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BREAKING: Federal judge strikes down Oklahoma same-sex marriage ban

Oklahoma, gay news, Washington Blade

(Photo by Babymestizo; courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

A federal judge on Tuesday ruled Oklahoma’s same-sex marriage ban is unconstitutional.

U.S. District Judge Terence C. Kern of the Northern District of Oklahoma said the state constitutional amendment that says marriage “shall consist only of the union of one man and one woman” violates the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. Mary Bishop and Sharon Baldwin and Susan Barton and Gay Phillips challenged the ban shortly after Oklahoma voters approved it in 2004.

Tulsa County Court Clerk Sally Howe Smith and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder are named as defendants in the lawsuit.

“Judge Kern has come to the conclusion that so many have before him – that the fundamental equality of lesbian and gay couples is guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution,” said Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin. “With last year’s historic victories at the Supreme Court guiding the way, it is clear that we are on a path to full and equal citizenship for all lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans.”

Kern stayed his ruling pending an appeal.

“We are disappointed in the ruling,” said Tulsa County District Attorney Tim Harris. “We will need to review the decision and talk with our client, Tulsa County Court Clerk Sally Howe Smith, about appeal options.”

Gov. Mary Fallin said the “people of Oklahoma have spoken on this issue,” noting her state’s marriage amendment passed in 2004 with 75 percent support.

“I support the right of Oklahoma’s voters to govern themselves on this and other policy matters,” said Fallin in a statement. “I am disappointed in the judge’s ruling and troubled that the will of the people has once again been ignored by the federal government.”

Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt described Kern’s ruling as “a troubling decision.”

“As the Supreme Court recently noted in the Windsor case, it is up to the states to decide how to define marriage, not the federal government,” said Pruitt in a statement.

Eighteen states and D.C. have extended marriage rights to same-sex couples.

The U.S. Supreme Court earlier this month blocked any future gay nuptials from taking place in Utah pending the outcome of an appeal of U.S. District Court Judge Robert Shelby’s Dec. 20 ruling that struck down the state’s same-sex marriage ban.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert on Jan. 8 said his state would not recognize same-sex marriages performed during this period pending the outcome of his administration’s appeal of Shelby’s ruling.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder two days later announced the federal government will recognize the aforementioned unions. Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler and his counterparts in Maine and Washington subsequently announced their states will follow suit.

D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray said during a Gertrude Stein Democratic Club on Monday the nation’s capital should also recognize same-sex marriages performed in Utah. He said he would consult with D.C. Attorney General Irvin Nathan on the issue.

“Equality is not just for the coasts anymore,” said Griffin. “Today’s news from Oklahoma shows that time has come for fairness and dignity to reach every American in all 50 states.”

National Organization for Marriage President Brian Brown on Tuesday renewed his call for a federal constitutional amendment that would define marriage as between a man and a woman.

“The decision by U.S District Court Judge Terence Kern in Oklahoma is the latest in a string of examples of the dangers posed to state marriage laws when the avenue of debate is the federal court system,” he said in a statement. “We need firm legislative action to protect the rights of the states and their citizens to make their own determinations regarding the definition of marriage without interference from federal appointees either in the courts or within the executive branch.”

Pruitt conceded the U.S. Supreme Court will likely consider the constitutionality of state same-sex marriage bans. He noted Utah’s gay nuptial case is before the same federal appellate court is identical to that on which Kern ruled.

“The issue most likely will end up at the U.S. Supreme Court and the outcome will dictate whether Oklahoma’s constitutional provision will be upheld,” said Pruitt.


More than a dozen Russian LGBT rights advocates arrested

Anastasia Smirnova, Sochi, Olympics, Rayburn House Office Building, gay news, Washington Blade

Anastasia Smirnova (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Russian authorities on Friday arrested more than a dozen LGBT rights advocates hours before the opening ceremonies of the 2014 Winter Olympics.

Video from Moscow shows police arresting 10 LGBT activists–including two Swedish nationals–Red Square who held rainbow flags as they sung the Russian national anthem.

A source who remains in contact with activists in the Russian capital told the Washington Blade the arrests took place shortly before the opening ceremony began in Sochi. The advocates have been released, but the source said one of the activist’s cries was “heard outside of the police station” as officers beat him.

Anastasia Smirnova and a pregnant woman are among the four activists whom St. Petersburg authorities took into custody earlier on Friday. The activists were reportedly trying to take pictures of themselves holding a banner that read “discrimination is incompatible with the Olympic movement. Principle 6. Olympic charter” in reference to a campaign in support of adding sexual orientation to the Olympic charter before police took them into custody.

“Detention for a photo with a banner–isn’t it an amazing way to celebrate the opening of the games,” wrote Smirnova on her Facebook page while in custody at a St. Petersburg police station.

The arrests took place a day after U.S. Olympian David Pichler and Human Rights First staffers met with Smirnova, Russian LGBT Network Chair Igor Kochetkov and Maria Kozlovskaya of “Coming Out” in St. Petersburg.

David Pichler, Human Rights First, Russia, gay rights, Saint Petersburg, Sochi, Winter Olympics, gay news, Washington Blade

U.S. Olympian David Pichler and staffers with Human Rights First on Thursday met with Russian LGBT rights advocates in St. Petersburg. (Photo courtesy of Human Rights First)

“Having just met with Anastasia and her fellow activists yesterday, we were shocked to hear of her arrest,” said Shawn Gaylord of Human Rights First. “This confirms our concerns about growing violence and discrimination, and increased use of the anti-propaganda law. We renew our calls for the International Olympic Committee and the U.S. Olympic Committee to speak out publicly against these discriminatory laws.”

