Gay What ?
Rest of site back up shortly!

Baldwin leads call for HHS to reevaluate gay blood ban

Tammy Baldwin, Wisconsin, United States Senate, Democratic Party, gay news, Washington Blade

Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) is leading 85 lawmakers in a call for HHS to reevaluate its gay blood ban. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Lesbian Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) is leading a new effort to call on the Department of Health & Human Services for an update on the process with which reviewing its regulatory ban prohibiting gay and bisexual men from donating blood.

In a public letter dated Aug. 2, Baldwin as part of 86 members of the House and Senate asks Secretary of Health & Human Services Kathleen Sebelius for an update on the previously announced reevaluation of the policy, saying they’re “deeply concerned about the timeline of such research.”

“Our current policies turn away healthy, willing donors, even when we face serious blood shortages,” the letter states. “Further, the existing lifetime ban continues to perpetuate inaccurate stereotypes against gay and bisexual men, and fosters an atmosphere that promotes discrimination and discourages individuals from HIV testing and treatment services.”

Under current regulation, men who have had sex with other men since 1977 — even once — aren’t eligible to donate blood. The policy was set up administratively in 1985 at the height of the AIDS crisis, but could be overturned at any time without a change in law.

Others who have signed the bipartisan letter include Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Wis.) and Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) as well as Reps. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) and Barbara Lee (D-Calif.). Other signers are openly gay members of the U.S. House: Reps. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), David Cicilline (D-R.I.), Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.) and Mark Takano (D-Calif.). Bisexual Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) isn’t yet a signer.

Baldwin supplemented the letter to the Department of Health & Human Services with a message via Twitter drawing attention to the current policy on gay blood donation.

The letter takes HHS to task for not moving quickly in the wake of announced plans to reevaluate existing policy. As the Washington Blade reported in 2010, the Advisory Committee on Blood Safety & Availability voted 9-6 against lifting the ban, but recommended additional research to support a change that would allow low-risk gay and bisexual men to donate.

According to the letter, HHS informed the committee last month that three studies are underway as well as a task force to help inform policy changes. The Quarantine Release Error Task Force is due to release a white paper this month, while the REDS-II, and Donor History Questionnaire studies are both scheduled to report results in October. The REDS-III study will be completed in August 2014.

The letter also notes, as the Washington Blade reported last year, HHS announced in March 2012 it’s seeking comments on a plan to design a pilot study to establish “alternative donor deferral criteria” that would enable gay and bisexual men to donate blood. Among the suggested changes is having them go through additional screening so they can be allowed to donate, although the notice admits such a policy may be seen as discriminatory.

According to the letter, HHS informed the Advisory Committee on Blood Safety & Availability that the RFI has received 11 responses to this proposal and a report to HHS senior leadership is scheduled for next month. According to public record, 10 responses were received from 10 different organizations, totaling 75 pages, including support documents.

The letter enumerates four things on which lawmakers seek clarity from HHS in reassessing blood donation criteria for men who have sex with men:

• The criteria used to assess the 75 pages of comments and what the assessment activities took place from June 2012 to July 2013;

• A copy of the July 2013 report to leadership on the response to the RFI on pilot study design;

• A detailed plan and a timeline for how results from the Quarantine Release Error Task Force, the Donor History Questionnaire Study; the REDS-II and REDS-III studies will be used to inform changes to the blood donation criteria; and

• Whether HHS plans to leverage data from other countries that currently allow MSM to donate to inform analysis of an alternative policy, and if not, why not.

In response to the letter, an HHS spokesperson pointed to the decision adopted by the Advisory Committee on Blood Safety & Availability in 2010 without providing an update on the research.

“The committee found the current donor deferral policies to be suboptimal in permitting some potentially high risk donations while preventing some potentially low risk donations, but voted in favor of retaining the existing policy, and identified areas requiring further research,” the HHS spokesperson said.

Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, deferred comment to HHS on the issue.

As noted in the letter, the American Medical Association in June adopted a resolution in opposition to the gay blood ban in favor of a policy that weighs individual risks other than sexual orientation.

AMA board member Dr. William Kobler at the time said the lifetime ban on gay blood donations “is discriminatory and not based on sound science.”

“This new policy urges a federal policy change to ensure blood donation bans or deferrals are applied to donors according to their individual level of risk and are not based on sexual orientation alone,” Kobler said.

02
Aug
2013

Labor Dept. says gay couples eligible for family and medical leave

The Labor Department under Secretary Thomas Perez is preparing guidance for gay couples under the Family & Medical Leave Act (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key).

The Labor Department under Secretary Thomas Perez is preparing guidance for gay couples under the Family & Medical Leave Act. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key).

The Labor Department is preparing guidance to inform employers throughout the country that married same-sex couples are now eligible for family and medical leave under the law.

A Labor Department spokesperson affirmed for the Washington Blade the department will issue guidance to inform employers about the change under the Family & Medical Leave Act in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down the Defense of Marriage Act.

“The Wage & Hour Division is working closely with the Department of Justice and looking through all the materials that touch on this issue to determine what public guidance is necessary,” the spokesperson added. “We expect to have additional information available in the near future.”

The Family & Medical Leave Act entitles eligible employees of covered employers to take unpaid, job-protected leave for specified family and medical reasons. Prior to the ruling against DOMA, the Labor Department didn’t require employers to grant married gay couples leave if one spouse in the relationship fell ill and needed  care because DOMA prohibited federal recognition of same-sex marriage. But with DOMA out of the picture, the Obama administration is free to enforce FMLA on behalf of married same-sex couples.

Tico Almeida, president of Freedom to Work, praised the Labor Department for moving forward with this guidance and credited it to the leadership of the recently confirmed Labor Secretary Tom Perez.

