honor of Pride Month. Only one other president—Bill Clinton—has ever done so. A comparison of their proclamations suggests there’s been some progress in LGBT civil rights between the two administrations, but also highlights areas of little or no change.

Bill Clinton
Bill Clinton

President Barack Obama has for the second time issued a proclamation in honor of Pride Month. Only one other president—Bill Clinton—has ever done so. A comparison of their proclamations suggests there’s been some progress in LGBT civil rights between the two administrations, but also highlights areas of little or no change.

President Clinton issued the first “Gay and Lesbian Pride Month” proclamation in 1999, the third year of his second term, and another in 2000. President George W. Bush issued no Pride proclamations, making Obama the first president to issue a Pride proclamation in the first year of his presidency. Obama was also the first to include bisexual and transgender people and proclaim “LGBT Pride Month.”

Clinton’s first proclamation noted that gay and lesbian Americans were serving “openly and proudly” in the federal government. In his second, he specified that “more openly gay and lesbian individuals serve in senior posts throughout the Federal Government than during any other Administration.”

In 2009, Obama went further, stating that he was “the first President to appoint openly LGBT candidates to Senate-confirmed positions in the first 100 days of an Administration.”

Reaction from the LGBT community to Obama’s first proclamation was lukewarm, however. Other than the federal appointments, the only other accomplishment he mentioned was his support of a United Nations effort to decriminalize homosexuality around the world.

In other areas, Obama’s latest proclamation reflects modest changes since the Clinton era.

Clinton, writing after six years in office, noted in his first proclamation that his administration had banned sexual orientation-based discrimination in the federal civilian work force and in the granting of security clearances.

Obama’s 2010 proclamation speaks not of non-discrimination policies for federal employees but of the need for equal benefits. (Obama has added gender identity to the discrimination protections for federal employees, but did not mention that in either of his Pride proclamations.) In June 2009, Obama directed federal agencies to determine what benefits they could offer to same-sex partners of federal employees under existing law. In June 2010, after the agency information had been reviewed by the Office of Personnel Management and Department of Justice, he signed a memorandum ordering the extension of those benefits. They include the same benefits as for opposite-sex spouses except for health insurance and retirement benefits.

Obama’s 2010 proclamation also spoke of his memorandum requesting an end to discrimination against LGBT people in hospital visitation policies and of the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD’s) proposals to end discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity in core housing programs. Neither the hospital nor HUD rules have gone into effect yet, however—they are being written and should soon be available for public comment.

Clinton had in both proclamations stressed the need to pass the Hate Crimes Prevention Act that, at the time, included sexual orientation but not gender identity. Obama, in his 2009 proclamation, reiterated the need for strengthened hate crimes laws, and by 2010, was able to say he had signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act, inclusive of crimes based on gender identity or sexual orientation.

On some issues, however, the proclamations show minimal to nonexistent change.

Both of Clinton’s proclamations called for passage of the Employment Nondiscrimination Act (ENDA) that, at the time, included sexual orientation but not gender identity. Obama’s proclamations have repeated the call to end employment discrimination. An employment nondiscrimination bill inclusive of both sexual orientation and gender identity is pending in Congress, but its prospects are uncertain.

Clinton’s 1999 proclamation also devoted an entire paragraph to the need to protect students from discrimination and harassment, and it praised the guidance issued by the Department of Education to explain federal prohibitions against sexual harassment based on sexual orientation.

In 2009 and 2010, however, Obama is still reiterating the need to provide LGBT youth with safe environment in which to learn, but he mentioned it as one item in a list of other to-dos and included no relevant accomplishments in that area.

A few issues in Obama’s proclamations were nowhere to be found in Clinton’s.

Clinton, who in 1996 had signed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), did not mention marriage equality or federal relationship recognition. Obama, however, spoke in his first proclamation of the need to enact civil unions and in his second of the need to repeal DOMA.

Clinton’s proclamations also overlooked the military’s ban on gay and lesbian servicemembers, which he had promised to repeal, only to settle on the compromise later known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Obama has, in both his proclamations, stated his support for repealing the ban. His 2010 proclamation came the day after the U.S. House and the Senate Armed Services Committee voted to overturn the ban, pending the outcome of a Department of Defense implementation study.

Clinton’s proclamations did not speak of HIV/AIDS, even though he had made proclamations in honor of World AIDS Day since his first year in office and had increased funding for AIDS research, among other measures to combat the disease.

Obama, in his 2009 Pride proclamation, did mention the ongoing need to fight HIV/AIDS. In 2010, he touted the lifting of the immigration ban on persons with HIV/AIDS and his renewal of the Ryan White CARE Act, the largest federally funded AIDS program.

Clinton also made no mention of adoption rights for LGBT people, whereas Obama in both proclamations said we must work to ensure such rights. In 2010, he made a point of recognizing LGBT mothers and fathers.

In Clinton’s 1999 proclamation, he recalled the beginnings of the gay and lesbian civil rights movement at the Stonewall Inn in New York, noting that it had just been added to the National Register of Historic Places. Stonewall was again mentioned in his 2000 proclamation and in Obama’s 2009 one, on the 40th anniversary of the event. In 2010, however, Obama did not mention Stonewall, but placed Pride Month in the context of the “great, unfinished story” of equality for all Americans.

Hospital visitation memo will take months to implement

When President Obama signed a memorandum this month, calling for an end to discrimination against gays and lesbians in hospital visitation policies, many unmarried LGBT people assumed that meant hospitals would no longer be able to bar them from being with their partners during a time of medical crisis.

But not all presidential memoranda are created equal: Some go into effect immediately; some require months of rule-making bureaucracy and are subject to public comment.

Kathleen Sebelius
Kathleen Sebelius

When President Obama signed a memorandum this month, calling for an end to discrimination against gays and lesbians in hospital visitation policies, many unmarried LGBT people assumed that meant hospitals would no longer be able to bar them from being with their partners during a time of medical crisis.

But not all presidential memoranda are created equal: Some go into effect immediately; some require months of rule-making bureaucracy and are subject to public comment.

The April 15 memorandum to the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius requests HHS “ensure that hospitals that participate in Medicare or Medicaid respect the rights of patients to designate visitors” is among the latter.

And the presidential memo President Obama signed last June, asking the Office of Personnel Management to report back in 90 days with recommendations for “measures that can be taken…to provide benefits to same-sex domestic partners of Federal Government employees”? A spokesman for OPM says those recommendations were submitted to the president but are not available to the public.

Why must some memoranda go through months of public comment and rule-making while others go into effect immediately and why are the results of others not made public at all?

Randolph D. Moss, Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Counsel under President Clinton, says “it depends on what the President is doing and on the underlying law.”

“A memorandum blocking assets held by terrorist groups, for example, can go into effect without further legal proceedings because the statute gives the President that authority,” he explained. “But, at other times, the underlying statutory authority requires that a change in policy go through additional steps, such as notice and comment under the Administrative Procedure Act.”

“The President’s directive on hospital visitation will affect the rules that govern at hospitals that receive Medicare and Medicaid funding,” noted Moss, “so HHS will need to propose a rule change.”

“As the presidential directive makes clear, among the questions that HHS will need to consider is how visitation might affect patient care and treatment,” said Moss. “Other questions might include how the rule will be enforced.”

HHS will also have to answer the question of how to define “hospital” and whether that definition includes assisted living facilities. Luis Rosero, deputy assistant secretary in the Office of Public Affairs at HHS, said that definition will almost certainly come up during the comment period and he encourages anyone with opinions about that to submit a comment then.

First, however, HHS must write a “proposed rule” for implementation of the directive and publish it in the Federal Register. Then, the public and interested stakeholders will have 60 days during which to submit their comments on the proposed rule. After the comment period closes, HHS will write the final rule—a process that takes at least several more months—and then the rule goes into effect.

In the meantime, said Rosero, hospitals are essentially on notice that this is what the Obama administration intends to do. The memo instructs HHS to ensure that hospitals receiving federal funds not deny visitation based on sexual orientation or gender identity, along with the usual categories of non-discrimination.

As for designating the recommendations sought through a presidential memorandum as “privileged” information, said Moss, “that’s not unusual.”

Last June, President Obama’s memorandum directed federal agencies to determine what benefits they might be able to make available to the domestic partners of gay federal employees under existing laws. It directed the Office of Personnel Management to prepare a report on the results of their findings, along with recommendations “of any additional measures that can be taken.”

John Marble, public affairs specialist for the Office of Personnel Management, headed by openly gay appointee John Berry, said those recommendations are “privileged material” and not available to the public.