Smirnova is among the Russian LGBT advocates who took part in a Capitol Hill briefing in December on the Kremlin’s gay rights record. She also sat on a United Nations panel alongside retired tennis champion Martina Navratilova, former Washington Wizards center Jason Collins, South African activist Thandeka “Tumi” Mkhuma, intersex advocate Huda Viloria and U.N. Assistant Secretary General for Human Rights Ivan Simonovic on Dec. 11 that commemorated the 65th anniversary of the ratification of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

“We are sorry to learn of the detention of activists in Russia for making political statements,” Aaron Jensen, a spokesperson for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor at the State Department, told the Blade. “This is an example of the disturbing trend in the Russian Federation of legislation, prosecutions, and government actions aimed at suppressing dissent and groups that advocate for human rights and government accountability. The so-called LGBT ‘propaganda’ law is part of this trend.

U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) also criticized the arrests.

“No one should be arrested for protesting peacefully and exercising their God-given right to free speech. This is yet another sad example of the intolerance running rampant in Russia,” the Florida Republican told the Blade.

Putin told ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos last month that those who protest the Kremlin’s LGBT rights record during the 2014 Winter Olympics will not face prosecution under the gay propaganda law. The interview took place a day before authorities detained a gay rights advocate who unfurled a rainbow flag as the Olympic torch relay passed through the city of Voronezh.

The International Olympic Committee has repeatedly said it has received assurances from Russian officials that gays and lesbians will not suffer discrimination during the games that will take place in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.

“We aren’t banning anything, we aren’t rounding up anyone, we have no criminal punishment for such relations unlike many other countries,” said Putin during a Jan. 17 meeting with Olympic volunteers in Sochi. “We have a ban on propaganda of homosexuality and pedophilia, I want to underline that, on propaganda among minors.”

Athlete Ally founder Hudson Taylor told the Washington Blade in an exclusive interview from Sochi earlier this week he had seen little evidence of LGBT advocacy in the Olympic host city ahead of the games.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Thursday highlighted LGBT rights during a speech he gave during an IOC meeting in the Black Sea resort.

“We must all raise our voices against attacks on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex people,” said Ban. “We must oppose the arrests, imprisonments and discriminatory restrictions they face.”

Ros-Lehtinen once again criticized the IOC for allowing Russia to host the games.

“It is fundamental that the IOC select countries that honor all the Fundamental Principles of the Olympic Charter, and that those countries reflect the spirit of freedom imbued in the charter,” the Florida Republican told the Blade. “I hope for a day where everyone, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, will be able to express themselves in all spheres of society without fear of reprisal.”

Smirnova posted on her Facebook page shortly after the Olympic opening ceremony began in Sochi that authorities had released them from custody.

They face charges of participating in an illegal public assembly during their scheduled court hearing on Saturday.

“Everyone is feeling right and strong, and the support that we have is truly heartwarming,” wrote Smirnova.


Seeking to ‘move Maine forward’ as governor

Mike Michaud, Maine, United States House of Representatives, Democratic Party, U.S. Congress, gay news, Washington Blade

Rep. Mike Michaud (D-Maine) (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Having only come out five months ago in several editorials in Maine newspapers, Mike Michaud is new to the club in terms of out public figures.

Nonetheless, he’s on the path to achieving a goal that has never been accomplished by any openly gay person: Winning a gubernatorial election.

During an interview with the Washington Blade in the office of one of his campaign’s consultants near Capitol Hill, Michaud tried to tamp down his sexual orientation as a factor in the race, but acknowledged the significance it places on his candidacy.

“That’s not why I ran for governor, because of my sexual orientation; it’s because I want to move Maine forward,” Michaud said. “But, quite frankly, if elected, it is historic, and I think it’ll also change the tone of the debate when you look at LGBT issues, not only in Maine, but throughout the country.”

The five-term member of Congress is seeking election in a state that legalized marriage equality at the ballot in 2012 and non-discrimination protections for LGBT people in 2005 (after earlier failed attempts).

“As governor, one of the advantages I’ll have is the opportunity to talk with some of my colleagues,” Michaud said. “As a matter of fact, the National Governors Association just met this week. To sit down with some of the governors talking about LGBT issues as it might come up in their particular states is something that I’m not hesitant to do, and it’s easier talking to peer-to-peer.”

As Michaud noted, the State House recently rejected by a 89-52 vote a measure that would carve out a portion of Maine’s civil rights law to allow individuals to discriminate, including on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

It’s similar to a controversial “turn away the gay” bill pending before Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) that would enable individuals and businesses to refuse service based on a sincerely held religious belief.

Michaud said he would veto any such measure that might reach his desk as governor, and furthermore said he believes Brewer “absolutely” should veto the version of the bill in her state. Recalling the recent meeting in D.C. of the National Governors Association, Michaud said “that would be something I would be able to talk with her about this week if I was governor.”

The Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund and Equality Maine have endorsed Michaud’s candidacy. The Human Rights Campaign hasn’t yet officially thrown its support behind him, but is expected to announce more endorsements for Election 2014 following an upcoming board meeting.

Elise Johansen, Equality Maine’s executive director, said a win by Michaud in the gubernatorial election would be historic for the country and the state — and maintained her organization will help him achieve the victory.

“We endorsed Congressman Michaud’s campaign for governor because we strongly believe that he is the best choice to lead Maine, for the LGBT community and everyone in our state.” Johansen said. ”In addition to electing a proven leader with a long history of standing with LGBT Mainers, we have the opportunity to make history by electing our nation’s first openly-gay governor.”

No other Democrats are challenging Michaud for the nomination in the race, so he’ll carry the Democratic banner in what could be a three-way race.