“Freedom to Work endorsed Tom Perez for Labor Secretary because we know him to be a champion for good jobs for everyone, so we are thrilled that the Wage & Hour Division is moving forward now with public guidance that will let employers know that gay and lesbian married couples must be treated with respect when they seek workplace leave to take care of a same-sex spouse that gets into an accident or is diagnosed with an illness,” Almeida said.

In 2010, the Labor Department enacted a change with DOMA in place that enabled a gay employee to take absence under the Family & Medical Leave Act to care for a non-legal, non-biological child of a partner. But that change was obstensibly as far as the Obama administration could go with DOMA in place.

Almeida continued to call for further action in the form of additional guidance saying an existing executive order issued under President Lyndon Johnson prohibiting gender discrimination applies to transgender workers as well. Such guidance would align the Labor Department’s enforcement of the directive with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission decision last year in Macy v. Holder interpreting Title VII to protect transgender workers.

“We are told by numerous government sources that it was the White House senior staff that decided to disregard American law and ignore Macy vs. Holder for federal contractors,” Almeida said. “These sources say that the White House has forbidden the Labor Department from doing what everyone knows is morally right and legally correct. Given the incredible passion and intellect that Secretary Perez brings to these important issues, we remain hopeful that he will persuade the White House staffers to stand on the right side of American history.”

07
Aug
2013

Former Obama official calls for ENDA executive order

Barack Obama, gay news, Washington Blade

A gay former counsel for USAID is calling on President Obama to take action against LGBT workplace discrimination. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

A gay former member of the Obama administration says it’s time  for President Obama to issue an executive order barring LGBT workplace discrimination among federal contractors as he touts his agency’s independent action on the issue.

In an op-ed published in Washington Post late Thursday, Jeffrey Marburg-Goodman, special counsel for the U.S. Agency for International Development and a foreign policy adviser to the 2008 Obama campaign, called on Obama to issue the order to build on his record in advancing LGBT rights.

“Although admittedly imperfect and only partial, an executive order that helps advance employment equality nationwide is overdue,” Marburg-Goodman writes.

Issuing the executive order, Marburg-Goodman writes, would build off Obama’s earlier LGBT achievements, such as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal and naming a record number of LGBT government appointees.

Additionally, Marburg-Goodman says issuing the directive could be “a tipping point” that would lead to passage of legislation to protect LGBT employees known as the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.

Marburg-Goodman makes a special point of touting the work USAID has undertaken to address LGBT workplace discrimination. In October 2011, the agency issued guidance saying it “strongly encourages” its contractors to adopt non-discrimination policies for workers, including on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

“Individual federal agencies have done what they could to advance equality and reflect current American norms and values,” Marburg-Goodman said. “Last year, we at the U.S. Agency for International Development, under the leadership of then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Administrator Rajiv Shah, announced the most advanced position any federal agency has taken on this issue.”

The Obama administration has repeatedly said it prefers a legislative solution to addressing LGBT workplace discrimination as opposed to issuing an executive order.

Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, said Friday he has no updates on the directive in response to the op-ed piece.

“Regarding a hypothetical Executive Order on LGBT non-discrimination for federal contractors, I have no updates for you on that issue,” Inouye said.

Marburg-Goodman isn’t the first former Obama administration official to call on Obama to issue the executive order. In March 2012, Elizabeth Warren, then a candidate for U.S. Senate, endorsed the idea in an interview with the Washington Blade, saying, “Any steps that the president can take toward non-discrimination benefit the whole country.” Prior to representing Massachusetts in the U.S. Senate, Warren was special adviser for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau under Obama.

Tico Almeida, president of the LGBT group Freedom to Work, praised Marburg-Goodman for calling on Obama to issue the executive order.

“I suspect some White House staffers are fairly annoyed with Mr. Marburg-Goodman for calling them out in such a high-profile way for their unforutnate desicion to delay President Obama’s executive order for LGBT workplace fairness, but I think he deserves our praise for using his stature as a distinguished Obama appointee to advocate on the LGBT workplace issues that some other administration officials have neglected for too long,” Almeida said. “I commend him for using his strong voice in favor of the pending executive order.”

Further, Almeida called on other former members of the Obama administration to speak out in favor of the executive order, including John Berry, who until last month was head of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management and the highest-ranking openly gay person in the Obama administration.

“It would be great if other gay former Obama appointees like John Berry followed Mr. Marburg-Goodman’s lead in advocating for this long overdue policy from the Obama Administration,” Almeida said.

Berry couldn’t immediately be reached for comment. According to the Washington Post, he’s on Obama’s short list for U.S. ambassador to Australia.

17
May
2013

Did Obama ask Leahy to delay gay-inclusive immigration reform?

Jay Carney, White House, gay news, Washington Blade

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney wouldn’t deny on Wednesday a media report that the Obama administration asked Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) to hold off on the introduction of amendments to include same-sex couples as part of comprehensive immigration reform.

Under questioning initiated by the Washington Blade on the accuracy of the report, Carney restated that Obama supports a provision to immigration reform along the lines of the Uniting American Families Act, which would allow gay Americans to sponsor their partners for residency in the United States.

“I think the president supports that amendment, and he also made clear that he knows he won’t get everything, necessarily, that he wants in the final comprehensive immigration bill that he hopes the Senate will pass and the House will pass and will arrive on his desk,” Carney said. “But he will push for those things that he believes ought to be in it.”

Carney added if the measure were to come up again — suggesting the possibility of a floor amendment to immigration reform — Obama “would hope” it would have bipartisan support.

When the Blade pointed out that response doesn’t address the issue of whether the White House asked Leahy to hold off on the amendments, Carney said he doesn’t have the content of conversations on immigration reform.

“I think you saw the manner in which it was discussed in the hearing by Senator Leahy, who introduced it, and other members of the committee who discussed it,” Carney said. “We are obviously engaged in conversations with the main players on this issue on a regular basis. And I don’t have the contents of all those conversations.”

When CBS News’ Major Garrett jumped in to ask if Carney would deny the report, Carney replied, “I’m not aware of that conversation.”

