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Gay ambassador reflects on U.S. efforts in Ukraine

Daniel Baer, United States Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, gay news, Washington Blade

Gay U.S. ambassador Daniel Baer is representing U.S. interests during the Ukraine crisis at the Organization for Security & Cooperation in Europe (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key).

Amid the ongoing crisis in Ukraine following Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military incursion into the country, the Obama administration is relying on a gay ambassador to help de-escalate tensions.

Daniel Baer, U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security & Cooperation in Europe, has in the days since the start of the crisis been working with envoys at the Vienna-based pan-Atlantic international forum to address the situation — in addition to keeping the world updated via his Twitter account.

His priority for the moment is achieving a consensus to allow a OSCE-based monitoring mission to enter Ukraine, although he admits he’s under “no illusion” that will be easy in a body on which Moscow has veto power.

In an interview with the Washington Blade via phone from Vienna after the third emergency meeting at the forum in as many days, Baer described the multi-level approach the United States is undertaking to de-escalate tensions in Ukraine.

“In the past, we’ve seen in other situations where there have been similar concerns raised, a monitoring mission [has worked] by both assessing and reporting facts on the ground and by being there to work to mediate tension and addressing the concerns that have been raised,” Baer said.

But Baer’s participation has significance because he’s openly gay and handling negotiations with a country that is known for enacting anti-LGBT laws and having an anti-LGBT climate.

Nonetheless, Baer, 37, said he’s never felt that his sexual orientation has been an issue for Putin’s representatives at OSCE.

“Just like being gay, working with the U.S. ambassador is not a choice, and I’m ready to work with all of them,” Baer said.

Founded during the Cold War, the OSCE was set up as a forum for the United States and the Soviet Union to speak about concerns and has become a pan-Atlantic forum now comprising 57 European, Asian and North American countries.

After the U.S. Senate confirmed Baer in August as U.S. envoy to OSCE, he relocated to Vienna with his partner of three-and-a-half years Brian Walsh, 27, a physicist now working at an international think-tank on environmental issues.

The transcript of the interview between the Washington Blade and Baer follows:

Washington Blade: How would you characterize the situation in Vienna as the crisis in Ukraine unfolds?

Daniel Baer: I guess a couple things. The OSCE is a big political organization, and an operational entity that has field offices in 16 countries, including Ukraine and many independent institutions that are doing things all the time. So, there’s been kind of two levels of activity.

One, there’s been a sense of urgency in terms of getting the existing capacities of OSCE mobilized to engage in Ukraine, and particularly in Crimea now, in the ways that they can to help de-escalate tension. So, there’s a High Commissioner for National Minorities, the Swiss special envoy who’s the current ambassador to Germany now, but a designated special envoy to Ukraine who sits as the chair of the OSCE right now. The Representative on Freedom of the Media, they just arrived in Crimea a couple hours ago, and then the project office in Kiev is being supplemented.

In addition, because OSCE does arms control, and military transference, the Ukrainians have invited military monitoring missions. They have an invitation for two military monitors from every participating state in the OSCE.

Then, there’s the political side, and lot of people focus on the downside of the OSCE, which is you operate on consensus. And it’s a big tent that includes the Russian Federation, the United States, Canada and basically everybody in between — and Mongolia. That is both a hindrance, in the sense that it makes consensus harder, but it’s also an asset in the sense that the other project that we’re starting to work on now is trying to develop a mandate for a new special monitoring mission to Ukraine and that will require consensus, but the upside is that if we can find a description of a mandate that works for everyone, it will also have the political value of being blessed by Ukrainians, the Federation, the EU countries, Turkey, ourselves and Canada.

So, it’ll have broad backing. And so, we’re kind of taking the two-pronged approach of mobilize quickly everything that’s already set up and teed up, and ready to go, and also look at this kind of near-to-medium term possibility of setting up a monitoring mission.

That’s something that I’m under no illusions — I think it’s going to be very hard, and really all we can do is tee it up, and leave that door open. And if and when the Russian Federation decides to engage on that and walk through that door, we’ll be ready to work with them.

Daniel Baer, State Department, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, gay news, Washington Blade

U.S ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Daniel Baer addresses the media following a meeting. (Photo public domain)

Blade: What makes setting up that monitoring mission “very hard”? I know Moscow has veto power on the OSCE, so how likely is it that we’ll actually see that happening?

Baer: I think the answer is it won’t happen unless Moscow decides that they see value in it, or they think it can be useful. I think our position all along has been there are a variety of concerns that have been raised by the Russian Federation, including concerns about the security of their military base and the human rights of the Russian minority in Crimea, and Ukraine more broadly, etc. There are obviously concerns that are being raised by the Ukrainians themselves about a Russian military incursion on their territory.

But the way to address the concerns that the Russians have raised is not through sending in troops, but through a monitoring mission. And this is an alternative for them. In the past, we’ve seen in other situations where there have been similar concerns raised, a monitoring mission [has worked] by both assessing and reporting facts on the ground and by being there to work to mediate tension and addressing the concerns that have been raised. Yes, they have to choose to take that route instead of the illegal and illegitimate route that they are currently taking, but… one of the ways in which we can make de-escalation more likely is by teeing up that choice, so they can make that choice. …

Blade: Let’s get a little personal. What do you think is the significance of an openly gay person representing U.S. interests in diplomacy with Russia, a country that has passed laws against gay people?

Baer: You know, I think to all of my colleagues when I showed up here in Vienna, most of my colleagues only knew one or two things about me. Everyone knew that I was gay, and the other thing talked about was that I was young. Other than that, they knew that I was an American ambassador. Six months later, it’s certainly more important that I’m the U.S. ambassador than anything else about me, and I have a decent working relationship with all my colleagues.

I have a weekly meeting with the Russian ambassador, and Brian and I have invited him and his wife to the Marine ball along with others. So, we built a working relationship. I guess it would be an interesting question for him. For me, I’m trying to do my job the best I can and represent my country the best I can.