Marble did not explain, but Moss said the designation “doesn’t strike me as improper.”

“If you make [such recommendations] public immediately, before the president and his staff have a chance to look at and consider them,” said Moss, “you may undermine the ability of people in the Administration to have a complete and candid discussion about them.”

“That doesn’t mean that the Administration will not make its views public,” Moss added, “just that there is a need for some confidential internal discussion first.”

A Department of Silence: Bullying of LGBT youth not a priority

From the beginning of the Obama administration, the general attitude of the LGBT people was that things would be better for the community than they were under the administration of President George W. Bush. But even from the beginning, there were signs that protections for LGBT youth might not be better and that “safe schools” might not be a priority for the Department of Education (DOE).

Arne Duncan
Arne Duncan

Second of two parts (Part I)

From the beginning of the Obama administration, the general attitude of the LGBT people was that things would be better for the community than they were under the administration of President George W. Bush.

But even from the beginning, there were signs that protections for LGBT youth might not be better and that “safe schools” might not be a priority for the Department of Education (DOE).

Several federal departments under President Obama have made moves to benefit the LGBT community, but the Department of Education has done little. This is despite growing evidence that LGBT youth are among those most at risk and that safe-schools programs benefit all students, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.

Many in the LGBT community cheered when President Obama appointed Kevin Jennings, the openly gay founder of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) to head the DOE’s Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools. Before he took office in July 2009, however, his department’s budget had already been slashed by more than 40 percent — from $690 million in the last year of the Bush administration to $393 million under President Obama. The budget request for 2011 is only slightly higher, at $410 million.

The money will be used to fund a new “Successful, Safe, and Healthy Students” program to replace the existing “Safe and Drug Free Schools” program. Schools will compete for grants under the program by completing an assessment of students, staff, and parents. Grants can be used to address problems such as the physical environment, wellness, respect for diversity, and bullying.

But bullying is only one possible component of the program. The DOE has done little else to promote efforts to address the problem of school safety—much less the high incidence of bullying based on real or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity—as a priority.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan did meet with GLSEN executive director Eliza Byard and a delegation of students and teachers in March 2009. And in that meeting, he “affirmed a commitment to make schools safe for every student, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity/expression,” according to a GLSEN press release. But DOE did not issue a press release of its own, even though it regularly does so when the Secretary or other senior officials meet with organizations or community groups.

The DOE also displayed winning entries from GLSEN’s “No Name-Calling Week Creative Expression Contest” in the lobby of its headquarters for a month.

However, no DOE officials testified in a July 2009 House committee hearing on “Strengthening School Safety through Prevention of Bullying.”

At the hearing, two expert witnesses—Kenneth Trump, President of National School Safety and Security Services, and Scott Poland, Coordinator of the Office of Suicide and Violence Prevention at Nova Southeastern University—each called for strong school safety components, including anti-bullying measures, to be included in this year’s reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). ESEA, better known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB), was the major educational policy enacted by Congress under the direction of President George W. Bush.

A bill introduced in May 2009 by Rep. Linda Sánchez (D-Calif.) would provide such anti-bullying measures. Known as the Safe Schools Improvement Act (SSIA), it would require schools that receive federal funds to implement and report on anti-bullying programs. It would define bullying as hostile conduct based on someone’s actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity, among other attributes. The SSIA is structured to be a set of revisions to the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act, which is part of NCLB.

Sirdeaner Walker, mother of Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, an 11-year-old Massachusetts boy who committed suicide in 2009 after relentless bullying about his perceived gay sexual orientation, testified at the July hearing and called on Congress to move the SSIA forward.

A number of organizations also contributed written testimony in support of the SSIA. They included GLSEN, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Action Fund, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the Family Equality Council, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, COLAGE, and Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) as well as several non-LGBT organizations, including Girl Scouts of the USA, the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, the National Federation of Teachers, and the American Association of University Women.

A spokesman for GLSEN, Daryl Presgraves, said in an interview that the SSIA is “our biggest priority right now on a federal level.”

But when President Obama released his “Blueprint for Reform” of NCLB, through a DOE document that details the administration’s proposal, it contained no mention of the provisions of the SSIA. It also included no mention of the Student Nondiscrimination Act (SNDA), a bill introduced by Rep. Polis in January 2010. SNDA would prohibit discrimination—including harassment—on the basis of real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity in any program or activity receiving federal funds.

The DOE has also been silent about the several high-profile bullying-related student suicides since President Obama took office. And the administration did not issue any remarks of support for Jennings when right-wing groups attacked his appointment, suggesting he supported pedophilia and claiming he would promote a “homosexual agenda” in the nation’s classrooms.

Jennings himself has given no interviews to the LGBT media since taking office. A spokeswoman for the DOE Office of Communications and Outreach, Jo Ann Webb, declined repeated requests for interviews with Jennings either in person, by phone, or email. According to Webb, Jennings has a schedule that is too “hectic” to accommodate an interview.

A comprehensive federal law to promote safe schools for every student, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, would provide a level of uniformity that current state and local laws do not offer. Only 12 states plus the District of Columbia have safe-school laws that specifically cover sexual orientation and gender identity. Other states cover only sexual orientation or do not enumerate specific categories of coverage. Some have only non-discrimination laws that may or may not include schools.

The Massachusetts House and Senate each passed anti-bullying bills in March, having sped up the process after the widely publicized suicide of 15-year-old Phoebe Prince in January. Prince, who had moved to Massachusetts from Ireland with her family, was repeatedly bullied by a number of classmates. Six of those students now face felony charges and three others have been charged as youthful offenders.

But neither version of the Massachusetts bill enumerates sexual orientation, gender identity, or other attributes on which bullying may be based. The same is true for bills pending in both houses of the Michigan legislature.

A 2007 survey of students conducted by GLSEN found that students were more likely to report harassment problems to staff—and staff were more likely to help—in schools or states with policies that enumerate categories, than in those with policies that do not enumerate the categories.

And in Romer v. Evans, a landmark 1996 U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down Colorado’s anti-gay Amendment 2, the high court noted, “Enumeration is the essential device used to make the duty not to discriminate concrete and to provide guidance for those who must comply.”

Both the SSIA and SNDA bills would provide enumerated coverage and federal clout to ensure compliance.

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) will soon introduce a Senate companion bill to SNDA. During an April 20 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on oversight of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, Franken asked Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division, “Do we need an explicit ban against discrimination in public schools based on sexual orientation or gender identity?”

Perez didn’t answer the question. He replied, “I would be happy to work with you on the underlying issue of ensuring that everybody going to school can have the reality of a learning environment that’s nurturing, non-discriminatory, and non-threatening.”

Despite the absence of safe-schools provisions in the President’s proposal, GLSEN spokesman Presgraves said he is optimistic.

“Obviously, this is just a blueprint,” he explained. “As the ‘Blueprint’ will continue to expand and become the actual language for the reauthorization, at that point is when we’ll definitely do everything we can to ensure that [the Sánchez and Polis bills’] language are part of the reauthorization.”

HRC’s chief legislative counsel Brian Moulton agreed.

“Certainly, would it be preferable for there to be a strong, explicit signal going into this process from the White House? Sure,” he said. “But I don’t know that we should see this as a problem right out the gate.”

Moulton added that HRC is working with GLSEN and Rep. Polis’ office to build cosponsors for both bills and “to look for the potential to include one or both of these bills as part of that larger reauthorization bill,” but added, “I’m not sure what those next steps will be because I’m not sure we know what the timeline on the reauthorization is.”

Moulton also suggested the bills could face “competing interests.”

“We are obviously very organizationally focused on getting ENDA through and the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell repeal effort,” said Moulton. “The window between now and the midterms [elections for Congress] keeps getting smaller and smaller, unfortunately. I’m not sure that right now there’s an immediate path to moving either” the Sánchez or Polis bills. But he said HRC can “continue to be able to use them as a tool to talk to Congressional offices about the issue.”

“As with any of our issues, it is a heavy lift politically,” said Moulton, “and I don’t know what the prospects are. . . . It is very much a question of when will we have the opportunity to move things on the Hill and how much we can get the community activated once these opportunities present themselves.”

CBS pulls blog post that Kagan is gay

A mainstream news organization has published a story identifying as gay a prominent public official who has never identified as such. The subject of the story is U.S. Solicitor General Elena Kagan, reportedly one of President Obama’s leading contenders to fill the seat of retiring U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens.

Elena Kagan
Elena Kagan

It’s déjà vu all over again.