“What I can tell you is the president supports the amendment,” Carney said. “The president also believes, as he made clear in Costa Rica, that we need to accept that we may not get everything we want. It doesn’t mean we’re not going to fight for the things that we believe in, and this president will.”

During the Senate Judiciary Committee markup of the bill, numerous Democrats on the panel who are known for supporting LGBT rights — Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) — said they couldn’t bring themselves to support the amendment out of fear of losing Republican support for the final bill.

Asked by the Blade if there was a reasonable expectation that Obama should have brought these senators on board in time for the vote, Carney deferred to the Senate.

“I think each senator expressed himself or herself and his or her own views, so I would refer you to them,” Carney said. “The president’s views are clear. He believes this amendment should be passed and has made his views clear on that. I can’t speak for other senators.”

Earlier during the briefing under questioning from Reuters’ Jeff Mason, Carney noted Obama’s support for the provisions when asked about possible areas of improvement the president would like see addressed when the bill comes to the Senate floor.

“I think he’s made clear that he supports that and would like to see Congress support that,” Carney said. “He’s also made clear that he doesn’t expect to get everything he wants in this bill. It doesn’t mean he won’t fight for everything he wants, but he understands that compromise means not getting every single thing that you want.”

A partial transcript of the exchange between reporters on Jay Carney on the issue follows:

Washington Blade: I want to go back to immigration reform. Senator Leahy yesterday withheld amendments that would have included gay couples as part of a larger package. Yesterday, the Associated Press reported that the White House had asked him to hold off on those measures. Did the White House, in fact, ask Senator Leahy to revoke those amendments?

Jay Carney: I think you heard the President address this issue — I think it was in an interview in Costa Rica. I think the President supports that amendment, and he also made clear that he knows he won’t get everything, necessarily, that he wants in the final comprehensive immigration bill that he hopes the Senate will pass and the House will pass and will arrive on his desk. But he will push for those things that he believes ought to be in it.

He thinks it’s important that we make sure that everyone who’s engaged in this process understands that they may not get everything they want, but I think he expressed very clearly his strong support for that amendment. He would hope that if it comes up again that there would be strong bipartisan support for it — and we’ll have to see. But his support I think he expressed very clearly.

Blade: It’s clear that the President supports that amendment, but that response doesn’t really get to the issue of whether the White House asked Senator Leahy to withhold the amendments.

Carney: I don’t have — I think you saw the manner in which it was discussed in the hearing by Senator Leahy, who introduced it, and other members of the committee who discussed it. We are obviously engaged in conversations with the main players on this issue on a regular basis. And I don’t have the contents of all those conversations. What I can tell you is that the President supports —

CBS News: But you don’t deny it?

Carney: I’m sorry.

CBS News: You don’t deny the report.

Carney: I’m not aware of that conversation. What I can tell you is the President supports the amendment. The President also believes, as he made clear in Costa Rica, that we need to accept that we may not get everything we want. It doesn’t mean we’re not going to fight for the things that we believe in, and this President will.

Blade: During the markup last night, it was one Democrat after the other — Senator Feinstein, Senator Durbin, Senator Schumer — said they couldn’t bring themselves to support the measure. And these are senators from the President’s own party. Isn’t there a reasonable expectation that the President should have worked to bring them on board in time for that vote in accordance with his vision for immigration reform?

Carney: Well, I think each senator expressed himself or herself and his or her own views, so I would refer you to them. The president’s views are clear. He believes this amendment should be passed and has made his views clear on that. I can’t speak for other senators.

Watch the video here:

22
May
2013

DNC treasurer defends Michelle Obama’s LGBT speech

Democratic National Committee Treasurer Andrew Tobias pushed back in email over ENDA, immigration criticism (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

DNC Treasurer Andrew Tobias pushed back against ENDA, immigration criticism. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

The treasurer of the Democratic National Committee is defending first lady Michelle Obama for failing to address LGBT workplace discrimination and the exclusion of bi-national gay couples from immigration reform during a fundraising speech she gave Wednesday in New York.

Andrew Tobias, who’s gay, responded to concerns expressed in an off-the-record listserv for major LGBT donors in an email obtained by the Washington Blade on Thursday.

In the email, Tobias praised Obama for her speech, which did not mention her husband’s failure to issue an executive order barring LGBT workplace discrimination among federal contractors. She also didn’t directly address the exclusion of bi-national same-sex couples from the immigration reform bill.

“My own feeling is that she did it just right, and that almost everyone in the room – certainly including the First Lady and the DNC Chair – are very much aware of these specifics (as are the key players in the WH),” Tobias wrote to the listserv. “You and all the rest of us are absolutely right to be frustrated by the delays and to keep pushing (I’m hoping this Exxon/Mobil hook might be the one that puts it across the finish line).”

Tobias attempts to allay concerns about Senate Democrats rejecting the Uniting American Families Act by saying the Supreme Court will likely address the issue soon by striking down the Defense of Marriage Act — thanks in part to “two Justices McCain would never have appointed” — and by estimating that 500,000 LGBT people are among the 11 million undocumented immigrants who would obtain a pathway to citizenship if reform were passed. (The Williams Institute estimates a smaller number, 267,000, are LGBT.)

“Some are certain the Republicans in the Senate and House would NEVER have torpedoed the immigration bill over this or anything else, because they’d be crazy to,” Tobias wrote. “But the Tea Party types are getting ever more extreme and short-sighted, so I’m not certain either way.”

Tobias enumerates the many high-profile LGBT people who attended the event — including Edith Windsor, the New York widow who is the plaintiff in the DOMA case, and Super Bowl champ Brendon Ayanbadejo — before concluding by saying people are right to push for more rights, but the other major national party wouldn’t have held such an event.

“The RNC has never had a dinner like this,” Tobias writes. “We are truly not yet welcome in their party; they are still a huge obstacle to the equality we deserve; and until that changes, those of us who can afford to plant the seed corn for further success in 2014 and 2016 could not possibly make a more leveraged investment in equality.”