On the Republican side is incumbent Gov. Paul LePage, who was first elected during the Tea Party wave in 2010 and was recently dubbed by Politico as “America’s Craziest Governor.” Also in contention is Eliot Cutler, an independent who’s a perennial candidate for Maine governor.

The race will be tight. Cook Political Report rates the contest as a toss-up, while Rothenberg Political Report considers the match toss-up/lean Democrat. Nonetheless, Michaud said the polling he sees in the race is promising.

“I feel pretty good about where we’re at; we’re leading in all the polls head-to-head,” Michaud said. “With our current governor, it’s a slam dunk, with a three-way race it complicates it a little more, but I feel really good about where we’re at.”

Making an impact by being out

Although he’s served in Congress since 2003, Michaud came out in November via a series of editorials published in the Portland Press Herald, the Bangor Daily News and the Associated Press.

“It never was an issue in my campaigns before,” Michaud said. “It appears that someone was trying to make it an issue this time around, so rather than let them make an issue, I decided to come out and move forward.”

The announcement came the same week that the Senate began considering the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, but Michaud said the timing was based on his presence in Maine as well as a pending endorsement from Maine firefighters and policemen. Because those groups tend to be more conservative, the campaign announced the news so those groups wouldn’t rescind their support afterward.

Nonetheless, Michaud said his announcement had a positive impact and recalled a story in which a restaurant owner who had a gay son wanted to speak with him.

“He actually literally had tears in his eyes because his son came out five months before that as gay,” Michaud said. “But the way he came out, he needed help, he was sick and needed help. And the fact that when I came out, it really lifted the spirits of his son.”

Saying the incident made him “feel really good” as he recalled what happened, Michaud said it was just one of several of cases of individuals who have told him it made a big difference.

Now that he’s out, Michaud said he sees no evidence of his sexual orientation being an issue among the candidates in the race — although he said a Tea Party challenger to Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) took to Twitter and Facebook to make it an issue.

Although he could be be the first openly gay person elected as governor, Michaud won’t be the first openly gay person to serve as governor. That distinction belongs to former New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey, who came out as gay in 2004 amid controversy before resigning.

Michaud is also not the only openly gay person seeking to win election as a governor in 2014. In Maryland, Del. Heather Mizeur is pursuing the Democratic nomination in a contentious primary. The Maine Democrat said he’s never met Mizeur and professed that he’s unaware of McGreevey.

Heading Michaud’s gubernatorial campaign is Matt McTighe, who also ran a successful campaign in 2012 to legalize marriage equality at the ballot in Maine in addition to heading Americans for Workplace Opportunity, a coalition of groups that pushed for passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act in the Senate last year.

Michaud said he supported the idea of bringing marriage equality to the ballot in Maine 2012 — despite what he said were persistent concerns among Democratic leadership at the legislature the issue would hamper Democrats at the ballot.

The Maine Democrat recalled a conversation he had with McTighe and then-Equality Maine executive director Betsy Smith before the decision was made to go forward.

“They were concerned where I might fall out on this particular issue, or they just wanted my perspective,” Michaud said. ”I remember telling both of them, ‘If not now, when? Because when is the right time? Because in 2014, you’ll probably have the same excuse. Well, we have the governor’s race. We have to win it back. It’s not the right time. So, when is the right time?’”

The gamble paid off. Democrats regained control of the legislature that year, and the marriage equality initiative passed by a 53-47 percent vote, making it the first state ever to approve marriage equality purely through voter-intiatied ballot initiative.

“And I’m very glad they went with the campaign when they went with it,” Michaud said. “The way it was dealt with was it did change the hearts and minds of individuals one by one, and they made the difference.”

Michaud sees opportunity for ENDA

Before Michaud could be elected governor, he’s set to complete his 10th term in office representing Maine’s 2nd congressional district in the U.S. House. One item that remains on his agenda is continued push for passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.

In 2007, Michaud was among the roughly two-dozen Democrats who voted against a version of ENDA that afforded protections only on the basis of sexual orientation after gender identity-related provisions were removed.

“It should be all-inclusive,” Michaud said. “I did vote against it because it was actually weaker than Maine’s law. I wasn’t going to vote for something that was weaker than Maine’s law. I wasn’t going to vote for something that was weaker than what Maine has already had on the books. Actually, Maine Equality encouraged a ‘no’ vote on the legislation.”

Michaud said he was among the members of the LGBT Equality Caucus who participated in a January meeting first reported by the Washington Blade with Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) in which ENDA was a topic.

Although gay Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) told the Blade that Boehner said there’s “no way,” ENDA would come up this session, Michaud offered a slightly different version of events that didn’t throw quite as much cold water on the legislation, saying a lame duck effort on the bill remains possible.

“He actually wanted some more information on it, and we’re going to get him the information,” Michaud said. “They might have already sent it over; I’m not sure yet. He said it was highly unlikely that it would happen before the election, so hopefully there is a leeway maybe after the election. Hopefully, we can take it up in the lame duck session.”

Joining other supporters of the bill who say ENDA has sufficient support to pass the Republican-controlled House, Michaud predicted the measure would pass on the floor — if only Republican leadership would allow the legislation to come up.

“When you look at the overwhelming support, I believe that they’ll get that from the Democratic caucus,” Michaud said. “We’ll definitely have Republican support. I feel comfortable in that regard. Clearly, the more advance notice, we can have on it, the more opportunities we’ll be able to convince our colleagues to support it.”

Michaud declined to comment further on the meeting because of its private nature other than to say Boehner was “very gracious to meet with us.” It was the first time Boehner met with the LGBT Equality Caucus. Michaud said that Boehner chose to meet with the caucus even before President Obama granted an audience with the lawmakers.