A mainstream news organization has published a story identifying as gay a prominent public official who has never identified as such.

The subject of the story this month is U.S. Solicitor General Elena Kagan, who is reportedly one of President Obama’s leading contenders to fill the seat of retiring U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens.

Kagan, who turns 50 later this month and is unmarried, has never publicly identified herself as gay.

But in a blog entry published Thursday by CBS News on its website, conservative gadfly Ben Domenech wrote that, if chosen for Stevens’ seat, Kagan would make history as the “first openly gay justice.”

An unidentified White House spokesperson informed CBS that the claim was inaccurate and Domenech posted an apology of sorts.

He said he offered his “sincere apologies to Ms. Kagan if she is offended at all by my repetition of a Harvard rumor in a speculative blog post.”

CBS at first kept the blog entry up, while Dan Farber, its editor in chief, took the unusual tack of acknowledging to the Washington Post that the blog entry was “nothing but pure and irresponsible speculation.”

The Post reported, however, that White House pressure continued. Its point person on Supreme Court nominees, Anita Dunn, criticized the network for becoming “enablers of people posting lies on their site” and she criticized Domenech as a blogger with a “history of plagiarism.” Another White House spokesman, Ben LaBolt, accused CBS of making “false charges” against Kagan.

According to the Post, the website deleted the blog entry by Thursday night.

But the controversy may not be over. Paul Sousa, founder of a gay web-organizing group, issued a press release Friday saying he was organizing a national petition campaign to extract an apology from White House officials for their “extremely insensitive and homophobic remarks.”

He criticized White House spokesman LaBolt for characterizing the label of “gay” as being a false “charge.”

“’Charges’ is an extremely loaded word that implies something very negative,” said Sousa in his press release. “Diversity characteristics, including one’s sexual orientation, are and should be deemed positive factors in a candidate’s nomination to the Supreme Court and not a negative characteristic as White House officials have strongly implied.”

It was just two months ago that the San Francisco Chronicle ran a story reporting that it is an “open secret” that Proposition 8 trial judge Vaughn Walker is gay.

It’s not clear yet whether the unsubstantiated statement about Kagan will have any impact on the White House selection of a nominee.

President directs HHS to crack down on hospitals barring LGBT partners

President Obama issued a surprise memorandum Thursday night, April 15, calling for an end to discrimination against LGBT people by hospital visitation policies that limit visitors to immediate family members.

President Obama
President Obama

President Obama issued a surprise memorandum Thursday night, April 15, calling for an end to discrimination against LGBT people by hospital visitation policies that limit visitors to immediate family members.

The timing for release of the memo was a little odd—at 7:29 p.m. while the president was onboard Air Force One enroute back to Washington from a day of events in Florida.

After signing the memorandum onboard Air Force One, the president then called Washington State resident Janice Langbehn to express his sympathy for the loss of her partner of 18 years, Lisa Pond.

Pond and Langbehn’s story was the subject of a profile last year in the New York Times, illustrating one of the urgent problems gay couples face because they cannot marry and because some entities still refuse to respect their relationships.

During a family vacation to Miami, Florida, in February 2007, Pond collapse with an aneurysm and was taken by ambulance to Jackson Memorial Hospital’s trauma center. When Langbehn and their three children arrived at the hospital, a hospital social worker said they would not be able to visit Pond, even though Langbehn and Pond had executed a health proxy and Langbehn had a friend fax the document to the hospital.

According to a press release from Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, which is representing Langbehn in a lawsuit against the hospital, the president apologized to Langbehn for what happened to her family.

“It was very rewarding to hear ‘I’m sorry,’ from the President because that’s what I have wanted to hear from Jackson Memorial since the night Lisa died,” said Langbehn, in the statement. “I hope that taking these steps makes sure that no family ever has to experience the nightmare that my family has gone through.”

President Obama’s memorandum directs the Secretary of Health and Human Services to “ensure” that hospitals which participate in Medicare and Medicaid “respect the rights of patients to designate visitors” and allow those visitors the same privileges as immediate family members.

More specifically, the memo instructs HHS to ensure that hospitals receiving federal funds not deny visitation based on sexual orientation or gender identity, along with the usual categories of non-discrimination.

Human Rights Fund spokesman Michael Cole said his organization had been working with the White House on the memo language for some time. He said he was unaware of any particular reason for the timing.

“It was a long process for them to get the memo language set and all of their ducks in a row,” said Cole, “so my impression is that this was the point at which it was done.”

The April 15 memorandum is the second memorandum issued by the president to specifically help LGBT people. In June 2009, President Obama signed a memorandum to the Office of Personnel Management Director requesting that the heads of all executive departments and agencies “conduct a review” of current benefits available to federal employees within 90 days “to determine what authority they have to extend such benefits to same-sex domestic partners of Federal employees” and submit a report on this to OPM.

Kevin Cathcart, executive director of Lambda Legal, called the president’s hospital visitation memorandum a “great leap forward in addressing discrimination affecting LGBT patients and their families.”

“These measures are intended to ensure that no family will have to experience what the Langbehn-Pond family did that night at Jackson Memorial Hospital,” said Cathcart, in a statement issued Thursday night.

A federal district court judge dismissed Lambda’s lawsuit on behalf of Langbehn, saying there was no law requiring the hospital to allow Lisa Pond’s partner to see her at the hospital. On Monday, April 12, Lambda issued a press release saying it had reached an agreement with Jackson Memorial for “improved policies that are more responsive to the needs of the LGBT community.” But Lambda said the agreement does “not provide as much protection as may be needed in critical situations.”

Lambda noted that the president’s memorandum calls on HHS to take steps to ensure that hospitals respect legal documents that some patients have to designate who can make decisions for them if they become incapacitated. It also requires HHS to report back to the president in 180 days with additional recommendations for actions HHS can take “to address hospital visitation, medical decision-making, or other health care issues that affect LGBT patients and their families.”

Ironically, the pool reporter on board the flight back to Washington reported there was “No news on the way back” from Florida.

Meanwhile, Roll Call, a newspaper specializing in covering Capitol Hill, reported Thursday that the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct has “drafted rules that for the first time would define gay married couples as ‘spouses’ for the purposes of filling out their annual Congressional financial disclosure forms.”

The forms are used by members of Congress and their staffs to make annual disclosures of any additional sources of income and investments by them and their spouses and dependent children. The draft rules propose requiring that any members or staff who have married same-sex spouses in Washington, D.C. or any of the states which provide for equal marriage rights to include information about their spouse’s finances, the same as straight members and staff must do about their legal spouses.

Roll Call quoted a spokesman for the Family Research Council as saying the draft rules violate the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which prohibits federal recognition of same-sex marriages. The paper noted that the draft ruled had been removed from the committee’s website.

The Committee’s website currently lists instructions for filling out the form for calendar year 2008 disclosures even though the forms due next month are for calendar year 2009.

Supreme possibilities: How the ‘short list’ stacks up

The White House has begun floating trial balloons for candidates President Obama might appoint to the U.S. Supreme Court to replace retiring Justice John Paul Stevens.

Leah Ward Sears
Leah Ward Sears

The White House has begun floating trial balloons for candidates President Obama might appoint to the U.S. Supreme Court to replace retiring Justice John Paul Stevens. It’s a well-known ritual—played by anonymous White House sources, a willing and competitive media, and even justice-wannabes who know how to capitalize on the power of the rumor mill.

The Associated Press is, thus far, winning: claiming that it has “confirmed” the names of seven potential nominees on a list of candidates it says is 10 people long.

The seven include nominees that are generally friendly to the LGBT community, based on what little is known of them right now. They include Solicitor General Elena Kagan, Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. The other four include three circuit court judges with brief, but friendly, records on gay civil rights, and a former Chief Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court who is at least liberal enough to be disliked by anti-abortion groups because—they say—she protects constitutional rights to privacy against efforts to legislate morality.

Not on the list—at least not confirmed by Associated Press—are two openly gay candidates mentioned last time around: Stanford professors Kathleen Sullivan and Pam Karlan. The likelihood of their being considered, given the hostile partisan climate of the Senate right now, seems nil.