Tobias wrote the email days after one Democratic donor, Miami-based philanthropist Jonathan Lewis, said he is withholding donations to Democrats and asking others to do the same over the immigration issue and the executive order.

The first lady spoke at the annual LGBT gala for the Democratic National Committee, which she headlined along with gay NBA player Jason Collins. A DNC official said tickets were between $1,250 and $32,400 and approximately 350 people attended.

The DNC wouldn’t reveal the total amount raised at the event. It’s unclear whether Lewis’ email had any impact on the money raised.

After being introduced by Collins, Obama spoke for about 20 minutes, according to a pool report from the event, and touted the president’s achievements on LGBT issues and other matters.

“Because of you, we are taking on climate change, gun violence, comprehensive immigration reform,” the first lady said. “And because of you, yes, we have a president who stands up for our most fundamental rights, from ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” to strengthening hate crimes to supporting our right to marry the person we love. Because of you.”

Obama urged the attendees to max out the donations they can offer the Democratic Party over the course of an election cycle. For the DNC, that’s $32,400 in each of the two years of this cycle, so $64,800 if someone maxes out both years.

“We need you to keep on writing those checks — and if you haven’t maxed out, you know, what’s my motto?” the first lady said. “Max out. Let’s say it together. Max out. And if you’ve maxed out, get your friends to max out. …  Sounds kind of baller, too — maxing out. Everyone here should be maxed out.”

The White House didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on why LGBT workplace discrimination and immigration were absent form the first lady’s speech.

LGBT groups working on these issues said they’d welcome the first lady’s help by the addition of her voice to efforts to protect bi-national couples and institute LGBT workplace discrimination protections.

Tico Almeida, president of Freedom to Work, said Michelle Obama’s voice would be a boon to efforts to pass ENDA over the course of this year and the campaign to institute an executive order barring LGBT workplace discrimination.

“I think the first lady’s a rock star, and she’s admired by many, many Americans,” Almeida said. “I admire her a great deal. In part, I admire her because she’s an incredibly effective advocate for many issues, and important issues, that she’s championed over the past years. It would be wonderful if the first lady helped our ENDA advocacy and made the case this year as we’re moving toward the full Senate vote that LGBT Americans should be able to build a career without fear of getting fired just because of who they are, or who they love.”

Steve Ralls, spokesperson for Immigration Equality, redirected attention to another speech from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg in which he called for UAFA-inclusive immigration reform.

“I wasn’t in the room with the first lady last night,” Ralls said. “But I can tell you that, as she was speaking, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg was addressing Immigration Equality’s supporters — just a few blocks away — at our New York gala. Mayor Bloomberg called on Congress to include LGBT families in immigration reform, putting one of the most important advocates for reform solidly on record in support of our families.”

The full email from Tobias follows:

My own feeling is that she did it just right, and that almost everyone in the room – certainly including the First Lady and the DNC Chair – are very much aware of these specifics (as are the key players in the WH).

You and all the rest of us are absolutely right to be frustrated by the delays and to keep pushing (I’m hoping this Exxon/Mobil hook might be the one that puts it across the finish line). One key player I spoke with praised Jeffrey Marburg’s Washington Post op-ed (posted here a few days ago) as exactly the right way to do it: respectful, well-reasoned, powerful.

But while I have you, a few other notes from the glass half-full side of the ledger:

1. It was a wonderful dinner, celebrating the progress we HAVE made since the last time, as a senator’s wife, the First Lady spoke at our dinner.  Here was the video we showed.  It begins with an excerpt from her remarks five years ago.

2. As frustrating as the UAFA situation is – and deeply wrong that anyone has to choose between love and country – I’m pretty sure that in part because of the two Justices McCain would never have appointed, DOMA will fall in a few weeks and a great many couples will no longer have to make such a choice.  We should keep pushing until we have an even better resolution, but I’m hopeful it will truly change the lives of most who’ve had to deal with this so long.

2a. Let’s not lose sight of our 500,000 undocumented LGBT brothers and sisters who, if the immigration bill does get signed into law, will have their lives transformed with legal status and a pathway to citizenship. (I’m assuming that 4% or 5% of the 11 million are LGBT.) They can’t afford to come to dinners like the one we had last night, but they count too.

Some are certain the Republicans in the Senate and House would NEVER have torpedoed the immigration bill over this or anything else, because they’d be crazy to.  But the Tea Party types are getting ever more extreme and short-sighted, so I’m not certain either way. (To borrow Barney Frank’s line from a different context: “We’re not perfect, but they’re nuts.”) This isn’t to say I’m not disappointed. But given the two points above, and what will be our continued efforts to get where we all want to end up, there’s reason, I think, to be less angry than some are.  And room for many of us, equally committed to equality, to be more supportive.

3. There were many highlights last night – Super Bowl champ Brendon Ayanbadejo was there!  Inaugural poet Richard Blanco was there!  P-FAW’s Michael Keegan, GLSEN’s Eliza Byard, Lambda’s Kevin Cathcart, and GMHC’sMarjorie Hill were there! A SINNER IN MECCA’s gay Muslim documentarianParvez Sharma was there!  Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum and Freedom to Marry’s Evan Wolfson and the ACLU’s James Esseksand the Victry Fnd’s Chuck Wolfe were there! Media Matters founder David Brockand Athlete Ally founder Hudson Taylor and All Out co-founder Andre Banks and SLDN’s Aubrey Sarvis were there! The first transgender member of the DNC’s executive committee, Babs Siperstein, was there!  Robbie Kaplan, who argued Edie Windsor’s case before the Supreme Court, was there! Edie Windsor HERSELF was there! – along with terrific elected officials, local and national, gay and straight, and Ambassador James Hormel . . .