I think one of the strengths that America has is that we increasingly — there’s still work to do on many dimensions — but we increasingly have a diplomatic corps that represents our diversity, and part of that is important because it makes us more effective. Part of that is important because it more accurately represents the country. And it’s super important because part of what others see as valuable and powerful and engaging and attractive about America is the promise of progress toward a society that embraces rights for everyone. I don’t see that as having anything to do with me, per se, but to the extent that there’s a broader story there. I think it’s valuable that we continue to make progress on that front.

Blade: So no Russian officials refused or expressed any reluctance to negotiate with you because of your sexual orientation?

Baer: I have not had any experience where they have refused to engage with me. For some people, whether Russian or otherwise, I’m the first ambassador from the United States that they’ve known was gay and they have to work with. I guess one of the advantages of being the U.S. ambassador in a multi-lateral institution is that it’s pretty hard to be effective and not work with the U.S. ambassador — one way or the other. Just like being gay, working with the U.S. ambassador is not a choice, and I’m ready to work with all of them. And I certainly go into it giving everybody the benefit of the doubt that it isn’t an issue because it shouldn’t be an issue.

Blade: You said they haven’t refused, but have they expressed any reluctance to work with you because of your sexual orientation?

Baer: Not to me. Not to me. If they have, they’ve kept it from me.

Blade: Let’s get back to the bigger picture. Regarding Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Ukraine, what impact do you think it’ll have on the situation?

Baer: I think the secretary has actually come and has already arrived in Paris, and will meet with [Russian] Foreign Minister [Sergey] Lavrov in Paris tomorrow. But he spent today in Kiev. I think everybody recognizes that the people of Ukraine have a new temporary government. An election’s declared for May 25. It’s usually important that there is strong support for free and fair elections, and a free and fair campaign environment. Everybody is rightfully focused on the security crisis in Crimea, and also in the rest of the country, there’s a lot of work to do.

And I think the people of Ukraine need to be supported in their efforts to build a prosperous, free, democratic Ukraine. And that’s going to take a lot of support from the international community, and I think Secretary Kerry is going to demonstrate our support for the transition government that is there until the election and our willingness and readiness to help support them in their efforts to build a free, democratic Ukraine.

Blade: How is Kerry being there having an impact as opposed to monitoring the situation from overseas?

Baer: Well, I think, certainly there’s a diplomatic value to it in terms of the conversations that you have, and, of course, it also sends a signal. So if being there sends a signal that the depth of the U.S. commitment and our engagement with the government, I think that signal is an important one to send, particularly at a moment like this.

Blade: What about sanctions? A number of European countries seem reluctant to impose sanctions on Russia. What actually can this administration do to convince its NATO allies and trading partners to get on the program for sanctions with real teeth against Russia?

Baer: Oh, I think the president and Secretary Kerry have had a number of conversations over the last 72 hours and 96 hours with allies and partners in Europe, and I think although the EU has its own function, and we have ours, etc., I think there’s a lot of strong cooperation right now on ways to respond to Russia’s illegal actions…I think there is strong cooperation between the U.S. and the E.U. and individual member states in the E.U. making clear that the Russian incursion and military presence is unacceptable and that they need to go back to their bases, and that it’s up to President Putin to do the right thing and de-escalate the situation.

Blade: Do you see that co-operation extending to an agreement on sanctions with Europe with regard to Russia?

Baer: Like I said, the secretary and president are working very hard to keep our allies and partners appraised of our steps, and to coordinate those. I think those conversations are ongoing, and I think that that strong cooperation will continue.

Blade: What do you think Putin is trying to accomplishment with this incursion? Restoration of the Soviet Union?

Baer: I don’t know. That’s a question for President Putin. I don’t know what he’s trying to accomplish, but certainly the steps that he’s taking are not contributing to stability in the region, to the future of a strong Ukraine, which Russia has everything to gain from as a close neighbor. Russia and Ukraine are going to have a relationship determined by geography if not by partnership, and so Russia has everything to gain from a strong Ukraine. There’s not an either-or choice, and the actions that Mr. Putin have taken are a violation of international law, they’re a violation of many commitments the Russian Federation has made, including here at the OSCE with respect to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of participating states. And they’re a violation of reason, and they are not in Russia’s interest, and certainly not in Ukraine’s.

Blade: What’s your reaction to today’s news that Putin said he sees no reason for Russian forces to intervene in eastern Ukraine at the moment but that Russia “reserves the right to use all means at our disposal to protect” Russian speakers if they are in danger?

Baer: I think I reject the rationale that has been offered for the military incursion and invasion so far, and there’s no defensible rationale for further movement. The right direction for the troops to move is not further, but back to their bases.

Blade: Do you think that comment is troubling?

Baer: Like I said, I think there’s no good rationale for the Russian Federation to have its troops on Ukrainian soil.

Blade: Do you see any scenario in which this crisis will escalate into military engagement involving the United States?

Baer: Nobody wants an escalation into war, so all of our efforts are focused on de-escalating the situation through direct diplomatic engagement and the deployment of an international monitoring force either through the OSCE or the UN. They’re other ways to approach this, but we’re certainly working around the clock to the head in that direction.

Blade: Is it safe to say military engagement is off the table?

Baer: That’s not a question for me.

Daniel Baer, State Department, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, gay news, Washington Blade, Brian Walsh

U.S. ambassador for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Daniel Baer with partner Brian Walsh. (Image public domain)

Blade: Let’s get back to some personal stuff. How is the situation with Brian since you’ve moved to Vienna and since the start of his crisis?

Baer: I get to spend far less time with Brian, but other than that it hasn’t changed anything. We’re settling well, and he’s incredibly supportive.

Blade: Do you have any anecdotes about any activities you too had engaged in since you’ve moved to Vienna?