The seven who are reportedly under consideration include:

  • Former Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears was the first African American woman to serve as chief justice of any state supreme court—and she did so in Georgia. During that time, she twice sided decisions overturning the state’s laws against sodomy. “The individual’s right to freely exercise his or her liberty is not dependent upon whether the majority believes such exercise to be moral, dishonorable, or wrong,” wrote Sears in a concurring opinion in Powell v. State in 1998. She is also friends with conservative Justice Clarence Thomas, who would likely be an asset in persuading conservative senators to give her their support.
  • 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Sidney Thomas. Thomas, appointed by President Clinton in 1995, dissented from a 9th Circuit decision that said it was permissible for San Francisco police to do strip searches and body cavity searches of all arrested persons—even those arrested for non-violent acts of vandalism during a gay pride event. He also agreed with the full circuit’s refusal to hear a school district’s appeal of a decision that found it unconstitutional for a school to bar a gay student from wearing a gay pride t-shirt.
  • Solicitor General Elena Kagan. The Solicitor General’s position is sometimes referred to as the “10th justice” because of the importance of the role before the nation’s highest court. From the moment Obama nominated Kagan to the position, speculation began that she would eventually be his nominee to the court. She was a clerk for liberal Justice Thurgood Marshall and, as dean of Harvard Law School, defended a non-discrimination policy that barred military recruiters because of their discrimination against gays. That, coupled with her status as single and having served as a research assistant for the great defender of gay civil rights, Laurence Tribe, will no doubt sound an alarm for right-wing conservatives.
  • 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Diane Wood clerked for liberal Justice Harry Blackmun and was appointed by President Clinton. She has a mixed record on gay-related cases—something that probably bodes well for her prospects for confirmation. In 2000, she joined a panel decision against a gay man, Robert Mueller, who violated the terms of his release from prison for having refused to file his tax returns because he could not file a joint return with his partner. But two years later, she dissented from a panel decision that found no fault in a school district’s failure to prevent harassment of a teacher for being gay. She also dissented from a 1998 panel decision that allowed students to object to their student fees going to gay groups and other organizations of which they disapproved.
  • Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, appointed by President Obama, was governor of Arizona and, prior to that, its attorney general. As governor, she said she opposed an amendment to the state constitution to ban gay marriage but her reasoning was not that such a ban would be unconstitutional, rather because the state already had a statute that banned gay marriage. Like Kagan, she is unmarried and subject to frequent speculation about her sexual orientation even though, according to the Arizona Republic, she has described herself as “just a straight, single workaholic.”
  • D.C. Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Merrick Garland was appointed to the appeals bench by President Clinton and clerked for one of the high court’s liberal icons, William Brennan. But he’s the most conservative of the seven nominee candidates. He joined a decision that upheld a gay Navy man’s discharge even though two discharge boards said there was insufficient evidence to merit discharge. He joined a decision that upheld a Federal Communications Commission action against the operator of a low-power radio broadcaster serving the gay community. And he joined then D.C. Circuit Judge John Roberts Jr. in a decision rejecting police liability for misconduct by officers who sprayed a chemical deterrent on members of a pro-gay protest group during President George W. Bush’s first inaugural parade.
  • Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm is labeled a “long shot” by her home state newspaper the Free Press but her name keeps coming up. She opposed an amendment to the state constitution to ban same-sex marriage and, following that, sent a letter to constituents assuring them she was not ending benefits for domestic partners. She riled right-wing conservatives recently by issuing a statement calling on state legislators to pass an anti-bullying bill, which the American Family Association sees as part of the gay agenda.

President Obama is meeting with several members of the Senate next week to hear their thoughts on filling Stevens’ seat.

Richard Socarides, who worked in the Clinton White House, said he thinks all the potential candidates mentioned thus far would be “pretty outstanding” and “pretty reliable” when it comes to gay civil rights cases. But he said the president’s chief considerations now are “who he connects with best on a visceral level” and “who is most likely to be confirmed.”

Education reform: Will it tackle LGBT-based bullying?

The Obama administration’s proposal to reform the nation’s educational system includes no specific call for anti-bullying programs in schools, and no mention of protections for students from harassment or discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. This is despite the fact that an openly gay man with considerable experience in combating such bullying heads the Department of Education (DOE) Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools.

Kevin Jennings
Kevin Jennings

It doesn’t always pay off to have a seat at the table.

Case in point: The Obama administration’s proposal to reform the nation’s educational system includes no specific call for anti-bullying programs in schools, and no mention of protections for students from harassment or discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. This is despite the fact that an openly gay man with considerable experience in combating such bullying heads the Department of Education (DOE) Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools. And it comes despite having a push by the authors of two bills that would give schools strong incentives to enact LGBT-inclusive anti-bullying measures for similar language in any educational reform bill.

Several bullying-related suicides in the past year have brought the issue of school bullying into a prominent media spotlight. Victims in the first three months of 2010 include 15-year-old Phoebe Prince of Massachusetts, 12-year-old Kimberly Linczeski of Michigan, and 13-year-old Jon Carmichael of Texas. And nearly two-thirds of middle and high school students report being harassed or assaulted during the past year, according to the most recent report (2005) commissioned by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN).

LGBT students are particularly vulnerable. A 2007 survey by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education found that high school students who identified as LGBT were almost five times more likely to attempt suicide than others. And in two high-profile cases just last year, two children committed suicide after being subjected to bullying based on the perception of other students that they were gay. Both children were 11 years old: Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover of Massachusetts and Jaheem Herrera of Georgia.

According to GLSEN, the vast majority of LGBT students surveyed (86 percent) said they experience harassment at school because of their sexual orientation, and most (61 percent) said they feel unsafe because of their sexual orientation.

Transgender students face even higher levels of harassment, a 2009 GLSEN study found.

President Obama last month released a 41-page “Blueprint for Reform” of the nation’s educational system –a reform he hopes can begin when Congress reauthorizes the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, better known as “No Child Left Behind.” The “Blueprint” includes one mention of bullying –in the context of discussing a proposed new “Successful, Safe, and Healthy Students” program to replace the existing “Safe and Drug Free Schools” program. Under the existing program, about $191 million is divided up among the states; but under the new program, schools, districts, and their community-based “partners” can compete for grants to address issues specific to making schools safe and healthy for students. It will require schools to assess needs for safe school program funding through surveys of students, parents, and teachers, among others.

Both the current and proposed incarnations of the safe schools program come under the purview of DOE’s Assistant Deputy Secretary Kevin Jennings. Jennings, head of DOE’s Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools, is a former teacher who co-founded GLSEN to help promote safe and healthy environments in schools for LGBT youth. His appointment in July of last year was both hailed by the LGBT community and criticized by right-wing opponents who claimed he would promote a “homosexual agenda.”

A spokesperson for Jennings said he has a “hectic schedule” and “will not be able to accommodate” a request for an interview “at this time.” The office did not respond to subsequent requests for responses to questions by e-mail.

Spokespeople for GLSEN and the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) say they have been among more than 100 groups of all types that have attended open forums sponsored by Jennings’ Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools to discuss the proposed new program. They say they have also offered advice to the office about the program.

Ellen Kahn, director of the HRC Family Project, says the plans for a survey to assess school needs concerning successful, safe, and healthy students will include the physical environment of the school, respect for diversity, wellness, harassment, and more. At one place on the survey, Kahn says, students will be able to indicate whether they are experiencing bullying or harassment based on any of several factors, including sexual orientation and gender.

“There’s a real interest in including all kinds of voices and getting input from experts and a real respect for people who are in the field,” said Kahn.

Two pending House bills, however, want more.

The Safe Schools Improvement Act (SSIA) introduced by Rep. Linda Sánchez (D-Calif.) last May, seeks to require schools that receive any federal funds to implement and report on anti-bullying programs. The bill, HR 2262, would define bullying as hostile conduct that is directed at a student based on his or her actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity, among other attributes.

The Sánchez bill has 101 cosponsors (including four Republicans) and is structured as a set of revisions to the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act. The Act is a part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), better known as “No Child Left Behind.” No Child Left Behind was the major educational policy implemented by Congress at the behest of President George W. Bush and it is the policy that President Obama’s “Blueprint” seeks to reform.

The second bill currently pending in Congress is the Student Nondiscrimination Act (SNDA), introduced by openly gay Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.). HR 4530 seeks to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity in any program or activity receiving federal funds. It includes “harassment” in its definition of discrimination and has 82 co-sponsors (including one Republican). A spokesperson for Rep. Polis said the Congressman hopes the bill will also become part of ESEA, but will push for it as a standalone bill if necessary.

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) will be introducing a Senate companion bill to SNDA in the coming weeks, his office said.

The provisions of these bills are not mentioned in President Obama’s “Blueprint,” and there is no indication yet as to whether the provisions will be included in the larger educational reform bill that Congress will eventually consider.