. . . but the unexpected highlight of the evening (everyone knew Bravo’s Andy Cohen would do a great job emceeing and that NBA center Jason Collins would give the First Lady a great into and that the First Lady herself would leave the assembled on their feet cheering) was a 22-year-old transgender woman who did a lovely job of introducing DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (whose congressional district, she notes, which include South Beach, she now refers to as “straight friendly”) and then turned to where DWS was supposed to enter from backstage to give her remarks . . . and waited a little more . . . nervous, supportive laughter riding from the crowd . . . and then — far from freezing in the headlights — just won us over completely by telling us her story, taking questions . . . it was completely charming, and the transgender CEO of a multi-billion-dollar biotech firm seated next to me with her wife was just loving every minute of it, as were 280 others.  Young Evie Renee Arroyo was a star.

Anyway, and as always:  everyone is right to push, and also to support, because BOTH are in our self-interest to do.  The RNC has never had a dinner like this.  We are truly not yet welcome in their party; they are still a huge obstacle to the equality we deserve; and until that changes, those of us who can afford to plant the seed corn for further success in 2014 and 2016 could not possibly make a more leveraged investment in equality.

Thanks!

Andy

30
May
2013

Berry tapped as U.S. ambassador to Australia

John Berry, gay news, Washington Blade

John Berry, who’s gay, was named U.S. ambassador to Australia. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

President Obama nominated on Friday for the first time ever an openly gay person to serve as ambassador to a G-20 country.

John Berry, who formerly served as director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management until his departure in April, was nominated as U.S. ambassador to Australia. Before his departure from OPM, Berry was considered the highest-ranking openly gay person within the Obama administration. His nomination as ambassador is subject to Senate confirmation.

Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, in a statement praised the nomination of Berry, whose nomination fulfills the request from HRC for the nomination of an openly LGBT person as an ambassador to a G-20 country.

“John Berry has been a devoted public servant for 30 years, and will bring tremendous experience to our embassy in Canberra,” Griffin said. “His lifetime of professional experiences make him an outstanding choice to be the nation’s next ambassador to Australia. I urge the Senate to confirm his nomination.”

At the start of Obama’s second term, Berry was discussed as a potential nominee as secretary of interior, which would have made him the first openly gay Cabinet member. During the Clinton administration, Berry served in a senior position within the Department of the Interior and later was director of both the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation and the National Zoo. However, the role of secretary of the interior ultimately went to Sally Jewell.

In the course of his time at OPM, Berry in addition to his regular duties acted as adviser on LGBT issues within the administration. The OPM director was present at the meeting in which White House officials informed LGBT advocates it wouldn’t issue at this time an executive order barring LGBT workplace discrimination among federal contractors, and Berry also took part in a White House meeting with transgender advocates on the Transgender Day of Remembrance.

According to OpenSecrets.org, Berry donated $5,000 to Obama’s presidential re-election campaign.

Berry wasn’t the only out nominee that Obama named on Friday. The president also named James “Wally” Brewster Jr., who’s senior managing partner for the Chicago-based consumer dynamics strategy consulting firm SB&K Global, as U.S. ambassador to the Dominican Republic.

Griffin praised Brewster, who’s a national LGBT co-chair for the Democratic National Committee and serves on HRC’s board.

“Wally Brewster is an excellent choice to be our nation’s ambassador to the Dominican Republic,” Griffin said. “His global business and management expertise is matched by his enthusiasm and commitment to human rights and democracy around the world. Wally’s political intelligence and work in public affairs and communications would make him a valuable contribution to our nation’s diplomatic efforts.”

According to OpenSecrets.org, Brewster has made significant donations to the Democratic Party and Democratic candidates. In the last election cycle, Brewster donated $30,800 to the Democratic National Committee, $5,000 to Obama’s re-election, and made numerous donations to state Democratic parties and campaigns for Democrats, including lesbian Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.).

Obama made the two openly gay nominations as part of a group of 15 nominations on the same day. In a statement, Obama emphasized their capabilities as U.S. ambassadors.

“These men and women have demonstrated knowledge and dedication throughout their careers,” Obama said. “I am grateful they have chosen to take on these important roles, and I look forward to working with them in the months and years to come.”

The two nominations of Friday come on the heels of several other nominations of gay men to ambassadorial posts. Last week, Obama named Rufus Gifford, the finance director for his 2012 presidential campaign, as ambassador to Denmark, and James Costos, who’s HBO’s vice president of global licensing and retail, was named U.S. ambassador to Spain. In the previous week, Obama named Daniel Baer, who previously served as a senior State Department official as U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security & Cooperation in Europe.

Three other openly gay men have previously served as U.S. ambassadors. David Huebner has been U.S. ambassador to New Zealand and Samoa since 2009. Michael Guest was U.S. ambassador to Romania during the Bush administration and James Hormel was U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg during the latter part of the Clinton administration.

21
Jun
2013

OPM lays out post-DOMA plan for fed’l employee benefits

U.S. Office of Personnel Management has instituted new guidance for married gay federal employees in the wake of DOMA (photo public domain)

U.S. Office of Personnel Management has instituted new guidance for married gay federal employees in the wake of the DOMA court ruling. (photo public domain)

Gay federal employees in legal same-sex marriages will be eligible immediately for health and pension benefits in the aftermath of the Supreme Court ruling against Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, according to a new memo from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.

The memorandum, dated June 28 and signed by OPM acting director Elaine Kaplan, identifies five new areas of benefits that will be available after the court decision for the legal spouses as well as newly qualified children and stepchildren of gay federal employees.

“There are numerous benefits that are affected by the Supreme Court’s decision, and it is impossible to answer every question that you might have,” Kaplan, a lesbian, writes. “Nevertheless, I want to assure you that the U.S. Office of Personnel Management is committed to working with the Department of Justice to ensure swift and seamless implementation of the court’s ruling.”