Baer: Well, it’s been a big change because it’s a new country and a new job. And we’ve been skiing in Austria, and that was fun. Being a diplomat overseas is very different from working in the State Department. One of the advantages being here in this post is you have 56 other ambassadorial colleagues and there’s an interesting and diverse group of people to get to know.

We’re settling into that world, and the whole time, we’re very, very much aware of the fact that this is a temporary arrangement. We’re trying to make the most of it. Enjoy the hard work, enjoy the fun and cool parts of the job.

Blade: Let’s get back to Russia. How do you evaluate how Russia handled the Olympics?

Baer: I think we’re all glad that the Olympics came off without any security incidents, etc. I think, as everyone knows, there was a great deal of investment of resources and political attention in the Olympics, and I was proud of U.S. athletes.

Blade: There were reports that were some arrests of demonstrators, including those protesting about LGBT rights. Were you aware of that and do you think they were cause for concern?

Baer: Yes. It’s always of concern when there are arrests of people protesting. In the Russian Federation, unfortunately, it’s not extraordinary. And there were arrests this past weekend of protesters who were protesting Russia’s invasion. Several hundred people were detained, I believe. I should check the reports. And there was a sentence last week of protesters, people who protested in the Red Square, protests in 2012. So, Russia’s recent record on freedom of expression and freedom of association and assembly is not encouraging.

Blade: Russia has passed anti-gay laws that were criticized by the international community. Now that the Olympics are over, what is going to happen to LGBT people in Russia?

Baer: I think there are two things. One, we will continue to call out the so-called gay propaganda law and the other laws that have either been proposed or enacted along with it. Obviously, they’re inconsistent with internationally recognized human rights, and that such laws not only affect gay people, but the broader population, and also have a teaching effect, which creates a climate in which the rights of LGBT rights are most likely to be disrespected. We’ve seen an uptick in the kind of vigilante beatings of LGBT people posted online. The climate of intolerance that such laws encourage is something to be deeply concerned about.

That said, I think one of the things that it’s really important to focus on is that it’s not gay people who have their rights trampled in the Russian Federation. Minorities, migrants from neighboring countries that represent minority populations suffer enormous discrimination, and obviously any Russian citizen has a hard time expressing political views that are critical of the government or joining a peaceful protest. The anti-gay laws are actually happening against a much broader recession on human rights more generally.

Blade: And what do you think is the best way forward to address that by the international community?

Baer: I think first of all, I always start from the premise that lasting change comes from within, so to continue to shine a light on human defenders and advocates who are making the case for change where they are — both LGBT, and more broadly, the human rights defenders and activists — and to call out the cases when their rights are violated. I think making the case to the Russian population more broadly as well to Russian leadership that a strong stable Russian Federation does not come from doubling down on restrictions it comes from democratic progress, including people who have respect for human rights. You have to make the political argument, and you have to call out the failures, and to continue to press, and know that doors will open where you don’t expect them, and you need to be ready to walk through them.

By calling out people’s situations, you remind them that they’re not alone and that they have people who are with them, and, over the long run, you push and you push and you push.

There’s a strong civil society that understands all of the reasons why the backsliding on human rights more broadly is bad for business, and all around it’s bad for Russia, and that trajectory needs to be turned around.

Blade: What about upcoming plans for you and Brian?

Baer: We’re getting married this summer. We haven’t quite figured that out yet because same-sex marriage isn’t legal in Austria, but we’re working on that. But in August.

Daniel Baer, State Department, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, gay news, Washington Blade, Brian Walsh

U.S. ambassador for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Daniel Baer with partner Brian Walsh. (Image public domain)


Carney quiet on St. Patrick’s Day parades, trans military service

Jay Carney, White House, gay news, Washington Blade

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney has no comment on boycotts of St. Patrick Day’s parades or transgender military service. (Washington Blade file photo by Damien Salas)

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney had no comment Monday about two issues in the news: decisions to boycott St. Patrick’s Day parades over LGBT exclusion and lifting the ban on openly transgender service members in the U.S. military.

Carney said he hasn’t spoken to President Obama about boycotts of parades in New York City and Boston — including by the mayors of those cities — as a result of organizers prohibiting LGBT contingents from identifying themselves as such during the march.

“The president does oppose discrimination, but I haven’t talked to him about boycotts of those parades,” Carney said.

The Blade also asked Carney why President Obama would act to freeze the assets of Russian officials connected to the country’s military incursion into Ukraine, but not take the same step for lawmakers responsible for Russia’s anti-gay laws. Carney said the actions taken against Russia with respect to Ukraine “are focused on the very real violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity that we’ve been talking about.”

As reported by the Blade, Yelena Mizulina, a sponsor of the controversial anti-gay propaganda law and state Duma deputy, was actually among those whose assets were frozen. The White House deferred comment on whether her authorship of the law contributed to Obama’s decision to freeze her assets to the Treasury Department. [UPDATE: A Treasury Department official said Mizulina's connection to the anti-gay law didn't contribute to Obama's decision to freeze her assets and she was sanctioned "because of her status as a senior Russian government official."]

With regard to a recent Palm Center report saying there’s “no compelling medical reason” to continue prohibition of openly transgender service members in the military, Carney deferred to the Defense Department. Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen, a Pentagon spokesperson, said ”there are no plans to change the department’s policy and regulations which do not allow transgender individuals to serve in the U.S. military.”

The brief transcript of the Q&A follows:

Washington Blade: Lots to talk about. On St. Patrick’s Day, a number of beer companies announced they wouldn’t sponsor parades in New York City and Boston as Mayors Bill de Blasio and Marty Walsh announced they would boycott the ones in their own cities because LGBT contingents were allowed to identify themselves as such during the march. Does the president believe those boycotts were the right decision?

Jay Carney: I haven’t spoken to the president about those boycotts.

Blade: You said before the president opposes discrimination. Wouldn’t that principle apply to those parades here?

Carney: The president does oppose discrimination, but I haven’t talked to him about boycotts of those parades.