Part II: The Obama administration has shown signs that it takes bullying—including bullying based on sexual orientation and gender identity—more seriously than its predecessors. So, how important is it that LGBT-related bullying be enumerated in the president’s reform legislation?

Obama clears Feldblum for EEOC seat

Using a constitutional provision known as a “recess appointment,” President Obama on Saturday appointed lesbian law professor Chai Feldblum and three others to positions on the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Chai Feldblum
Chai Feldblum

Using a constitutional provision known as a “recess appointment,” President Obama on Saturday appointed lesbian law professor Chai Feldblum and three others to positions on the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Feldblum and the others had been approved by a Senate committee in early December but their confirmation vote was put on indefinite hold by a Senate Republican.

In making the direct appointments for the EEOC, Obama also made 11 other recess appointments of nominees to “critical administration posts.” In a statement, the White House referred to “months of Republican obstruction” to nominees and noted that while the Senate has yet to approve 217 of President Obama’s nominees, President Bush had only 5 still pending at this point in his first term.

Numerous right-wing groups voiced opposition to Feldblum shortly after she was nominated. The Traditional Values Coalition called Feldblum “yet another radical Obama nominee,” saying she would “use her power to strip nearly all First Amendment rights of freedom of expression/free exercise of religion from businesses.” Concerned Women for America said she “represents one of the most serious threats to religious freedom we have seen in a long time.” And The Family Research Council said Feldblum “openly admitted to supporting polygamy.”

Some predicted that opposition would surface during her confirmation hearing in November. But it didn’t, at least in part because Tom Harkin, the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which handled the nomination, met the controversy head on.

“Something has come to our attention here—a petition,” said Harkin, “…that you signed onto” that expresses support for “committed loving households in which there are more than one conjugal partner.”

“That says polygamy to me,” said Harkin, noting that it is illegal in the United States and that, in the 20-plus years he has worked with her, he never knew she supported polygamy.

“I do not support polygamy,” said Feldblum. “I am sorry I signed that document and I have asked that my name be removed.”

A spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said March 1 that Feldblum’s nomination, and that of the other EEOC nominees, had been put on hold by a Republican senator. Any senator can put any nominee on indefinite hold for a period of time without identifying himself or herself. While rules require that a senator must identify themselves within a few days, senators have been able to get around that rule by taking turns putting the hold in place.

Feldblum is probably best known for her work on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which passed in 1990, prohibiting discrimination in employment, public accommodations, and other areas against people with disabilities. The law also covered people with HIV infection. She was also involved in last year’s bill that made amendments to the original law.

But Feldblum is best known to the LGBT community as a key counsel on the drafting and negotiations over the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA). She also served for a time as legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington, D.C. Feldblum served for a year as a law clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun. She is currently a professor of law at Georgetown University and serves as co-director of the university’s Federal Legislation and Administrative Clinic.

During her confirmation hearing, Feldblum made prominent mention of her affiliation with another Catholic institution, Catholic Charities USA. The Georgetown University Law School’s Federal Legislation Clinic, which Feldblum founded in 1993, worked for many years representing Catholic Charities.

Feldblum assured the Committee that she is aware of and comfortable with the religious exemptions in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and in ENDA.

“I strongly support that exemption,” said Feldblum, “…and I would not have a problem at all enforcing that exemption.”

Should ENDA pass, a position on the EEOC puts Feldblum in position to be one of five commissioners to develop regulations for its implementation.

Obama’s new proposal: LGBTs still missing

President Obama released a new health care reform bill that he says incorporates work done in the House and Senate and adds ideas from Republican members of Congress. But there’s no inclusion in this new proposed measure of any of the gay-related provisions in the original House bill.

Tammy Baldwin
Tammy Baldwin

President Obama released a new health care reform bill Monday that he says incorporates work done in the House and Senate and adds ideas from Republican members of Congress. But there’s no inclusion in this new proposed measure of any of the gay-related provisions in the original House bill.

But it’s not all bad news. The president’s proposal calls for $11 billion for “the operation, expansion, and construction of community health centers” around the country. And that money could help at least some LGBT and HIV centers around the country.

Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.), the openly gay member of Congress who was a leader in adding pro-gay provisions to the House health reform bill, says she hasn’t given up hope. She called President Obama’s proposal Monday “an important step forward” that “helps to regain our momentum” on health care reform efforts.

But, she added, “it is not the final word.”

In fact, it’s not even a bill, yet. The president’s proposal is a “new starting point,” as White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs put it during a routine press briefing Monday. Gibbs and other White House spokespersons have been cautious in laying out what they believe will happen next on the proposal. A key turning point, they say, will be a much-publicized summit Thursday between the President, Democratic leaders, and key Republicans.

But prospects for the leaders to agree on at least a draft bill for the Senate and House to take up anew has already been dimmed by statements from Republican leaders who are supposed to be heading into that crucial February 25th meeting.

“The President has crippled the credibility of this week’s summit by proposing the same massive government takeover of health care based on a partisan bill the American people have already rejected,” said House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio). Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) echoed Boehner, calling the president’s proposal “another partisan, back-room bill.”

Prospects for adding back in the pro-gay House provisions are, of course, even worse and have clearly not improved since last December when they failed to make it into the Senate bill. And the Senate bill is where the president’s proposal starts.

“The President’s proposal assumes the base Senate bill,” said Shin Inouye, a spokesman for the White House with LGBT media. But Inouye pointed out that the president’s proposal does include “data collection.”

The “data collection” mentioned in the House bill called for the establishment of an office of Assistant Secretary for Health Information to promote the collection of data about “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” (along with a great many other categories) to help identify health issues and the need for programs. The proposal posted by the White House Monday calls for improved “data collection and analysis, facilitates better data sharing, and requires the development of standards for the collection of data regarding the nation’s health and the performance of the nation’s health care, including health disparities.”

Ronald Johnson, deputy director of the AIDS Action, said he is concerned that some aspects of the House bill that were favorable to the LGBT communities will be left out but that the proposal is still “a moving ball.”

Johnson and Darrel Cummings, chief of staff for the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center, said the $11 billion designated for community health center money is a definite plus.

Cummings noted that the Los Angeles center has earned designation as a “Federally Qualified Health Center-Look Alike”—a designation that means it is eligible to receive funding under the Public Health Service Act money for underserved populations but has not yet received any.

“We have been awaiting notice of funding availability for some time now and are very hopeful that this legislation would create the funding necessary for that to happen,” explained Cummings.

Most LGBT and HIV activists had supported the House bill because it included key LGBT specific provisions. In addition to the data collection, it prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in the provision of health care; enabled people with HIV and low incomes to obtain Medicare coverage earlier in the course of their illness; and eliminated the tax that gay employees must pay if their same-sex partners or spouses receive health coverage from their employers’ plan. Straight employees don’t pay that tax but, for gay couples, the coverage is characterized by the federal government as additional income for the gay employee.

Baldwin said Monday she would “continue to fight for all of my priorities in the final health care reform bill, including those related to LGBT health.”

Baldwin warned last September that there were “many reasons why people in the LGBT community ought to be following the health care reform very closely.”

“Our lives are very much going to be affected by this legislation,” said Baldwin at the time, in a videotaped message, “and certainly our health is.”

Fed budget numbers fall short but LGBT leaders fall silent

President Obama’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2011 isn’t anywhere near as much as gay and AIDS groups had sought, but the consensus seems to be that modest increases—and in some places no increases, are laudable in the current economy.

dollar_signPresident Obama’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2011 isn’t anywhere near as much as gay and AIDS groups had sought, but there are few complaints. The consensus seems to be that modest increases—and in some places no increases—however insufficient, are laudable in the current miserable economy.

The Human Rights Campaign criticized the budget, released February 1, because it “does not provide the increases that HIV/AIDS programs need to overcome years of underfunding, a continuing epidemic, and severe reductions in state programs.” But overall, said the HRC statement, the president’s budget “still commits more dollars for a number of HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment programs, supports the new hate crimes law with funds for enforcement and education efforts, and uses scarce federal resources to support evidence-based sex education instead of disproven abstinence-only programs.”

In releasing its proposed budget for FY 11, the Obama administration prepared a two-page statement that highlights the administration’s proposed spending “to support the needs of the LGBT community.”

The summary notes an “11 percent increase in funding to the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division” –an increase the statement says will help with implementation of the Matthew Shepard-James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. The president signed the hate crimes act last October.