The five new benefits identified in the memo are:

• health insurance through the Federal Health Employees Benefits (FEHB) plan;

• life insurance through the Federal Employees’ Group Life Insurance (FEGLI) program;

• dental and vision insurance through the Federal Employee Dental and Vision Insurance Program (FEDVIP);

• long-term care insurance under the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program (FLTCIP);

• retirement benefits;

• and the ability to submit claims for medical expenses through flexible spending accounts.

For each of the four insurance benefits in the memo, gay federal employees must elect to make a change within the window of 60 days between June 26, 2013 and August 26, 2013 to enroll. With respect to health, dental and vision insurance, the next opportunity would be at the start of open season later this year.

For employees who already have health coverage under a FEHB plan, coverage will begin immediately. For those who don’t, benefits will be effective on the first day of the first pay period after the enrollment request is received.

To be eligible for retirement benefits for their same-sex spouses, gay federal employees have two years until after the Supreme Court decision, or June 26, 2015, to inform OPM they have a legal marriage that qualifies for recognition and elect and changes to benefits.

The OPM memo is the first of many pieces of guidance expected from federal agencies in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act. After the court ruling, President Obama said he instructed U.S. Attorney Eric Holder to work with other Cabinet members to implement the end to the Defense of Marriage Act.

In a statement, Obama called the OPM guidance “a critical first step” toward implementing the Supreme Court ruling that determined “all married couples should be treated equally under federal law.”

“Thousands of gays and lesbians serve our country every day in the federal government,” Obama said. “They, and their spouses and children, deserve the same respect and protection as every other family.”

In another statement, Holder said the Obama administration by offering these benefits “is making real the promise of this important decision” against DOMA, but there’s more to come.

“As the President directed, the Department of Justice will continue to coordinate with other federal agencies to implement this ruling as swiftly and smoothly as possible,” Holder said. “I look forward to sharing additional information as it becomes available. We will never stop fighting to ensure equality, opportunity, and – above all – justice for everyone in this country.”

Leonard Hirsch, a board member for the LGBT federal employee affinity group known as Federal GLOBE, called the guidance “an extraordinary result” for everyone’s who been working on the issue for decades.

“It opens up the key benefits that key benefits for federal employees that have been closed — health insurance, life insurance — to the same-sex spouses of federal employees and retirees,” Hirsch said.

Hirsch also emphasized the word must to get out to federal retirees that their same-sex spouses are eligible for federal benefits in the wake of the ruling against DOMA.

“This was included, so this is a wonderful, inclusive set of changes that OPM has been preparing for and announced today,” Hirsch said.

Thomas Richards, an OPM spokesperson, confirmed that the guidance applies to all employees in legal same-sex marriages — even those that live in states that don’t recognize marriage equality.

“These benefits will be available to any federal employee or annuitant who has a valid marriage license, regardless of their state of residency,” Richards said.

But the guidance doesn’t cover federal employees in same-sex relationships who aren’t married, such as those in domestic partnerships or civil unions. In July, gay Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) is expected to introduce the legislation known as the Domestic Partnership Benefits & Obligations Act to address this issue.

Richards noted the limitations of the new guidance is restricted to legally married federal employees, but recalled a 2009 memorandum from President Obama that offered limited benefits to employees in civil unions or domestic partnerships

“Acting Director Kaplan’s memo identifies certain benefits previously available only to opposite-sex spouses that are now available to all legally married spouses, including same-sex spouses,” Richards said. “OPM has already extended benefits to same-sex domestic partners to the extent permissible under the law.”

28
Jun
2013

In two days, anti-gay marriage amendment gains, loses sponsor

Tom Latham, United States House of Representatives, Republican Party, Iowa, gay news, Washington Blade

Rep. Tom Latham‘s (R-Iowa) brief co-sponsorship of the Federal Marriage Amendment was attributed to staffer error. (Photo public domain).

A recently proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would restrict marriage to one man, one woman throughout the country has gained and lost a supporter in the U.S. House within the course of two days.

According to the Library of Congress, Rep. Tom Latham (R-Iowa) withdrew Wednesday as a co-sponsor of the amendment, whose chief sponsor is Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kansas), after signing on as a co-sponsor on Tuesday.

Chris Deaton, a Latham spokesperson, attributed the brief co-sponsorship to a staffer error.

“This was a staff member’s mistake,” Deaton said. “The withdrawal was the correction of the staff member’s mistake.”

Latham’s change is consistent with his position on the amendment when it came to a floor vote in 2004 and 2006. He wasn’t a co-sponsor of the bill at that time.

But Latham voted in favor of the Federal Marriage Amendment both times the measure came to the House floor.

Deaton didn’t immediately respond to a follow-up inquiry on why Latham isn’t a co-sponsor now or whether he opposes the measure.

There are still 34 co-sponsors for the Federal Marriage Amendment — all Republicans. That’s far short of the 290 votes needed to pass a U.S. constitutional amendment in the House.

11
Jul
2013

Pocan adjusting to life as a member of Congress

Mark Pocan, United States House of Representatives, Wisconsin, Democratic Party, gay news, Washington Blade

Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) speaks to eighth graders visiting Capitol Hill. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The Capitol Hill office of gay freshman Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) is noticeably bare as one might expect from a lawmaker who began his first term in office just a few months ago.

But on the teal walls, one item stands out: a framed picture of a 1924 campaign flier for Robert LaFollette along with a license plate advertising his bid for U.S. Senate. LaFollette, a Republican, who served in the early 20th century, formed the Wisconsin Progressive Party and is considered a leading voice of the progressive movement.

That flier and license plate are just two pieces of LaFollette memorabilia owned by Pocan, who’s an avid collector of all things related to the Wisconsin senator’s political career.

“I have over half of his known political buttons,” Pocan says. “I also have a little slide movie projector from 1924. You put it in and you have LaFollette reeler and there’s pictures. And their slogan was ‘Fearless and Incorruptible,’ which is kind of a great slogan.”