Blade: On Russia. If the president will impose sanctions on officials connected to military incursion into Ukraine, why hasn’t he done the same for the officials responsible for the anti-gay laws in Russia, say by freezing their assets under the Magnitsky Act?

Carney: We’ve made our views abundantly clear about that kind of legislation and about efforts to undermine the civil rights of Russian citizens, but the actions we’ve taken today and the sanctions that have been announced today are focused on the very real violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity that we’ve been talking about.

Blade: And lastly, the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” enabled openly gay people to serve in the U.S. military, but transgender people are still barred because of medical regulations. Last week, an independent commission led by a former U.S. surgeon general issued a report saying there’s no compelling medical reason to [continue] this ban and called on the Commander-in-Chief to lift it. Will the president direct the Pentagon to lift the ban on transgender service?

Carney: I don’t have anything on that. I’ll have to direct you to the Pentagon at this point.


Graham fires back at opponent, files ethics complaint

Jim Graham, gay news, gay politics dc, homeless youth, complaint

D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) filed a complaint with the city’s Inspector General against his Democratic opponent Brianne Nadeau. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Gay D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) added fuel to the fire in the hotly contested Ward 1 D.C. Council race this week when he revealed he filed a complaint last Friday with the city’s Inspector General against his Democratic opponent Brianne Nadeau.

The complaint, which Graham released to the Washington Post, accuses Nadeau of underreporting her income in 2009 to enable her to be eligible for an interest-free city loan to purchase a condominium under a city program for low- to moderate-income residents.

Nadeau released a statement saying she did “everything 100 percent by the book” to obtain her loan and accused Graham of “abusing his office and spending taxpayer dollars to attack a political opponent.”

The Ward 1 Council seat for which Graham and Nadeau are competing is one of six Council seats up for grabs in the city’s April 1 Democratic primary. The other seats in contention are the Council Chair position, one of two at-large seats, and the seats representing Wards 3, 5 and 6.

Also on the primary ballot is D.C. congressional Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), who’s running unopposed; and candidates running for the shadow U.S. Senate and House seats.

Graham, who has held the Ward 1 Council seat for 16 years, is running for a fifth term in office in what observers say is his toughest re-election bid to date.

In his complaint, Graham charges that he observed what he believes to be “serious irregularities” and “perhaps fraud” in a loan application filed by Nadeau in which she allegedly failed to report that her income had increased from the time she initially applied for the loan two years earlier.

Under rules for the Home Purchase Assistance Program, known as HPAP, Nadeau would have been eligible for a loan of $33,050 to cover her down payment and closing costs if her income was below $50,000, which Graham says it was when she first applied for the loan in 2007.

But according to Graham, Nadeau’s income rose to over $50,000 by 2009, when she received the loan while employed by the office of U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.). Under the HPAP program, Nadeau’s higher income meant she was only eligible for a loan of $14,450. The fact that she received the higher amount, according to Graham, raises serious questions about her ethical conduct as well as to whether she committed fraud.

Tom Fazzini, Nadeau’s campaign manager, told the Blade on Wednesday that Nadeau fully reported all of her income, including the income above $50,000, to the Greater Washington Urban League, which the city had retained to administer the HPAP program. He said Graham took out of context an email Nadeau sent to the Urban League saying her income had not changed since 2007.

When asked by the Post to explain a possible discrepancy in her reported income in the email in support of her loan application, “Nadeau said that her base salary had not changed but that she had received bonuses that increased her pay,” the Post reported.

“I have made all the documentation publicly available, which clearly shows that Jim Graham is distorting communications I had with him when I sought his help as a constituent five year ago,” Nadeau said in her statement.

“This is the same corrupt behavior that caused the D.C. Council to reprimand him and strip him of responsibility,” she said.

Fazzini said HPAP officials initially approved her loan at the higher amount when her income was at a lower level but cancelled the loan contract when she was unable to complete the purchase of the condo within a one-year deadline. He said the purchase couldn’t be completed because the condo building was still under construction and the delay in its completion prevented Nadeau from making the purchase at that time.

According to Fazzini, HPAP officials may have had the discretion to allow Nadeau to obtain the higher loan amount under a new contract the following year, even though her income rose above the $50,000 limit, because the missed deadline for the earlier contract was the fault of the condo developer rather than Nadeau’s.

Graham’s allegation against Nadeau follows a barrage of attacks against him by Nadeau during the past two months over a vote last year by the City Council to reprimand Graham on an ethics violation. The Council’s action, in the form of an 11 to 2 vote, stemmed from allegations that he improperly intervened in the approval process for a Metro development project.

Graham has said he acted in what he believed to be in the best interests of his constituents by arguing against one of two developers seeking the Metro contract on grounds that the developer was unqualified to do the work.


Court expects to strike down Ohio ban on marriage recognition

Regnerus, gay juror, National LGBT Bar Association, Gay News, Washington Blade

(Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons).

A federal court judge in Ohio announced Friday he expects to deliver a ruling in the coming days striking down a portion of state law barring recognition of same-sex marriages performed out-of-state.

According to the court docket for Henry v. Wymyslo, U.S. District Judge Timothy Black said following arguments he’ll render the decision as a result of a lawsuit where plaintiff same-sex couples are seeking recognition of their marriages for the purposes of having both parents’ names on the birth certificates of children.

“A written decision will issue on or before 4/14/14,” the docket says. “The Court anticipates striking down as unconstitutional under all circumstances Ohio’s bans on recognizing legal same-sex marriages from other states.”

It’s the same judge who ruled in the case of Obergefell v. Wymyslo that Ohio must recognize out-of-state same-sex marriages for the purposes of death certificates. That case is currently pending before the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals along with marriage equality lawsuits in the three other states within the judicial circuit.

Christine Link, executive order of ACLU of Ohio, praised Black for making the announcement, saying it “represents another step forward in the march toward full LGBT equality in Ohio.”