The statement also expresses support—but no numbers—for the Federal Employee Domestic Partner Benefits Act, a bill that would—if passed—provide gay federal employees and their domestic partners with the same benefits currently enjoyed by straight federal employees and their married spouses. A Congressional Budget Office report last December estimated HR 2517 would add only about $24 million to the $3.8 trillion outlays proposed for FY 11.

The funds, if allocated, would come under the Federal Employee Health Benefits program.

Like previous administrations, the Obama administration relies on some smoke-and-mirrors when it comes to presenting its budget to the public, including the LGBT public. For instance, under a heading of “Support a Fair and Accurate 2010 Census,” the summary discusses at length its plan this year to count the number of same-sex couples who identify themselves as “married.” In previous Census surveys, such couples have been “re-coded” as unmarried partners or even as a heterosexual couple. Then the summary notes the federal government will spend $1.3 billion in FY 11. This is accurate, if one is talking about all the expenditures involved with the Census survey in FY 11; but, the LGBT-specific costs will be a decidedly smaller number.

Of the seven points included in the LGBT budget summary, two could have gone in pretty much any budget summary. One talks about expanding employment-based retirement plans generally, the other talks about helping more states offer paid family leave, and neither mentions any LGBT applications specifically.

The summary also includes its entire HIV/AIDS budget under the LGBT summary. Men having sex with men do account for the largest percentage (48 percent) of people with HIV (more than 1 million); and they do account for more than half (53 percent) of new infections (almost 58,000) each year.

The summary indicates the budget will add 10,000 more people with HIV and low incomes under the Ryan White CARE Act and that it will continue a five-year $45 million AIDS prevention campaign.

But what it doesn’t say is that groups such as the Communities Advocating Emergency AIDS Relief (CAEAR) Coalition urged much higher numbers than the budget proposes. For instance, the budget calls for about a four percent increase ($31 million) for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s work in prevention and surveillance of HIV infection and disease. The Coalition has pushed for an $878 million increase.

The administration’s budget calls for $2.3 billion on Ryan White CARE Act programs, where the Coalition urged $3 billion.

The proposed FY 11 budget is “below the community’s request and well below what is needed,” said Ronald Johnson, deputy director of the AIDS Action Council. “But we have to put in the context of the economic realities and the very hard decisions the president and his administration had to make. In that context, we think the increase, as modest as it may be in terms of overall needs, is noteworthy and reflects a commitment” by the Obama administration to fighting AIDS.

Others agreed.

“We think that President Obama has some very difficult decisions to make in an abysmal economic climate,” said Nathan Schaefer, director of public policy for New York City’s Gay Men’s Health Crisis. “And though the budget proposal does not address all the needs, to see some modest increase has been very encouraging. It’s a step in the right direction.”

In concrete terms, the administration’s budget is about $40 million higher on Ryan White CARE Act funds than the current fiscal year’s numbers.

There was some expression of worry and disappointment nonetheless.

Carl Schmid, deputy director of The AIDS Institute, told the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS (PACHA) February 2, during its first meeting with newly sworn in members, that the budget numbers proposed for HIV are “far from what is needed.” In particular, he noted that there are people on the waiting list for AIDS Drug Assistance Program—including 143 people in Kentucky, 64 in Utah, and 154 in eight other states.

Schmid noted that the budget proposal calls for a $20 million increase for the AIDS Drug Assistance Program (ADAP), which helps ensure that people with HIV can afford life-sustaining medications. The $20 million increase in ADAP, said Schmid, “is far from the increase of $370 million for ADAP that is needed.”

Nancy Bernstine, executive director of the National AIDS Housing Coalition, told the Council that the need for housing for people with HIV and low incomes is a “matter of urgency” and that housing alternatives are simply “not available.”

According to The AIDS Institute, the president’s budget includes only a four percent increase ($31 million) for HIV prevention at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“This is far from the increase of $878 million the CDC estimates that is needed to bring down the number of new infections,” said Schmid.

But even LGBT community institutions on the frontlines of the battle against HIV and to support “the needs of the LGBT community” found it hard to criticize the president’s budget. In part, it is a willingness to look at the LGBT-related budget items in context of the nation’s overall economic woes, and in part it is a lingering memory of budget disappointments during the administration of President George W. Bush.

Darrel Cummings, chief of staff for the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center, said their experience with funding from the Obama administration represents a stark improvement over the Bush administration.

“It’s night and day when compared to the previous administration,” said Cummings, “and I would expect this to continue regardless of the impact of the ‘freeze’.” President Obama announced during his State of the Union address that he would propose a three-year freeze on discretionary spending beginning in 2011.

Side step on marriage, but step forward on DADT

President Obama side-stepped a question Thursday about what he’s doing “now” to ensure that gay couples “are treated as equal citizens,” but there was a signal from the Pentagon that same day that movement may be coming on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

President Obama
President Obama

President Obama side-stepped a question Thursday about what he’s doing “now” to ensure that gay couples “are treated as equal citizens,” but there was a signal from the Pentagon that same day that movement may be coming on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

The president hosted a town hall meeting at the University of Tampa January 28, less than 24 hours after delivering a State of the Union address. The purpose of the trip was to reinforce the message of the previous night—that the nation must do some more serious belt-tightening and strategic investment in infrastructure.

One message he did not repeat before the crowd in Tampa was his statement supporting repeal of the military’s policy of excluding openly gay people from the military. But a member of the audience brought it up. A University of Tampa student named Hector asked President Obama: “What are you doing now … so that same-sex couples and homosexuals are treated as equal citizens of the United States, i.e., same-sex marriages and the thousand-plus benefits that heterosexual couples enjoy after marriage?”

President Obama, echoing the words of President Clinton, said he believes the Constitution guarantees equal treatment “if you’re obeying the law, if you’re following the rules, that you should be treated the same, regardless of who you are.”

“I think that principle applies to gay and lesbian couples,” said the president. He said, at the federal level, his administration “actually has an opportunity of passing” a law to provide equal benefits to the same-sex partners of federal employees.

“I think it’s the right thing to do and it makes sense for us to take a leadership role in ensuring that people are treated the same,” said Obama.

“Look, if you are—regardless of your personal opinions, the notion that somebody who’s working really hard for 30 years can’t take their death benefits and transfer them to the person that they love the most in the world and who has supported them all their lives, that just doesn’t seem fair,” said the president. “It doesn’t seem right. And I think it’s the right thing to do.”

Meanwhile, a Pentagon spokesperson told reporters Thursday that Defense Secretary Robert Gates will provide details next Tuesday, February 2, as to how the Pentagon will go about to end the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. According to a number of news reports, Pentagon spokesperson Geoff Morrell said Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen will make a presentation on Tuesday.

It was just seven months ago that Mullen told an ABC news program that he would need “some time…to look at—if this change occurs—to look at implementing it in a very deliberate, measured way.” And a timeline for such a change, he said, “would be set, obviously, after the law is changed.”

The Senate Armed Services Committee was already slated to hear from Gates and Mullen Tuesday regarding the annual bill reauthorizing Defense programs, now for fiscal year 2011. The portion regarding “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is slated for noon to 1 p.m.

Gay reaction lukewarm to President’s call to repeal DADT

Gay leaders offered only a lukewarm reception Wednesday night for President Obama’s statement, in his State of the Union address, that he would work for the repeal of the military’s discriminatory policy against gays.

Barack Obama
Barack Obama

Gay leaders offered only a lukewarm reception Wednesday night for President Obama’s statement, in his State of the Union address, that he would work for the repeal of the military’s discriminatory policy against gays.

The statement came near the end of his address.

“This year,” he said, “I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are.”

Even before the president finished the sentence, a cheer broke out from somewhere in the chamber and some members of Congress rose to applause. Television cameras flashed on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who were sitting with considerable stoicism, as they did throughout the speech. Defense Secretary Robert Gates was standing and applauding.

The reaction of gay leaders fell somewhere in-between.

The Servicemembers Legal Defense Network issued a statement applauding the president’s remarks, calling for repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

“We very much need a sense of urgency to get this done in 2010,” said the group. “We call on the President to repeal the archaic 1993 law in his defense budget currently now being drafted, that is probably the only and best moving bill where DADT can be killed this year. “ The group also said that both “more attention and leadership” are needed to win repeal.”

Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese posted a statement saying the president sent “a clear message” against the policy and adding, as did Servicemembers Legal, that the issue “will required continued leadership” from President Obama and Congressional allies.

But other reaction was more than guarded.

Kevin Cathcart, executive director of Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, issued a statement saying “We have heard promises before about ending ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’” While Cathcart said Lambda was happy to hear President Obama’s remark, he added that “the time has finally come to fulfill that promise.”

Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, said “the time for broad statements is over.”

“He must provide a concrete blueprint for his leadership and action moving forward—this includes his willingness to stop the discharges happening on his watch until Congress can fulfill its responsibility to overturn the law.”

“We wish we had heard him speak of concrete steps tonight,” said Carey.

Richard Socarides, a longtime Democratic activist who worked in the White House of President Clinton, said he found the lack of a game plan and timetable on the issue to be “extremely troubling.”

Charles Moran, a spokesperson for Log Cabin Republicans, a national gay political group, was much more harsh.

“President Obama is more concerned about protecting the rights of terrorists,” said Moran, “than he is about the rights of gay and lesbian Americans who are putting their lives on the line every day fighting to preserve peace and democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan and operate small businesses that are the backbone of the American economy.”

MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow asked Valerie Jarrett, a senior policy advisor to the president, when and how the president planned to follow through on his promise regarding Don’t Ask-Don’t Tell. Jarrett said the president would “begin the process right away” and that he was “very clearly” committed to the promise. Jarrett said she was also “very heartened” by the applause in the chamber in reaction to the president’s statement of commitment.

The president’s statement was no surprise. News of his intention to express support for repealing “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” filtered to news media from Senator Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Levin said he heard of the plan from “the Pentagon.”

In his speech, President Obama made note of the nation’s “incredible diversity” and on the Constitution’s “notion that we are all created equal, that no matter who you are or what you look like, if you abide by the law you should be protected by it; that if you adhere to our common values you should be treated no different than anyone else.” He said his administration is prosecuting civil rights violations and employment discrimination and noted, “We finally strengthened our laws to protect against crimes driven by hate.” The latter statement referred to the law long sought by national gay political groups to enable the federal government to help fund prevention of and prosecution for crimes that target victims for sexual orientation or gender identity, among other things. The president signed that law in October.

There was quiet inclusion of gay people in another way during Wednesday night’s event. A gay businessman from Indiana was seated in the balcony with First Lady Michelle Obama as one of her guests.

According to the Indianapolis Star newspaper, Trevor Yager was one of 23 citizens invited by the White House to sit with the First Lady during the speech. He told the paper the White House invited him at the suggestion of the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce. A White House press release that went out identifying the guests did not identify Yager as gay.

Yager, a native of Michigan, operates a small advertising firm in Indianapolis that he says has benefited from President Obama’s stimulus legislation. His own company, Trendy Minds, has added seven employees in the past year and taken on four new accounts, according to the Star.

The company’s website indicates it does “branding consultation” for Penguin Group’s The Complete Idiot’s Guide series and work for NASCAR driver Kevin Harvick’s website.

The Republican response to the Democratic president’s State of the Union came from Virginia’s new governor Bob McConnell.

Rather than the folksy, at home delivery of Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal—which did not play well last year—McDonnell staged his speech in the State House of Virginia, with an enthusiastically applauding chamber, creating a sort of miniature State of the Union look. Standing behind McDonnell, visible to the camera trained on his podium, was one black woman, one Asian man, one white woman, and one white, male service member in uniform.

Former Republican presidential candidate John McCain issued a statement following President Obama’s speech reacting specifically to the call for repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, calling it a “mistake.”

“This successful policy has been in effect for over fifteen years,” said McCain’s statement, “and it is well understood and predominantly supported by our military at all levels. … At a time when our Armed Forces are fighting and sacrificing on the battlefield, now is not the time to abandon the policy.”

This is not the first time a president has expressed support for a gay civil rights issue during a State of the Union. Democratic President Bill Clinton called for support of hate crimes legislation during his 1999 address.

“Discrimination or violence because of race or religion, ancestry or gender, disability or sexual orientation is wrong and it ought to be illegal,” said Clinton during the address. “Therefore, I ask Congress to make the Employment Nondiscrimination Act and the Hate Crimes Prevention Act the law of the land.” The hate crimes legislation passed 10 years later.

U.S. Reps call for action against Ugandan bill

Three openly gay members of the U.S. House of Representatives, along with 91 of their colleagues, have sent a letter to President Obama urging him to do everything he can to stop a bill in Uganda that calls for harsh penalties against gays.

Tammy Baldwin
Tammy Baldwin

Three openly gay members of the U.S. House of Representatives, along with 91 of their colleagues, have sent a letter to President Obama urging him to do everything he can to stop a bill in Uganda that calls for harsh penalties—including life imprisonment and the death penalty—against gays.

The proposed law in Uganda, which calls for life imprisonment for anyone convicted of having sex with a person of the same gender, also triggered a U.S. Congressional hearing this month.

The January 21 hearing took place in the House’s Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, created two years ago to “promote and advocate” for rights adopted in the international Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Openly gay U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.), a member of the Commission’s Executive Committee, called the Ugandan legislation, “An extreme and hateful attempt to make people criminals not because of anything they do, but because of who they are and who they love.”

The bill was introduced to the Ugandan Parliament by Member David Bahati and expands upon an already existing statute that outlaws homosexuality. The new bill seeks to impose life imprisonment for anyone convicted of having sex with or trying to contract a marriage with someone of the same sex. In certain cases, such as when the person tests HIV positive, the penalty is death.

In addition to targeting gays, the bill seeks to go after anyone who “promotes” homosexuality or “aids, abets, counsels or procures” someone else to engage in homosexual acts. Such persons could face up to seven years in prison. Anyone who is aware of someone breaking the law but does not report this fact to authorities faces a fine and three years in prison.

“The severity of the Ugandan legislation requires a severe response,” said Baldwin in her opening remarks at the Commission hearing. Bills, such as this, she said, are “contemptible statements of hate and bias,” have “serious consequences,” and are “enormous obstacles to effectively addressing HIV/AIDS.”

At the hearing, Baldwin and Commission Co-Chairman James P. McGovern (D-Mass.), along with other Commission members, heard testimony from Karl Wycoff, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, as well as a panel of expert witnesses: Cary Alan Johnson of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission; Julius Kaggwa of the Civil Society Coalition on Human Rights and Constitutional Law, Uganda; Rev. Kapya Kaoma of Political Research Associates; and Christine Lubinski of the HIV Medicine Association, Infectious Diseases Society of America.

Kaggwa told members of the Commission that, because the Ugandan bill also targets anyone who “promotes homosexuality,” it should be opposed not only by LGBT-rights supporters but also those who advocate for free speech and greater democracy.

Baldwin said in an interview she hopes the hearing will help Congress to “direct our actions in a more focused way.”

Assistant Secretary Wycoff testified that, while it is important for the U.S. and other countries to make public statements and meet privately with Ugandan government officials, many in Uganda view these communications as outside meddling. That, he said, could embolden proponents of the legislation. Wycoff’s remarks led to a discussion of the importance of supporting the activists in Uganda and the coalition they are building to oppose the legislation internally.

But Baldwin said opposition against the bill could take many forms, including support for the non-governmental organizations that are part of the coalition fighting the bill.

“It may also mean figuring out further venues for heartbreaking stories of oppression and violence and humiliation to be told both internally to Uganda, but to a larger world audience,” she said.

On January 21, 94 U.S. representatives—led by Reps. Baldwin, Barney Frank (D-Mass.), and Jared Polis (D-Colo.)—sent a letter to President Obama and one to Ugandan President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, asking them to help stop the bill. One day earlier, 12 U.S. senators sent a letter to President Museveni with a similar message.

Baldwin said she and the other House members who signed the letter to President Obama think the president could do more than he has. The White House issued a written statement in mid-December, saying that the president “strongly opposes” the legislation. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has also expressed concern about it. The House letter, however, asks the President to “speak out publicly” on the matter, especially given his popularity in Africa.

This week, Shin Inouye, a spokesperson to the LGBT media for the White House, said, “The President has strongly opposed legislation that would criminalize homosexuality anywhere—including Uganda—and the Department of State has made this opposition clear to the Ugandan government. We appreciate the interest of Congress in that matter, and will continue to make our opposition to this bill clear, and to support human rights around the world.”

The House members believe, too, that they can bring economic pressure to bear. Should the bill pass, they wrote to President Museveni, it could endanger the $300 million in President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) funds to Uganda.

“If you can’t reach men who have sex with men and be able to talk honestly about prevention and early intervention and treatment,” said Baldwin, “those [PEPFAR] funds are not going to be used according to congressional intent. Baldwin said no one at the hearing called for a complete halt to the AIDS funding for Uganda, but rather “more a review of who gets it, how it’s used, how it will be overseen and supervised if the law passes.”