Meanwhile, the Maine Democrat is adding his voice to others calling on President Obama to take administrative action against LGBT workplace discrimination by signing an executive order.

“It starts that ball moving,” Michaud said. “Until we see what might happen on the House side, since the Senate already passed it. I think it’s a good step in the right direction because if we can’t get it done in Congress, at least by executive order we’ll have 20 to 25 percent of workers covered.”

Michaud said the LGBT Equality Caucus is working on gathering signatures for another letter to President Obama to encourage him to sign the executive order.

Torey Carter, chief operating officer of the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, said Michaud’s candidacy is significant.

“Mike Michaud is uniquely qualified to serve as the next governor of Maine,” Carter said. ”He is a visionary leader that is a strong voice for fairness, freedom and equality for all Mainers. As a member of Congress, he has been an unwavering supporter of LGBT issues, and if elected he would become the nation’s first out LGBT governor.”


Justice Department launches transgender training program

Ruby Corado, Casa Ruby, gay news, Washington Blade

Ruby Corado, executive director of Casa Ruby, is among those who took part in a U.S. Justice Department training on Thursday. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

In a conference room at its headquarters in Washington, the U.S. Justice Department on Thursday held a first-of-its-kind training session for law enforcement officials on how they can better serve the transgender community.

Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole, in opening remarks, said Thursday’s session represented the launching of an ongoing nationwide series of similar training sessions designed to educate the nation’s law enforcement establishment about problems and needs of trans people.

“At its most basic level, the new training will provide tools to enhance an officer’s ability to build partnerships with community members and to work with fellow citizens, who share a commitment to public safety,” Cole told the gathering.

Cole and other DOJ officials said the department’s Community Relations Service, which was established under the famed U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964, developed the trans training program with input from representatives of the LGBT community.

LGBT community members, including D.C. trans activist Ruby Corado, were among those attending the March 27 session.

“We heard you when you told us that we needed to establish a foundation of trust between those who serve and protect the public and those in the LGBT communities – particularly the transgender community – who are disproportionately the victims of hate violence,” said Cole.

Among those who helped develop the training program and who were scheduled to give a presentation at the session were Major Irene A. Burks of the Prince George’s County, Md., Police Department; and Diego Miguel Sanchez, a veteran trans advocate, legislative assistant to former U.S. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and current National Director of Policy for Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG).

Also scheduled to give a presentation at the session was Harper Jean Tobin, an attorney and Director of Policy at the National Center for Transgender Equality.

Sgt. Brett Parson of the Metropolitan Police Department of D.C., who formerly headed the division that oversees the department’s Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit, assisted in developing the trans training program. Parson was scheduled to be one of the instructors at the March 27 training session but had to cancel his appearance due to a scheduling conflict, people familiar with the event said.

Also attending the training were D.C. police Sgt. Matthew Mahl, the current supervisor of the Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit, and Officer Justin Markiewicz, a member of the unit.

DOJ officials limited news media attendance of the event to the introductory remarks by DOJ officials. DOJ spokesperson Emily Pierce said the training itself was closed to the media because it involved role-playing exercises that could make participants uncomfortable under the glare of the press.

A statement released by the DOJ says the trans training program will become an important component of the DOJ’s Community Relations Service, which, among other things, helps communities develop strategies to prevent and respond to violent hate crimes committed on the basis of a victim’s sexual orientation and gender identity as well as other factors such as race, religion, and national origin.

The trans training program “will hereafter be facilitated around the country by CRS (Community Relations Service) regional personnel and local volunteer experts in communities that are experiencing hate violence and wish to better respond and prevent such incidents against transgender persons,” the statement says.

It says that in addition to its D.C. headquarters, the Community Relations Service has 10 regional offices and four smaller field offices that serve all 50 states and U.S. territories.

“The training resources that CRS (Community Relations Service) has created (with input from law enforcement leaders and transgender advocates) is intended to assist communities across the country and law enforcement agencies wishing to improve their understanding of and work with the transgender communities they serve,” according to the statement.

Trans activists across the country, including those in D.C., have reported widespread incidents of police mistreatment of trans people. D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier has been credited with putting in place policies and procedures for officers to treat transgender residents with respect and sensitivity.

Despite these policies, trans advocates says incidents of insensitivity by officers, while declining, continues to surface.

“We understand when you shared the worst possible – and frankly unacceptable – outcome that the transgender community could face,” said Cole at the training session in Washington. “Based on the community’s fears about law enforcement’s support and perceptions, too many of you in the transgender community simply didn’t report incidents of crime brought to bear against you,” he said.

“This is not a result that can or will be tolerated by the Justice Department, and it runs counter to the very role your community public safety officials want to promote,” said Cole.

Cole acknowledged, however, that the trans training program would likely be utilized mostly by “forward-thinking chiefs of police, sheriffs, and other public safety professionals who opt to participate” in the program.

Tony West, DOJ’s associate attorney general, and Grande H. Lum, national director of the department’s Community Relations Service, also spoke at the training.


Same-sex marriage lawsuit filed in Florida

Catherina Pareto, Karla Arguello, Florida, gay marriage, same-sex marriage, marriage equality, gay news, Washington Blade

Catherina Pareto and Karla Arguello are among six same-sex couples challenging Florida’s gay marriage ban. (Photo courtesy of Erik Olvera/National Center for Lesbian Rights)

Six same-sex couples on Tuesday filed a lawsuit challenging Florida’s gay marriage ban.