“We are committed to achieving LGBT equality in all aspects of life, including employment, housing, and marriage,” Link said. “While this is by no means the final court to weigh in on this question in Ohio, this announcement brings us one step closer to the promise of full rights and freedoms for all Ohioans.”


Obama admin to recognize Utah same-sex marriages

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U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced on Friday the federal government will recognize Utah same-sex marriages (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key).

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced on Friday that the federal government will recognize the same-sex marriages performed in Utah despite the state’s decision not to recognize them in the aftermath of a stay from the U.S. Supreme Court.

In a video announcement, Holder says the federal government will recognize the marriages of the more than 1,300 couples estimated to have wed in the state, even though Utah Gov. Gary Herbert indicated a letter to staff earlier this week the state won’t recognize the unions pending appeal.

“In the meantime, I am confirming today that, for purposes of federal law, these marriages will be recognized as lawful and considered eligible for all relevant federal benefits on the same terms as other same-sex marriages,” Holder says. “These families should not be asked to endure uncertainty regarding their status as the litigation unfolds.”

In the coming weeks, Holder pledges to coordinate with other branches of the federal government to ensure federal benefits are flowing to same-sex couples who wed in Utah.

“In the days ahead, we will continue to coordinate across the federal government to ensure the timely provision of every federal benefit to which Utah couples and couples throughout the country are entitled – regardless of whether they in same-sex or opposite-sex marriages,” Holder says. “And we will continue to provide additional information as soon as it becomes available.”

Same-sex couples began marrying in Utah starting on Dec. 20 after a ruling from U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby striking down the state’s ban on same-sex marriages, known as Amendment 3. After unsuccessful attempts with the district court and the U.S. Tenth Circuit, Herbert and Attorney General Sean Reyes obtained a stay on the marriages from the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday.

The next day, Utah announced it wouldn’t recognize the same-sex marriages that were already performed in the state prior to the stay. However, there was still a question about whether the federal government would recognize the unions. In a letter to Holder on Thursday, Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin said there’s “no legal reason” why the marriages shouldn’t be recognized and Utah did so out of political reasons.

In a statement following the announcement, Griffin praised Holder for deciding the Utah same-sex marriages should be recognized.

“These 1,360 Utah couples are married, plain and simple, and they should be afforded every right and responsibility of marriage,” Griffin said. “Attorney General Eric Holder has once again shown the kind of leadership that earns you a spot in the history books. This is only the beginning of this fight, and this work continues until marriage equality returns to Utah for good, and full equality reaches every American in all 50 states.”

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said during his routine news conference on Friday that President Obama “welcomes” the decision by the Justice Department.

“I can tell you the president welcomes the attorney general’s determination that the federal government, for purposes of federal law will recognize the same-sex marriages that were lawfully performed in Utah before a stay was issued,” Carney said.

Asked by the Blade about the extent to which Obama was involved in reaching the decision, Carney said he doesn’t believe the president spoke with Holder about the matter prior to the resolution.

“The president simply welcomes the decision,” Carney said. “This is action and determination taken by, and done by, the attorney general. The president obviously has expressed his views publicly about same-sex marriage, and the need for equal rights for all Americans, so I don’t know, but I don’t think they discussed this specific issue. This was a determination by the AG.”

But anti-gay advocates aren’t pleased the decision and are saying it’s an affront to Utah’s right to regulate marriage.

Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, said the decision is “an effort to make law in the breach and shows contempt for the states, the federal courts, and Congress.”

“It only adds to the administrative chaos by flouting Utah’s marriage law and is in contrast to the U.S. Supreme Court’s cautious approach in granting a stay in the case,” Perkins said. “The Department of Justice’s announcement is doing the very thing which the Supreme Court condemned in the U.S. vs. Windsor decision — ‘creating two contradictory marriage regimes within the same State.’”

The Utah attorney general isn’t expressing any dissatisfaction with the decision from the federal government. Ryan Bruckman, a Reyes spokesperson, said the state has no objections.

“The statement put forth by Attorney General Eric Holder is consistent with previous statements from the Utah Attorney General’s Office.” Bruckman said.

The Obama administration is able to recognize the same-sex marriages in Utah in the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in June striking down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act. Since ruling against the law, which prohibited federal recognition of same-sex marriage, the Obama administration has been implementing federal benefits for same-sex unions.

Read Holder’s full remarks here:

Last June, the Supreme Court issued a landmark decision – in United States v. Windsor – holding that Americans in same-sex marriages are entitled to equal protection and equal treatment under the law. This ruling marked a historic step toward equality for all American families. And since the day it was handed down, the Department of Justice has been working tirelessly to implement it in both letter and spirit – moving to extend — federal benefits to married same-sex couples as swiftly and smoothly as possible.

Recently, an administrative step by the Court has cast doubt on same-sex marriages that have been performed in the state of Utah. And the governor has announced that the state will not recognize these marriages pending additional Court action.

In the meantime, I am confirming today that, for purposes of federal law, these marriages will be recognized as lawful and considered eligible for all relevant federal benefits on the same terms as other same-sex marriages. These families should not be asked to endure uncertainty regarding their status as the litigation unfolds. In the days ahead, we will continue to coordinate across the federal government to ensure the timely provision of every federal benefit to which Utah couples and couples throughout the country are entitled – regardless of whether they in same-sex or opposite-sex marriages. And we will continue to provide additional information as soon as it becomes available.


Chilean man attacked during alleged anti-gay hate crime dies

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Chilean LGBT rights advocates maintain hate crimes remain a serious problem in the country nearly two years after Daniel Zamudio’s death. (Photos courtesy of Fundación Daniel Zamudio.)

A Chilean LGBT advocacy group has urged authorities to prosecute a man accused of killing a business owner under the country’s hate crimes law.