Speaking with the Washington Blade in his office, Pocan says he and his spouse of six years — Phillip Frank, with whom he operates a small printing company business in Madison — have pledged to donate their LaFollette collection to the Wisconsin Historic Society.

Any why is the Wisconsin congressman so interested in LaFollette? Pocan says the 1920s public figure resonates with him because of his work starting the progressive movement and advancing progressive causes in the state.

“In Wisconsin, we started things like unemployment compensation, so many of these national programs started in the progressive area,” Pocan says. “And he was a strong fighter. At the time, the railroads were a big monopoly, and he fought that. And he just kind of embodies what the progressive movement is about. Even here, he was recognized as a national leader for the work he did.”

In many ways, Pocan is in line with the spirit of LaFollette as a progressive leader. Representing Wisconsin’s 2nd congressional district, one of the more progressive areas in the country, Pocan serves the same constituents that lesbian Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) represented for 14 years before she won election to the upper chamber of Congress.

And as one of the seven openly lesbian, gay and bisexual members of Congress, Pocan personifies — and pursues — one of the most prominent causes that progressive groups have embraced in recent years: the advancement of LGBT equality.

But on this day, other issues are crowding the Wisconsin lawmaker’s schedule. His schedule includes his morning staff meeting, an audience with eighth grade students, a meeting with a legislative representative from the Area Health Education Centers in Wisconsin and lunch with House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). Capping it off is a “Make It in America” news confernece with other members of Congress.

Pocan is able to find time to talk to the Blade about his experience serving in Congress for just more than 100 days. As a chair of the LGBT Equality Caucus, Pocan already has priorities for what he wants to see on LGBT issues for the 113th Congress.

While passage of any such legislation would be challenging as long as Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) is the presiding officer of the U.S. House, Pocan says he sees opportunities in working across the aisle. In particular, he wants to build support for legislation known as the Domestic Partnership Benefits & Obligations Act, which would provide federal workers with health and pension benefits for their same-sex partners.

A federal employee himself, Pocan found that he was unable to obtain federal benefits for his spouse, even though they were legally married in Canada, when he began his tenure in Congress — as was the person who was informing him he’d be ineligible.

“The person who was briefing me on my benefits, she and her partner don’t have benefits,” Pocan said. “So even the benefit designee, the person who’s a professional, she can’t get benefits for her partner. So, it’s a pervasive problem for federal employees. That’s an important bill, and we’ve got bipartisan support and we’re working on that so we can introduce it with strong support from day one.”

A member of the House Committee on Oversight & Government Reform, which would have jurisdiction over the legislation, Pocan says he expects introduction of the legislation next month. Although a Supreme Court ruling against the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits federal recognition of same-sex marriage, may make the legislation unnecessary, Pocan says plans for legislation are underway because there’s no telling how the court will rule.

In the meantime, Pocan is working within the system in Congress for greater equality for he and his spouse. The couple say they’re seeking from the House Sergeant at Arms an administrative change with the help of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). While his spouse was given a congressional pin that identifies him as spouse, Frank’s ID gives him the lesser distinction of designee.

“So he’s not treated equally, even though we’re legally married six-and-a-half years,” Pocan says. “So we’ve been working on that issue, trying to get that to change. For the last three months, we’ve been pushing to try to make them realize that we are legally married. What is their measure to say he’s a designee?”

Another LGBT issue that concerns Pocan is LGBT youth homelessness. That issue hits close to home; Pocan says an LGBT constituency group in Wisconsin informed him that about 400 people in Milwaukee who are homeless are LGBT youth.

Pocan says he intends to highlight an upcoming report from the Department of Housing & Urban Development to bring greater awareness to the issue of LGBT youth homelessness and has brought up the issue with the LGBT Equality Caucus.

“We realized the HUD report is coming this year, so now we’re partnering with some national groups on this, and we’re actually going to have something where we invite other national groups to Congress to talk about that,” Pocan says. “So, we’re just kind of getting that structure together to realize how we can have that magnified voice.”

The Wisconsin lawmaker comes to Congress after having served for 14 years as a member of the Wisconsin State Assembly, and, for a time, as the State Assembly Budget Committee chair, which under his jurisdiction passed a domestic partnership laws for gay couples in the state and allowed state universities to provide benefits for employees with same-sex partners. It was the first state to do so even with a draconian state constitutional amendment on the books barring same-sex marriage and marriage-like unions.

For Pocan, the most glaring difference between serving as a state lawmaker and a member of Congress is the partisanship that pervades Congress. Pocan was particularly disappointed that during freshmen training for new members of Congress, Democrats and Republicans were separated with the exception of one dinner and one reception.

“They kind of taught you bad behavior from day one,” Pocan said, “I’ve always worked on a finance committee for six of my years. I was co-chair there for two years, where I spent eight hours a day, three days a week for three or four months every other year putting a budget together with the other party and actually working on stuff.”

But Pocan has taken it upon himself to get acquainted with fellow lawmakers on the other side. One surprising person with whom he’s formed a friendship: Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), an anti-gay lawmaker who was among the chief voices calling for congressional action against the marriage equality law in D.C.

Part of their friendship is the result of Jordan attending University of Wisconsin, Madison, where he wrestled, and having kids who also attend that school.

“I signed on to his bill to keep wrestling in the Olympics because he cares about wrestling,” Pocan says. “I’m trying to build those relationships because we’ve talked about not only getting together while he’s in Madison, but he also wants to get on this one conservative radio show. I said I can get you on there, she hates me.”

Pocan can’t stay in his office speaking with the Blade long before he’s headed to his next engagement: speaking to eighth-graders from the Eagle School for Gifted Students who are on a field trip visiting Capitol Hill.

For 30 minutes, Pocan talks to the students about his job as a member of Congress and fields questions about the legislative process. Among the questions are continued funding for the U.S. Post Office and environmental issues, but he also receives a question from a student on what he can do to bring marriage equality to Wisconsin.