Catherina Pareto and Karla Arguello, Dr. Juan Carlos Rodríguez and David Price, Vanessa and Melanie Alenier, Todd and Jeff Delmay, Summer Greene and Pamela Faerber and Don Price Johnston and Jorge Isaias Díaz joined their lawyers and representatives from the National Center for Lesbian Rights and Equality Florida at a press conference in Miami Beach. Each of the couples sought to apply for marriage licenses at the Miami-Dade County Courts’ clerk’s office on Jan. 17.

The Equality Florida Institute is also named in a plaintiff in the lawsuit filed in Miami-Dade Circuit Court in Miami.

Harven Ruvin, clerk of the Miami-Dade County Courts, is named as a defendant.

“Florida is our home, it is where we are raising our child, and where we want to get married,” said Pareto, who has been with Arguello for 14 years and with whom she has 15-month-old son in a press release. “Karla and I wish for our family the same things that other families want. We want to build our lives together, provide a safe and caring home for our child, and share in the responsibilities and protections of marriage.”

Florida voters in 2008 approved a state constitutional amendment that defines marriage as between a man and a woman.

Equality Florida announced shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court last June found a portion of the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional that the organization was looking for plaintiffs to challenge the Sunshine State’s gay nuptials ban.

“Governor [Rick] Scott supports traditional marriage,” the governor’s spokesperson, John Tupps, told the Washington Blade. “Florida voters amended the State Constitution in 2008 to define marriage as between a man and a woman.”

Former Gov. Charlie Crist, who is challenging Scott as a Democrat, in 2006 signed a petition in support of the constitutional amendment. The one-time Republican who has faced persistent questions about his sexual orientation late last year said he now regrets his decision.

“I’m proud to support the lawsuit challenging Florida’s ban on marriage equality,” wrote Crist on his Twitter page on Tuesday. “It’s an issue of fairness.”

18 states and D.C. have extended marriage rights to same-sex couples.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Jan. 6 blocked any future same-sex marriages from taking place in Utah pending the outcome of an appeal of a federal judge’s December ruling that struck down the state’s gay nuptials ban. A federal judge in Oklahoma last week struck down the Sooner State’s constitutional amendment that defined marriage as between a man and a woman.

Same-sex marriage lawsuits have also been filed in Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Arizona and other states.

“These harmful laws are outdated and out of step,” said Equality Florida CEO Nadine Smith. “It is time for all families in our state to have full equality under the law.”

The Washington Blade will have more details as they become available.


Anti-gay forces changing tactics on marriage

Brian Brown, National Organization for Marriage, gay news, gay politics dc

NOM President Brian Brown criticized Eric Holder’s extension of rights to same-sex couples. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Move over Federal Marriage Amendment: anti-gay forces are focusing on new ways to halt the advancement of marriage equality — and are already seeing some success at the state level.

As more states legalize same-sex marriage and efforts to pass a U.S. constitutional amendment prohibiting it have faded, the focus has shifted to containing federal recognition to marriage equality states and to advancing religious exemption bills allowing for discrimination against same-sex couples.

Outrage prompting calls for these measures was seen just last weekend when U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced he would extend federal recognition of same-sex marriages to programs under the Justice Department’s purview.

The changes were intended to comply with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last year against the Defense of Marriage Act. Among other things, they would allow married same-sex couples to file jointly for bankruptcy. In addition, spouses won’t be forced to testify against each other.

Mainstream and conservative media outlets jumped on the development — the Washington Post called the change “sweeping” — while anti-gay groups expressed outrage over Holder’s extension of these rights to same-sex couples in states without marriage equality.

Brian Brown, president of the anti-gay National Organization for Marriage, said Holder’s decision was the latest in a series of moves that “undermine the authority and sovereignty of the states” with respect to marriage.

“The American public needs to realize how egregious and how dangerous these usurpations are and how far-reaching the implications can be,” Brown said. “The changes being proposed here to a process as universally relevant as the criminal justice system serve as a potent reminder of why it is simply a lie to say that redefining marriage doesn’t affect everyone in society.”

To limit federal recognition of same-sex marriages to marriage-equality states, anti-gay groups are championing legislation in the U.S. House known as the State Marriage Defense Act, which would prohibit the federal government from recognizing a same-sex marriage in a state that doesn’t allow gay nuptials.

Tony Perkins, president of the anti-gay Family Research Council, voiced support for the State Marriage Defense Act immediately after Holder’s announcement.

“Attorney General Holder’ s announcement — like his recognition of same-sex ‘marriages’ in Utah despite the Supreme Court granting a stay of the District Court decision overturning that state’s definition of marriage — illustrates the importance of congressional action to pass the State Marriage Defense Act (H.R. 3829), introduced by Rep. Randy Weber (R-Texas),” Perkins said.

Neither the Family Research Council nor the National Organization for Marriage responded to the Washington Blade’s requests to comment on whether calls for this legislation represented a shift in focus away from the Federal Marriage Amendment.

Religious exemption measures emerge

Meanwhile, at the state level, new initiatives are emerging to establish carve-outs to civil rights and marriage equality laws to enable individuals or businesses to discriminate against LGBT people and their marriages on religious grounds.

One such initiative underway in Oregon is concurrent with Oregon United for Marriage’s work to bring the issue of marriage equality to voters on Election Day this year. Anti-gay groups are working to place on the ballot at the same time a measure to allow florists, bakers and other businesses to refuse to participate in these weddings on religious grounds.

Although it’s illegal in Oregon to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, the proposal would enable such business to discriminate against gay couples. To qualify for the ballot, anti-gay groups must submit 116,284 valid signatures of Oregon residents by July 3.