Guillermo Aguilera Guerrero, 18, on Jan. 6 allegedly slashed Alejandro Alfredo Bustamante Godoy’s throat with a kitchen knife during an attack inside his home in the coastal city of Valparaíso. The Movement for Homosexual Integration and Liberation (Movilh) said Aguilera also stabbed Bustamante, 59, in his head and leg during the incident.

Bustamante, who owned a local fast food restaurant, remained in critical condition in a Valparaíso hospital until he passed away on Jan. 15.

Bustamante’s relatives and Movilh lawyers on Friday asked a Valparaíso court to charge Aguilera under Chile’s LGBT-inclusive hate crimes law. The group said Aguilera had previously taunted Bustamante because of his sexual orientation — Movilh said in a press release that an anti-gay slur was written onto the front of Bustamante’s restaurant on the same day Aguilera allegedly attacked him.

“[Aguilera] always had a bad disposition when he came to buy something at my brother’s business,” said Bustamante’s daughter in a Movilh press release.

President Sebastián Piñera in 2012 signed into law a hate crimes and anti-discrimination bill that includes both sexual orientation and gender identity and expression. The statute is named in honor of Daniel Zamudio, a 24-year-old man whom a group of self-described neo-Nazis beat to death inside a park in Santiago, the country’s capital, earlier that year because he was gay.

The convicted mastermind of the attack against Zamudio last October received a life sentence for the crime.

Movilh and other gay rights advocates maintain anti-LGBT violence remains a serious problem in the South American country in spite of the law that Piñera signed.

Willian Villanueva, a small-time drug dealer, reportedly said he was going to “kill a faggot” before he allegedly shot Arturo Lombo to death with a shotgun in the Santiago suburb of Puente Alto on Dec. 26.

Doctors last June amputated Esteban Navarro Quinchevil’s leg after a group of six men attacked him in a Santiago suburb of Peñalolén because he is gay. A transgender teenager from the coastal city of Cartagena the month before lost an eye during what Movilh maintains was an anti-trans attack.

Movilh said two victims of anti-gay attacks that took place in recent weeks remain in critical condition in Santiago hospitals.

“We are tremendously concerned, affected, saddened and upset by what is happening,” said Movilh after Bustamante died.

President-elect Michelle Bachelet said she supports efforts to strengthen Chile’s hate crimes and anti-discrimination law.


Northern Cyprus decriminalizes homosexuality

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Northern Cyprus on Jan. 27 became the last jurisdiction in Europe to decriminalize homosexuality. (Photo by essygie via Creative Commons)

Northern Cyprus on Monday became the last European jurisdiction to decriminalize homosexuality.

Parliamentarians in the disputed area — known formally as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus — approved the repeal of the law that criminalized consensual same-sex acts between adult men by a 28-1 vote margin. Reports indicate that 21 lawmakers abstained from the vote.

Those convicted under the colonial-era statute faced up to five years in prison.

LGBT rights advocates on the divided island in the eastern Mediterranean Sea applauded the vote.

“Despite the timid result of just 28 votes in favor, 21 abstentions and one vote against, today is the day when homosexuality has ceased to be considered a criminal offense for any Cypriot,” said Accept-LGBT Cyprus, an advocacy group based in Nicosia, the Cypriot capital. “Accept-LGBT Cyprus welcomes this development with great satisfaction, acknowledging its importance with regards to the progress of the human rights of the LGBT people throughout Cyprus and for all Cypriots.”

Paulo Côrte-Real, co-chair of the ILGA-Europe Executive Board, also welcomed the vote.

“We welcome today’s vote and can finally call Europe a continent completely free from laws criminalizing homosexuality,” he said.

Northern Cyprus, gay news, Washington Blade

Northern Cyprus. (Image by Abser; courtesy Wikimedia)

Turkish troops invaded Northern Cyprus in 1974 after a military coup toppled then-Cypriot President Makarios III. The region declared its independence in 1983.

Turkey is the only country that recognizes Northern Cyprus as an independent country.


Spencer Perry continues moms’ tradition of activism

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Spencer Perry is a student at George Washington University and the son of Prop 8′s plaintiffs. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Spencer Perry takes after his parents.

The 19-year-old son of the lesbian plaintiff couple in the case against California’s Proposition 8 is straight, but as a freshman at George Washington University, he’s taken leadership roles in the school’s gay-straight alliance and LGBT graduate program.

In an interview with the Washington Blade at GWU’s Duques Hall, Spencer says he would pursue LGBT activism even if his parents — Kris Perry and Sandy Stier — weren’t plaintiffs in the case that restored marriage equality to California, because of his experience in youth government programs during his adolescence.

“Sometimes I got the opportunity to travel across the country and meet others with different views on LGBT rights,” Perry says. “More often than not, I found myself even just in conversations casually, advocating for my parents and advocating for the family that we have and families just like theirs. I really felt proud of myself doing that. It was a good feeling and I wanted to keep pursuing it.”

After growing up in Berkeley, Calif., which he calls a “bubble” in terms of support for LGBT people, Spencer enrolled at GWU, where he double majors in political science and economics. Shortly after enrolling, he was elected freshman representative for Allied in Pride and was appointed as a board member of GWU’s LGBT Health Graduate Certificate Program.

He moved to D.C., where he lives on campus at Thurston Hall, at the same time his parents relocated to the area after Kris Perry accepted a job as executive director of the First Five Years Fund, a non-profit that seeks early childhood education for disadvantaged children.

Spencer says his focus at Allied in Pride is getting the culture at GWU “to be more embracing of LGBT individuals” on campus.

The next big task? Preparing for the second annual amateur drag show set for Feb. 13 called “Allied in Greek” — a collaboration between the Allied in Pride and Greek life in which members of GWU’s fraternities and sororities dress up in drag. The goal for the event, which will take place at 7 p.m. at Lisner Auditorium, is to show support for fellow LGBT students and benefit The Trevor Project, which seeks to help LGBT youth considering suicide.

Nick Gumas, who’s gay and president of Allied in Pride, praised Perry.