Pocan responds by saying the effort will be difficult because Wisconsin “put hate” in the constitution by amending it to ban same-sex marriage, but notes the progress made when domestic partnerships were enacted into law.

“It’s not full equality, but at least we were able to do something in Wisconsin,” Pocan says. “So we’ve got some minor protections in place, but I think the big thing we’re all watching is the Supreme Court case that was just heard a couple weeks ago to see what decision they make.”

The Wisconsin lawmaker urged the student to take heart because the country is moving ahead of leaders and pointed to recent polls showing a majority of the American public — and 80 percent of America’s youth — back marriage rights for gay couples.

“This is really I think a civil rights issue of our generation, and I’m hoping we’ll have good resolution with the courts, but more importantly, the public is there, we just have to get our leaders to actually lead,” Pocan said.

17
Apr
2013

ENDA to be introduced on Thursday

United States Capitol Building, dome, gay news, Washington Blade

ENDA is set for reintroduction in both chambers of Congress on Thursday. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The Employment Non-Discrimination Act is set to be introduced in both chambers of Congress on Thursday, according to multiple sources, but without major changes that were previously under consideration.

The bill will be reintroduced in the House by Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), the most senior openly gay member of the chamber, who’s taking over the legislation now that former Rep. Barney Frank has retired. In the Senate, the legislation will be reintroduced by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.). The lawmakers’ offices confirmed they would introduce ENDA concurrently on Thursday.

The Senate version of the bill will have five original sponsors: Merkley and lesbian Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) will be two Democrats, Sens. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) will be two Republicans and Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chair Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) will round out the quintet.

The number of original co-sponsors in the House remains to be seen. Conchita Cruz, a Polis spokesperson, said many House members have told her boss “they want to make sure that they are included” as original co-sponsors.

Tico Almeida, president of Freedom to Work, said his organization will push for a committee vote and movement on the Senate floor for ENDA “as soon as possible.”

“ENDA had a recent committee hearing where not a single Republican senator bothered to show up to express any opposition or even ask questions about the drafting of the bill, so I think Chairman Harkin should schedule the committee vote on ENDA as soon as possible in May or June,” Almeida said. “It would be great to have ENDA teed up to go to the Senate floor in July.”

Harkin, whose committee has jurisdiction over ENDA, has already pledged to mark up the legislation this year. The office of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has said Democratic leadership “looks forward to working with” Harkin to set up a floor vote on the bill.

Almeida said the time period immediately after Supreme Court decisions are expected on California’s Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act would make July an excellent opportunity for a floor vote on ENDA, which would ban anti-LGBT employment discrimination.

“After the Supreme Court rules in the Windsor marriage case, many right-wingers are going to denounce marriage equality for same-sex couples, but claim that they don’t believe in discrimination against LGBT Americans,” Almeida said. “That’s the time when we should call some of those bluffs by putting ENDA on the Senate floor and letting all 100 senators go on the record about whether hardworking Americans should get fired just because of who they are or who they love.”

One question about the bill was whether ENDA would be changed upon reintroduction. LGBT advocates had previously told the Washington Blade the legislation has been under review prior to reintroduction in the 113th Congress.

Two areas that were said to be under review were the religious exemption as well as the area of disparate impact, which ENDA hadn’t previously addressed. However, multiple sources familiar with ENDA said these changes were ultimately not made to the bill.

Jamal Raad, a Merkley spokesperson, said “there will be a few changes to update the language” on ENDA, but said he couldn’t provide actual legislative text until reintroduction on Thursday.

Almeida said another change he’s seeking for ENDA as it progresses through the legislative process is an update to the bill in the aftermath of the Supreme Court ruling in Gross v. FBL Financial. That 2009 decision raised the bar for the standard of proof in making certain employment discrimination claims.

“If this legal loophole does not get fixed before ENDA becomes law, there will be gay and transgender victims of discrimination with meritorious cases who are denied justice because of the unequal standard that the conservative activists on the Supreme Court created a few years ago,” Almeida said. “Gay and transgender plaintiffs deserve to have the same standard of proof applied to their cases as plaintiffs alleging racial or religious discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.”

Almeida said the fix would be along the lines of the bipartisan legislation introduced by Harkin and Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) known as the Protecting Older Workers Against Discrimination Act. That bill hasn’t yet been reintroduced in the 113th Congress.

“Especially since Chairman Harkin is the author of the bi-partisan legislation to address the Gross case, I’m hoping that he and the committee staff will close this loophole when ENDA goes to mark-up,” Almeida said.

As ENDA advances, many eyes will be on the U.S. senators who’ve recently come out for marriage equality, but haven’t yet articulated a position on the legislation.

Those who’ve come to support marriage equality, but didn’t co-sponsor ENDA in the previous Congress are Sens. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), John Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), Max Baucus (D-Mont.), Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) — and most notably Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio). Also in question among the U.S. senators who support marriage equality is Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), who’s new to Congress.

Eyes also will be Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who voted for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal and recently said she’s “evolving” on the issue of marriage equality.

Reid also wasn’t a co-sponsor in the previous Congress, but he typically doesn’t co-sponsor bills because of his leadership position.

Freshmen senators who were formerly U.S. House members — Sens. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) — were co-sponsors of ENDA in the lower chamber of Congress, so would likely support the bill again in the Senate. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) has said he supports ENDA and Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) signed an LGBT non-discrimination bill into law as governor of the state in 1998.

Other freshman Democrats — Sens. Mo Cowan (D-Mass.), Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) — signed a letter in February identifying themselves as ENDA supporters.

NOTE: An earlier version of this article neglected to include Sen. Martin Heinrich as among the freshmen Senate Democrats who supported ENDA as U.S. House members. He also signed the letter identifying himself as an ENDA supporter. Whitney Potter, a Heinrich spokesperson, said the senator intends to support ENDA as a U.S. senator.

23
Apr
2013