Mike Marshall, Oregon United for Marriage’s campaign manager, told the Washington Blade the religious exemption ballot initiative is a big fear because it could have an impact on the marriage equality campaign.

“The other side knows that when we shift the debate away from love and commitment to protecting religious freedom that you see support go down for marriage three to four percent, and that’s within the margin of victory for us,” Marshall said. “Instead of putting their resources into defeating our campaign, they’re creating a second campaign to shift the focus of the debate, and by doing that, at least carve some level of discrimination that they engage in.”

Marshall said if the religious exemption measure passes, the LGBT community would be faced with similar measures in every state over the next 10 years.

Religious exemption measures are becoming more common in state legislatures. In Kansas, the state legislature approved on Wednesday by 72-49 vote a bill that would allow state residents to refuse services to gay couples related to same-sex weddings. In Arizona, a House committee approved a broad religious freedom bill to allow individuals and the businesses they own to refuse to provide services based on their religious beliefs.

Similar measures have popped up in Idaho, Mississippi, Ohio, Oklahoma and Maine (although the Maine measure was recently voted down in committee). Measures specifically allowing discrimination against same-sex marriage and gay people, likes the ones in Oregon and Kansas, have come up in South Dakota.

Sarah Warbelow, state legislative director for the Human Rights Campaign, said passage of the bills could cause problems, such as allowing a county clerk to refuse to grant a marriage license.

“The state would still have to find someone to fill in, but it could make it more cumbersome for same-sex couples, not to mention hugely embarrassing,” Warbelow said. “No one should have to stand in line on the penultimate day of their marriage relationship only to find they have to go through a series of county clerks, one after another.”

The religious exemption measures aren’t exclusively found in the states. Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) in the U.S. House and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) in the Senate have introduced legislation known as the Marriage and Religious Freedom Act, which would prohibit the federal government from discriminating against organizations that exercise “religious conscience” against same-sex marriage.

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Rep. Raúl Rafael Labrador (R-Idaho) has introduced the Marriage and Religious Freedom Act. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Rose Saxe, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union’s LGBT Project, said they’re meant to enable discrimination against gay couples seeking to wed in the states at a later point in time in anticipation of that ruling.

“But the ones that are explicitly anti-gay, we see those as as sort of ‘Plan B’ from the other side in the sense that they see marriage is coming and they’re trying to ensure that even in states where we don’t yet have marriage or robust non-discrimination laws that can preemptively enshrine the right to discriminate,” Saxe said.

Isolated anti-gay incidents driving new tactics

Movement on these bills comes in the aftermath of isolated situations where business owners were accused of acting wrongfully by refusing services for same-sex weddings.

One prominent such incident took place in Colorado, where a judge in December determined a Lakewood bakery known as Masterpiece Cakeshop acted unlawfully by refusing to sell a wedding cake to a gay couple.

A similar incident occurred in Washington State, where Arlene’s Flowers owner Baronelle Stutzma refused to sell flowers to a gay couple and is now facing a lawsuit from the state and couple’s attorney. In Vermont, a resort that was sued in 2011 for refusing to host a lesbian couple’s wedding reception agreed to settle by paying $30,000 in damages.

In addition to invoking the wrath of anti-gay groups, these situations sparked concerns among libertarian-minded supporters of LGBT rights on social media over the perceived unfairness of requiring a business to recognize same-sex marriage.

Saxe said the religious exemption measures have begun to “pop up with more frequency” before state legislatures in the wake of media coverage of these incidents.

“I think those stories are part of the justification,” Saxe said. “In both South Dakota and Kansas, we saw the supporters of this legislation saying that this was about protecting the rights of businesses to not provide wedding services, but then the bills themselves…said any person could refuse to respect any marriage, which is not all about wedding services.”

The majority of the American public opposes making exemptions to accommodate these situations. According to a poll last year conducted by the Human Rights Campaign and the Third Way, 67 percent of voters are opposed to laws that allow businesses to discriminate against gay couples based on religious objections. Further, 56 percent of respondents thought it was already illegal for business owners in their state to refuse service to someone for being gay, although 30 percent were wrong because no such law exists in their state.

It’s also possible that the U.S. Supreme Court could take up a case related to one such isolated objection to a same-sex wedding and issue a sweeping decision enabling discrimination against same-sex couples.

Pending before the U.S. Supreme Court is the appeal of a decision by the New Mexico Supreme Court in the case of Elaine Photography v. Vanessa Willock, which found that the husband-and-wife owned photography business violated New Mexico’s civil rights law by declining to shoot Willock’s commitment ceremony in 2006, even though it was over religious beliefs. (Same-sex marriage at the time wasn’t yet legal in New Mexico.)

Anti-gay groups late last year filed an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court on the basis that the New Mexico court decision violated Elaine Photography’s rights under the First Amendment’s ban on compelled speech.

Jon Davidson, legal director at Lambda Legal, said he thinks it’s “less likely” the court will take up the case because petitioners asked for a review of rejection of the photographer’s “compelled speech”and not free exercise of religion.

“Given this narrowing of the issue presented, I think it is somewhat less likely that the Supreme Court will grant review, because the issue presented affects fewer people and entities than a religious freedom claim would,” Davidson said.

Although it’s hard to say what action the Supreme Court will take, it may issue writ of certiorari to take up the case this year. If so, a decision would be expected before the court adjourns in June.


Gay U.S. ambassadors meet with GLIFAA members

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From left; U.S. Ambassador to Australia John Berry, U.S. Ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Daniel Baer, U.S. Ambassador to Spain James Costos, U.S. Ambassador to Denmark Rufus Gifford and U.S. Ambassador to the Dominican Republic James “Wally” Brewster. (Photo by Blake Bergen, courtesy of GLIFAA)

The five gay U.S. ambassadors met with members of Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies (GLIFAA) for the first time in D.C. on March 9.