“Spencer has been an important part of Allied in Pride since he joined at the start of last semester,” Gumas says. “He always brings his creativity and positive energy to all of our meetings and events. It has been an absolute pleasure getting to know Spencer and I know he is going to continue to do great things in the future.”

Spencer knows firsthand the feeling of having the rights of his family taken from him. On Election Day in 2008 — the same day that President Obama was elected to office — voters in California approved Prop 8, rescinding the marriage rights that gay couples already enjoyed in the state.

“Anyone will tell you who lived in California and is part of the LGBT community, that was a very embarrassing moment because No. 1, we elected a phenomenal president, the first black president, which was a terrific feeling to be part of that, but at the same time, Proposition 8 was passed, too,” he says.

The day the California Supreme Court upheld Prop 8, Kris Perry and Stier — along with Los Angeles couple Paul Katami and Jeffrey Zarrillo — filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking to overturn Prop 8. They were represented by the legal dream team of Ted Olson and David Boies, who were hired by the then newly formed American Foundation for Equal Rights.

The lawsuit wasn’t filed before Kris Perry, his birth mother, and Stier, who became his stepmother after a previous relationship Kris Perry had with another woman, asked their four children, including Spencer and his twin brother Elliott, whether it was OK.

“I remember one day after school right before dinner around that time, Kris and Sandy sat us down,” Spencer says. “They said, ‘Listen, we’ve been approached by this group called AFER and they’re interested in pursuing a lawsuit to overturn Proposition 8 as unconstitutional. We’re very interested, but we want to make a collective decision as a family. So they asked us if Elliott and I would be OK with that.”

It didn’t take much to convince Spencer to be willing to come on board.

“Elliott and I jumped at the opportunity,” he says.

At first, Spencer says his parents “did their darndest to keep us kind of protected” from the public interest surrounding the case. But as the case proceeded through the district court, to the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and to the Supreme Court, and Spencer grew older and more interested in public affairs, he was able to speak out and talked to media outlets.

“I really did enjoy it,” Spencer says. “Not to be someone who’s devoted to attention, but it really was a good feeling to voice my opinion and to make sure people understand there are kids who have gay parents all across America.”

In addition to speaking at various news conferences, Spencer gave interviews to the San Francisco Chronicle, People magazine, the Los Angeles Times and New York Times, among others

One of the views against same-sex marriage that Spencer had to address — and one that he was living proof to counter — was the often-used argument that children of same-sex parents don’t fare as well as those raised by their opposite-sex biological parents.

“I’ve heard the argument a million and one times, but if anything, my gut reaction is that it’s kind of hurtful to hear that because my parents love each other, I’m worse off for it,” Spencer says. “I can’t tell you how loving and proud, and just absolutely supportive, my parents are of me. And how much better I am for them being my parents.”

After years of litigation, the case ended up before the U.S. Supreme Court, where justices ruled 5-4 that proponents of Prop 8 had no standing to defend the lawsuit, leaving in place a U.S. District Court decision from Judge Vaughn Walker that overturned the amendment on the grounds that it violated the equal protection rights of gay couples in the state.

But before that momentous decision, the justices scheduled oral arguments on March 26 to hear both sides in the case. Although Spencer wasn’t initially expecting to attend that day, an AFER board member was kind enough to give seats to allow him and Elliott to attend.

Spencer found himself sweating and uncomfortable as he observed Olson, anti-gay attorney Charles Cooper and Solicitor General Donald Verrilli makes their arguments before the justices, but for reasons other than the historic nature of the occasion.

“I caught food poisoning the night before,” Spencer says. “I never had food poisoning before, so I didn’t know what was happening, but I was just clenching the arms in my chair and sweating a little bit. I thought it was just nerves or something.”

Still, Spencer says he was inspired by what he saw, especially the comments from U.S. Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy.

“It was absolutely fantastic, especially listening to Justice Kennedy, it really touched my heart when he spoke about the kids who were involved in these cases, the children who belong to these families and feel disenfranchised by their government,” Spencer says.

Decision day came on June 28. This time Spencer wasn’t in D.C. — even though his parents were there to celebrate along with Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin on the steps of the Supreme Court — and instead was in North Carolina with other students involved in the debate team.

“The entire period when I was doing that, I was checking my phone, checking my Twitter, Instagram, everything I could get my hands on, every media outlet if it was going to happen,” Spencer says.

Despite the ups and downs as the case went through the courts, Spencer says the experience as a whole was positive and brought him closer to his family.

“Looking back on it, I feel immensely proud of my moms,” Spencer says. ”I never felt closer to them than when I saw Kris and Sandy testifying in front of a federal judge. Even now, I still feel proud to know that they changed the lives of so many people for the better.”

Peter Rosenstein, a gay Democratic activist and friend of Spencer’s, calls him “a great kid” and says the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree in terms of the pursuit of activism shared by his parents.

“I enjoyed his response when I was first introduced to him and asked if he was gay or straight,” Rosenstein says. “He said, ‘straight, my mom’s didn’t rub off on me’ to which I responded my parents didn’t rub off on me either. I think his being at GW will be great for the school and great for all the kids that meet him.”

What should the national LGBT movement focus on next? Spencer says it should be winning state battles on marriage equality throughout the country, so when the issue returns to the Supreme Court, justices will make a favorable ruling for gay couples throughout the country.

“There’s going to be political ideology in any ruling, and there’s going to be influence in public opinion, but I think the way that public opinion has absolutely shifted in the past four years in support of marriage equality and LGBT rights, it really does speak to the fact that there’s an opportunity for a national precedent on marriage equality in the Supreme Court,” Spencer says.


Gay Alabama widower: State saw relationship as ‘nothing’

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David Fancher (on left) and Paul Hard at their wedding. (Photo courtesy of the Southern Poverty Law Center)

Charles David Fancher proposed to Paul Hard three months after the Montgomery, Ala., men’s first date on July 4, 2004.