Baldwin said the PEPFAR funds comprise 2.6 percent of the Ugandan economy, and thus have significant impact.

Currently, the U.S. and Uganda have extensive bilateral relations. If the bill passes, Baldwin says, it could affect those ties. Sweden has already threatened to cut its assistance to Uganda if the bill passes.

Rep. Frank, who signed the letter but was not at the hearing, agreed that the bill would affect future cooperation between Uganda and the U.S. If it passes, Frank said, he would oppose any debt relief and aid from the World Bank to Uganda, areas where he has some influence as chair of the House Financial Services Committee.

One undercurrent of the issue is the influence of U.S.-based religious groups in Uganda.

“As has happened elsewhere, this proposed legislation appears to be the product of Americans recruiting prominent African religious leaders to campaign to restrict the human rights of LGBT individuals in their countries,” said Baldwin at the hearing.

Last year, three American evangelical Christians gave a seminar in Uganda on “the gay agenda,” saying it threatens traditional families. The speakers were Scott Lively of Abiding Truth Ministries, classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center; Caleb Lee Brundidge of the International Healing Foundation (IHF), which encourages people to “heal” themselves of their same-sex attractions; and Don Schmierer of Exodus International, a group that says it promotes “Freedom from homosexuality through the power of Jesus Christ.”

Their Ugandan host was Stephen Langa of the Family Life Network, a non-governmental organization focused on “the restoration of family values and morals.” Langa has admitted helping to draft the anti-gay bill, according to a January 3 report in the New York Times. The report said Lively also acknowledged meeting with Ugandan lawmakers about the legislation.

All three Americans have now posted statements on their organizations’ Web sites denying they intended such harsh actions. Exodus sent a letter to President and Mrs. Yuseveni, condemning the criminalization of consensual homosexuality, saying it interferes with the church’s task of helping homosexuals. IHF sent a similar letter to the Ugandan parliament, saying the bill would “frighten all people from seeking the very help they need, and that many want.”

The International Transformation Network (ITN), another U.S.-based evangelical group that works to turn people away from homosexuality, has reportedly established a training network of approximately 14,000 evangelical churches in Uganda, according to journalist Bruce Wilson of the Web site Talk To Action. Wilson has detailed ITN’s involvement in Uganda and says President Museveni and his wife Janet have hosted ITN representatives at state dinners. Janet Museveni has attended, or sent a representative to, several of ITN’s world conferences. Their daughter Patience runs a church whose members are being trained by ITN, and David Bahati, sponsor of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, has been one of the attendees of that church.

“We need to be mindful that those voices of the conservative religious evangelicals in Uganda are not being appropriately balanced by voices of truth-tellers who are reaching out,” said Baldwin, in an interview.

“We need to have U.S. voices,” said Baldwin, “and people who have person-to-person cultural exchanges, political exchanges, etc., that have a different message and can counter the lies with truth.”

Baldwin said the January 21 hearing gave the commission a chance to hear ideas for doing just that.

“Most of the women in the Ugandan parliament are supporting the bill, as are some women’s rights groups,” Baldwin related. One idea mentioned by several panelists at the hearing was that First Lady Michelle Obama and women in Congress speak to Ugandan women. There was also a suggestion that the Congressional Black Caucus could make a statement.

“I think we’ll follow up on all those very helpful pieces of advice,” Baldwin said, “especially knowing that they came from people in Uganda who have a sensibility about what will be effective and what won’t.”

The letter to President Obama from members of the House asks the president to not only to speak out publicly against the legislation in Uganda but also to work towards the decriminalization of homosexuality worldwide.

“More than two-thirds of African countries have laws criminalizing consensual same-sex acts, and over 80 countries worldwide currently have in place sodomy laws or other legal provisions that criminalize their LGBT communities,” said Baldwin.

Uganda, she said, is part of “an alarming trend.”

Obama appoints first openly transgender people to posts

Amanda Simpson started work this week as one of the first transgender persons ever to receive a presidential appointment to an executive branch post in any administration. The honor as the first belongs to Dylan Orr, a 30-year-old law school graduate from Seattle.

Amanda Simpson. Photo credit: Trans Equality
Amanda Simpson. Photo credit: Trans Equality
Amanda Simpson started work this week as one of the first transgender persons ever to receive a presidential appointment to an executive branch post in any administration. The honor as the first belongs to Dylan Orr, a 30-year-old law school graduate from Seattle.

The Obama administration appointed both Simpson and Orr in late November. Orr began work on December 7 as Special Assistant to Assistant Secretary of Labor Kathleen Martinez in the Office of Disability Employment Policy at the Department of Labor. Simpson, 49, began work on Tuesday, January 5, as Senior Technical Advisor in the Bureau of Industry and Security. The Bureau’s mission is to protect national security through the management of international trade, the enforcement of treaties, and the promotion of economic, cyber, and homeland security.

Dylan Orr
Dylan Orr
Orr, a native of Seattle, graduated from the University of Washington School of Law, in Seattle, in July and was admitted to the bar in November. During law school, his studies focused on disability rights, civil rights, and employment and immigration issues. He served as president of the law school’s GLBT student organization. He did his undergraduate work at Smith College in Massachusetts, and also worked for a time with the Department of Social Services in Salem, Massachusetts.

Simpson, 49 and a native of Chicago, recently worked as a chief engineer with the Raytheon Missile Systems in Tucson and holds degrees in physics, engineering, and business administration, according to National Center for Transgender Equality. She has worked in the aerospace-defense industry for 30 years, is a certified flight instructor, and has 20 years experience as a test pilot.

The YWCA of Arizona honored Simpson in 2004 as one of 12 “Women on the Move.” She has also served on the board of the Southern Arizona ACLU, Equality Arizona (formerly Arizona Human Rights Fund), and the Southern Arizona Gender Alliance. She has also served on the Tucson Commission on LGBT Issues and on the national board of the National Center for Transgender Equality.

Simpson, a Democrat, ran in 2005 for a seat in the Arizona House of Representatives, but was defeated by the incumbent Republican in the largely Republican state. She attended the 2008 Democratic National Convention as a delegate pledged to Hillary Clinton. She shares custody of her 13-year-old son with her former spouse.

“I’m truly honored to have received this appointment and am eager and excited about this opportunity that is before me,” said Simpson, in a prepared statement released by Transgender Equality on December 31. “And at the same time, as one of the first transgender presidential appointees to the federal government,” she said, “I hope that I will soon be one of hundreds, and that this appointment opens future opportunities for many others.”

Simpson said, through an email interview, that she put her name in for an appointment through the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund’s Presidential Appointments Project, though she can’t be sure that the appointment came through that association.

According to LGBT blogger Autumn Sandeen at pamshouseblend.com, Simpson announced on her Facebook page in late November that she had accepted the appointment from the Obama administration.

“I like the idea that Amanda Simpson, a trans-identified woman with an incredible resume, is becoming an inspirational figure for trans youth,” blogged Sandeen. “Amanda Simpson’s appointment speaks to a new reality: The next generations of trans people can dream much bigger dreams than trans people in generations past.”

In an interview in 2008 with a Tucson cable show, Political Perspectives, on Access Tucson, Simpson noted that she has worked with “a lot of people in the military.”

“And my customers at the time of my transition were Air Force and Navy officers,” she said. “And they were very accepting and supportive.”

Best seats in the White House

At least four prominent gays were on the guest list for the Obama White House’s first State Dinner, with India, November 24. Hollywood producer David Geffen attended with his partner Jeremy Lingvall; Export-Import Bank Chairman Fred Hochberg attended with his partner Tom Healy; and former National Gay and Lesbian Task Force leader Urvashi Vaid and her partner comedian Kate Clinton.

whitehouseAt least four prominent gays were on the guest list for the Obama White House’s first State Dinner, with India, November 24. Hollywood producer David Geffen attended with his partner Jeremy Lingvall; Export-Import Bank Chairman Fred Hochberg attended with his partner Tom Healy; and former National Gay and Lesbian Task Force leader Urvashi Vaid and her partner comedian Kate Clinton.

In her blog at kateclinton.com, Clinton says she and Vaid, who was born in India, spoke about “peace and full equality whenever we could.”

“It wasn’t like, ‘Pass the papardam, I’m a pro-choice, pro-peace lesbian, here’s the chutney.’ But close.”

The Washington Post gossip column, “The Reliable Source,” made note that Geffen and Lingvall were two of the nine people seated at President Obama’s table for the event.