U.S. Ambassador to Australia John Berry, U.S. Ambassador to Spain James Costos, U.S. Ambassador to Denmark Rufus Gifford, U.S. Ambassador to the Dominican Republic James “Wally” Brewster and U.S. Ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Daniel Baer met with GLIFAA members while they were in the nation’s capital for the Global Chiefs of Mission Conference at the State Department. They discussed their experiences with government officials and other diplomats as openly gay ambassadors and how they have helped to advance LGBT rights in the countries where they work.

GLIFAA President Robyn McCutcheon and others from the State Department, USAID, the Peace Corps and other organizations were among those who attended the meeting. It was also the first time that Berry, Costos, Gifford, Brewster and Baer had been in the same room together.

“GLIFAA was proud to host all five out gay U.S. ambassadors this past Sunday for very fruitful conversations on their experiences as personal champions for global LGBT+ human rights,” McCutcheon told the Washington Blade. “GLIFAA is proud to continue supporting these ambassadors, U.S. government foreign affairs agencies, and all of these agencies’ LGBT+ staff to advance equality for all around the world.”

The U.S. Senate last August confirmed Berry, who is the former head of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, alongside Baer, Gifford and Costos. The chamber approved Brewster’s nomination three months later.

Baer remains a central figure in the White House’s response to the escalating tensions between Ukraine and Russia after ousted President Viktor Yanukovych went into hiding last month following the deaths of dozens of anti-government protesters in Kiev. Baer on Wednesday met with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchytsya in D.C. before he left the nation’s capital to return to Vienna.

Brewster and his husband, Bob Satawake, last month met with a group of Dominican LGBT rights advocates at the U.S. Embassy in Santo Domingo.

Dominican President Danilo Medina approved Brewster’s nomination, but Cardinal Nicolás de Jesús López Rodríguez of the Archdiocese of Santo Domingo and other local religious leaders vocally opposed it because he is gay. Organizers of a Jan. 22 diplomatic reception to honor Medina cancelled it after several ambassadors to the Caribbean country announced they would not attend because they did not invite Satawake.


Vikings investigate homophobia allegations

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Chris Kluwe (Photo by Joe Bielawa)

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn.—Former Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe claims his advocacy for marriage equality prompted the team to cut him from its roster last year.

Kluwe claimed in a Jan. 2 post to the website Deadspin that special teams coach Mike Priefer said in “one of the meanest voices I can ever recall hearing” during a November meeting that, “We should round up all the gays, send them to an island and then nuke it until it glows.” The outspoken same-sex marriage advocate went on to say Vikings owner Zygi Wilf backed his efforts, but head coach Leslie Fraiser asked him to stop his efforts.

Priefer has denied Kluwe’s allegations as CBS News reported.

The Vikings stressed Kluwe’s performance and salary — and not his activism in support of marriage rights for same-sex couples — contributed to the decision to release him from the roster. The team has launched an investigation into their former punter’s allegations.


Court rules for Maine trans student’s bathroom access

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Kelly, Nicole, Jonas and Wayne Maines next to GLAD Attorneys Jennifer Levi and Ben Klein outside the court after oral argument. (Photo courtesy of GLAD)

Maine’s highest state court ruled on Thursday that schools within the state must permit transgender students to use communal bathrooms in accordance with their gender identity.

In a 5-1 decision, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruled in the case of Doe v. Clenchy that Regional School Unit 26 violated the Maine’s Human Rights Act by denying Nicole Maines, a transgender girl, access to the girl’s restroom.

It’s the first time a state court has ruled that trans students must be allowed to use a bathroom consistent with their gender identity.

Writing for the majority, Justice Warren Silver writes Nicole, named Susan Doe in the lawsuit, was “was treated differently from other students solely because of her status as a transgender girl.”

“RSU 26’s later decision to ban Susan from the girls’ bathroom, based not on a determination that there had been some change in Susan’s status but on others’ complaints about the school’s well-considered decision, constituted discrimination based on Susan’s sexual orientation,” Silver writes.

The lawsuit came about after officials at an Orono elementary school denied the fifth-grade trans student use of the girls’ restroom.

Although school previously allowed her access to girls’ facility, that changed when a male student began following her inside on two separate occasions, claiming he was also able to use the restroom. The student was acting under instructions from his guardian and grandfather, who was opposed to allowing Nicole access to the girl’s room.

According to the court decision, significant media attention resulted from the controversy. The school, over the Maines family’s objections, terminated Susan’s use of the girls’ communal bathroom and required her instead to use the single-stall, unisex staff bathroom.

Nicole was the only student that had to use the staff bathroom. As a result of the school’s decision, the Maines family decided to move to another part of the state after Nicole finished sixth grade.

The decision reached by the court applies not only to Nicole but to all transgender students who attend school within the state.

“Where, as here, it has been clearly established that a student’s psychological well-being and educational success depend upon being permitted to use the communal bathroom consistent with her gender identity, denying access to the appropriate bathroom constitutes sexual orientation discrimination in violation of the MHRA,” Silver writes.

The case was filed by Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders and Jodi L. Nofsinger of Berman & Simmons in May 2011. Although the Maine trial court judge reviewing the case  in November 2012 ruled in favor of the school’s decision to block Nicole, the decision from the high court vacates that ruling.

Jennifer Levi, GLAD’s Transgender Rights Project director and the attorney who argued the case before the court, called the decision “a huge breakthrough for transgender young people.”