Hard, 55, accepted Fancher’s proposal six years later – and they exchanged vows on a Massachusetts beach on May 20, 2011. Fancher, 53, died less than three months later when his car crashed into a UPS truck that had overturned on an Alabama interstate.

Hard filed a wrongful death lawsuit, but he would not be able to receive the majority of any settlement money because the state does not recognize him as a surviving spouse.

“At every turn and every juncture, particularly following his death, I was treated as though this relationship was nothing,” Hard told the Washington Blade on Thursday after the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a federal lawsuit challenging Alabama’s gay nuptials ban that prohibits the state from recognizing same-sex marriages legally performed in other jurisdictions.

Alabama voters in 2006 by an 81-19 vote margin approved a state constitutional amendment that defines marriage as between a man and a woman. Out state Rep. Patricia Todd (D-Birmingham), who married her long-time partner in Massachusetts in 2013, last November introduced a bill that sought to repeal the state’s gay nuptials ban.

Hard said hospital personnel initially refused to allow him to see his husband, even though he had he brought the couple’s marriage license and other legal documents with him. An attendant roughly half an hour later told Hard that Fancher had died.

The director of the funeral home that buried Fancher said on his death certificate that he was “never married” and did not have a surviving spouse. Hard said the funeral home director refused to change the information on the document.

“I was seen to have been fully enough his husband to pay the bills and wrap-up his estate, but the state of Alabama refuses to acknowledges his relationship,” Hard told the Blade.

He added “no one deserves to through what I had to go through” after Fancher’s death.

“No one should have to suffer indignity at the hands of the state at the worst extremity of human existence when you lose someone,” said Hard. “No one would ever suggest to a widow and their church or their community organization that they should not pursue their rights as a widow. And I’m no different than anybody like that.”

Hard, who grew up as a Southern Baptist as his late husband did, told the Blade his family is overall supportive of his decision to seek recognition of his marriage in Alabama.

“Some of them don’t support gay marriage, but they have looked at me and simply said David has the right to leave to whomever he chose his estate,” he said.

Sam Wolfe, senior staff attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center, said as he and Hard spoke to the Blade it was time to file the lawsuit in the wake of last June’s landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that found a portion of the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional and other recent rulings.

“Alabamians can’t wait forever and there is a bit of a wave going on in the country both on the topic of marriage and other issues relating to equality and basic dignity for LGBT people,” said Wolfe. “There are real families here like Paul and his family that are affected negatively, that are harmed by this law. We have the legal arguments at our disposal and we’re taking it to federal court to knock down this law.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center filed its lawsuit one day after a federal judge ruled Kentucky must recognize same-sex marriages legally performed in other states.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Missouri on Wednesday filed a lawsuit in state court on behalf of eight same-sex couples who are seeking recognition of their out-of-state marriages. The Forum for Equality Louisiana on the same day filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of four gay and lesbian couples who legally exchanged vows outside the Pelican State.

A judge last month ruled Oklahoma’s gay marriage ban is unconstitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court less than two weeks earlier blocked any future same-sex marriages from taking place in Utah pending the outcome of an appeal of U.S. District Court Judge Robert Shelby’s ruling late last year that struck down the state’s gay nuptials ban.

Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto earlier this week announced she will no longer defend her state’s same-sex marriage ban in court.

Same-sex couples in Florida, Virginia, Pennsylvania and other states have filed marriage lawsuits since the U.S. Supreme Court’s DOMA ruling. A measure that would ban same-sex marriage in the Hoosier State will not go before voters this year after the Indiana Senate adjourned on Thursday without considering any amendments on the proposal.

Attorney General Eric Holder’s Feb. 10 announcement that the Justice Department will now recognize same-sex marriages in civil and criminal cases and extend full benefits to gay spouses of police officers and other public safety personnel applies to Alabama and the 31 other states that have yet to extend marriage rights to gays and lesbians. U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) on Thursday introduced a bill that would ban the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages in states that ban gay nuptials.

Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley and Attorney General Luther Strange are among those named as defendants in the Southern Poverty Law Center’s lawsuit.

Bentley’s spokesperson, Jennifer Ardis, told the Associated Press on Thursday the governor believes in the “traditional definition of marriage as between a man and a woman.” Ardis said Bentley would defend the state’s gay nuptials ban in court.

Wolfe told the Blade there have been “a lot” of positive reactions to the lawsuit. He said local officials have also said they plan to fight it “to the bitter end.”


Mitt Romney calls for veto of Arizona anti-gay bill

Former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has urged for the veto of the Arizona anti-gay bill (Blade file photo by Michael Key).

Former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has urged for the veto of the Arizona anti-gay bill (Blade file photo by Michael Key).

Former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has added his voice to the choir of voices calling for a veto of the controversial “turn away the gay” bill in Arizona.

Romney, who was governor of Massachusetts and the GOP presidential nominee in 2012, called on Gov. Jan Brewer to veto the SB 1062 via Twitter.

Romney isn’t the only major Republican to have voiced opposition to the measure, which critics say will enable Arizona businesses to refuse services to LGBT people. Both Republican senators representing the state in the U.S. Senate, Sens. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), have urged for a veto of the bill.

But Romney’s opposition to the measure is striking because he was known for holding anti-gay views and support for a U.S. constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage during his presidential campaign. Just last month, Romney said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” said it could be “generations” before we determine the impact of marriage equality on the nation.

Gregory Angelo, executive director of the National Log Cabin Republicans, commended Romney.

“Our interactions with Governor Romney always showed him to be a common-sense conservative, and his call on Governor Brewer to veto SB-1062 underscores what we knew all along,” Angelo said. “I hope liberals who chastised Log Cabin Republicans for endorsing him for President in 2012 take note.”

UPDATE: Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who competed against Romney for the Republican nomination in 2012, also affirmed via Twitter that he believes Brewer should veto the measure.