“Schools have a responsibility to create a learning environment that meets and balances the needs of all kids and allows every student to succeed,” Levi said. “For transgender students this includes access to all school facilities, programs, and extracurricular activities in a way that is consistent with their gender identity.”

Maine’s Human Rights Act prohibits discrimination in public accommodations on the basis of sexual orientation, which is defined in the law to include gender identity.

The school argued it was allowed to bar Nicole from the girls’ room under a separate law, Section 6501, requiring schools to provide “clean toilets” that are separated by sex. But the court ruled the point of that law wasn’t to modify the Human Rights Act and schools cannot “dictate the use of the bathrooms in a way that discriminates against students in violation of the MHRA.”

Justice Andrew Mead was the sole dissenting justice in the case and ruled that it’s up to the legislature whether it wants to require policy for schools on transgender student’s access to bathroom facilities.

“I depart from the Court’s casual dismissal of the fact that the plain language of a specific statute explicitly requires segregating school bathrooms by sex,” Mead writes. “The plain language of the provisions of section 6501 and the MHRA are in conflict, and I believe that principles of comity require us to defer to the representative branch of government to resolve the issue.”

But the majority decision in the case was hailed by the family of the student who inspired the lawsuit.

Wayne Maines, Nicole’s father, expressed gratitude that transgender students like his daughter won’t be “singled out for different treatment” thanks to the court decision.

“As parents all we’ve ever wanted is for Nicole and her brother Jonas to get a good education and to be treated just like their classmates, and that didn’t happen for Nicole,” Maine said. “We are very happy knowing that because of this ruling, no other transgender child in Maine will have to endure what Nicole experienced.”


Uganda anti-gay bill reportedly signed into law

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Uganda President Yoweri Museveni (Photo by the U.K. Department for International Development; courtesy Wikimedia Commons).

Reports have begun to emerge that Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni on Thursday signed a bill that would impose a life sentence upon anyone found guilty of repeated same-sex sexual acts.

Frank Mugisha, executive director of Sexual Minorities Uganda, on his Twitter page cited “reliable, but not confirmed sources” who indicated Museveni signed the so-called Anti-Homosexuality Bill.

The Ugandan government did not immediately respond to the Washington Blade’s request for comment, but it posted a statement on its Facebook page earlier on Thursday about the Anti-Homosexuality Law.

“Government of Uganda reiterates its commitment to uphold and protect the fundamental rights and freedoms of all persons in Uganda as guaranteed by the Constitution,” it reads. “No person shall be prosecuted outside the provisions of the law.”

The Ugandan government also sought to reassure “all Ugandans and the international community of its continued commitment and respect for the rule of law in Uganda.”

News of Museveni potentially signing the bill broke less than a week after President Obama blasted him over the issue.

“The Anti-Homosexuality Bill in Uganda, once law, will be more than an affront and a danger to the gay community in Uganda,” said Obama in a Feb. 16 statement. “It will be a step backward for all Ugandans and reflect poorly on Uganda’s commitment to protecting the human rights of its people. It also will mark a serious setback for all those around the world who share a commitment to freedom, justice and equal rights.”

The U.S. State Department, Amnesty International, the Human Rights Campaign and other groups have also sharply criticized Ugandan lawmakers who approved the controversial measure late last year. National Security Advisor Susan Rice tweeted on Feb. 16 she spoke “at length” with Museveni and urged him not to sign the bill.

The Ugandan president told Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights President Kerry Kennedy, two of her organization’s staffers and Archbishop Desmond Tutu during a Jan. 18 meeting in Uganda that he would reject the “fascist” measure. The RFK Center said at the time Museveni “promised” the organization during a separate meeting last March that he would not sign “any bill that discriminates against any individual.”

A picture on the Ugandan government’s Facebook page shows U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) and other American lawmakers met with Museveni on Jan. 23.

An Inhofe spokesperson told the Washington Blade before they left the U.S. the legislators were not scheduled to meet with the Ugandan president while in the East African country.

She confirmed on Thursday the Oklahoma Republican discussed with Museveni the Lord’s Resistance Army that led a bloody insurgency against the Ugandan government from 1986-2006, the ongoing conflicts in the Central African Republic and South Sudan and the status of a defense agreement between Uganda and the U.S.

The congressional delegation did not meet with Ugandan LGBT rights advocates during the trip.

“I certainly disagree with the controversial legislation that Uganda may enact in the coming days,” Inhofe told the Blade on Thursday in a statement, referring specifically to the Anti-Homosexuality Bill. “As I’ve said before, it is my hope that the country will abandon this unjust and harsh legislation.”

Uganda is among the more than 70 countries in which homosexuality remains criminalized.

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan last month signed a draconian bill into law that bans nuptials for gays and lesbians, same-sex “amorous relationships” and membership in LGBT advocacy groups. Anti-LGBT violence and discrimination remain pervasive problems in Cameroon, Zimbabwe and other African countries.

“When it comes to how the state treats people, how the law treats people, I believe that everybody has to be treated equally,” said Obama last June during a press conference with Senegalese President Macky Sall that took place in Dakar, Senegal, a day after the U.S. Supreme Court found a portion of the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional and struck down California’s Proposition 8. “I don’t believe in discrimination of any sort.”

Secretary of State John Kerry on Wednesday sharply criticized Gambian President Yahya Jammeh after he described gay men as “vermin” and used other anti-LGBT rhetoric during a Feb. 18 speech that marked the anniversary of his country’s independence from the U.K.

The Blade will provide further updates on this story as they become available.

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A picture the Ugandan government posted to its Facebook page confirms U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) and other U.S. lawmakers met with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni in the East African country last month. (Screenshot via Facebook)