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Where does the LGBT movement go in 2014?

Winter Olympics, John Boehner, Sean Eldridge, Supreme Court, gay marriage, same-sex marriage, marriage equality, gay news, Washington Blade

New advancements on LGBT rights are expected in 2014 in the aftermath of a milestone year in 2013. (Photo of the Winter Olympics public domain; Washington Blade photos of John Boehner, Sean Eldridge and activists in front of the Supreme Court by Michael Key)

Although 2013 will be a tough act to follow in terms of achievements for the LGBT community, some advocates say significant new battles and potential victories are on the horizon for 2014.

Additional court rulings on marriage and the upcoming Olympic Games in Sochi will attract attention, but the focus will also be on the lead-up to the mid-term elections in November 2014. Voters are expected to decide the issue of marriage equality at the ballot and make decisions in candidate elections that would shape LGBT rights in the future.

Next month, all eyes will be on the Winter Olympics to see what impact gay athletes coming to compete in Sochi, Russia, might have on the anti-gay laws there, including the now notorious law prohibiting pro-gay propaganda. The Olympics will be held between Feb. 6 and 23.

It remains to be seen whether any of the athletes who’ll compete in the games — or any of the three openly gay members of the U.S. delegation to the Olympics — will speak out against the anti-gay policies, and whether the Russian government will subject them to punishment under the propaganda law for doing so.

In terms of the advancement of marriage equality, no one is predicting movement in the state legislatures as seen in 2013, but action is expected at the ballot and as a result of numerous court cases filed throughout the country.

In Oregon, activists are preparing for a campaign to legalize same-sex marriage at the ballot. They’re already touting 118,176 signatures, which is more than 116,284 needed by July 3 to place the measure before voters. Success at the ballot would mean Oregon would become the first state in the country to overturn a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage through a ballot initiative.

Another effort is underway in Ohio, where the group Freedom Ohio is touting a new poll showing 56 percent of Ohio residents support marriage equality as part of an effort to place a measure on the ballot in 2014. National LGBT groups, however, aren’t behind this endeavor and reportedly have said 2014 isn’t the year to bring marriage equality to the ballot in Ohio.

But 2014 may also see the return of state constitutional amendments at the ballot banning same-sex marriage. Opponents of same-sex marriage in Indiana are seeking a vote in the legislature on such an amendment, which would bring the issue before voters in the 2014 election.

It’s possible that a similar amendment may appear on the 2014 ballot in New Mexico, where anti-gay lawmakers unhappy with the state Supreme Court’s recent decision to legalize same-sex marriage have threatened to take action. However, the legislature needs to approve the amendment before it goes to voters, which is unlikely because Democrats control both the House and Senate.

Amid efforts to place the marriage issue on the ballot, courts may issue rulings in favor of marriage equality in any of the at least 23 states with pending marriage litigation. Such rulings could happen in Michigan, where a trial on the ban same-sex marriage has been set for February, or in Pennsylvania. A federal court in West Virginia may respond to a request for summary judgment filed Tuesday by Lambda Legal on behalf on same-sex couples seeking to wed in the state.

For the first time since the Supreme Court ruling against the Defense of Marriage Act, federal appeals courts will also take up the issue of marriage equality. The U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals will review the marriage lawsuit in which U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby recently instituted marriage equality in Utah, and the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals will review Nevada’s ban on same-sex marriage in the case known as Sevcik v. Sandoval.

It’s possible that rulings at the appellate level could send the issue of marriage equality back to the Supreme Court as soon as next year.

Marc Solomon, national campaign director for Freedom to Marry, said the endeavors to advance marriage equality in 2014 will foster a better climate for the Supreme Court to make a “national resolution” in favor of marriage equality.

“We really don’t know, and nobody knows, which case is going to be that case that gets to the Supreme Court, when it’s going to happen, if it’s going to happen next year, if it’s going to happen in five years,” Solomon said. “Basically, we are full-steam ahead with what we call our ‘Roadmap to Victory’ to win more states, grow public support, get more unexpected allies, and demonstrate that the country is completely ready.”

Solomon said his organization also plans to participate in public education campaigns in Arizona, Ohio, Michigan, Colorado and Nevada in anticipation of going to the ballot to win marriage equality in 2016 in addition to a similar campaign in Pennsylvania to foster a climate for a court ruling in favor of marriage equality in the Keystone State.

Advancement of pro-LGBT federal legislation may also take place, although the chances such legislation will reach President Obama’s desk are low — to say the least — because Republicans control the House.

Supporters of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act are pushing for a vote in the Republican-controlled chamber following a bipartisan vote in the Senate in favor of the legislation. Although the legislation has 201 sponsors in a chamber where 218 votes are needed for passage, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has repeatedly said he opposes the legislation when asked if he’ll bring up the bill for a vote.

Issues for married same-sex couples in the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act are also expected to surface. Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) has pledged to hold a hearing on these outstanding issues.

Among them is the Social Security Administration’s continued hold on benefits claims for married same-sex couples in non-marriage equality states. Passage of the Respect for Marriage Act would address these issues by ensuring married same-sex couples would be able to receive federal benefits wherever they move in the country.

The Senate early this year may also take up a version of No Child Left Behind reauthorization — reported out on a party-line basis in June by the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee — that contains anti-bullying provisions along the lines of the Student Non-Discrimination Act and the Safe Schools Improvement Act.

Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, said the successes of 2013 are “much to celebrate,” but said they also highlight more work is necessary at the federal level — not just on LGBT-specific issues, but other areas like immigration reform and restoration of the Voting Rights Act.

“Every victory we achieve makes clearer the inequalities that remain — the painful gap between progress and true freedom,” Carey said. “That’s why we need the House to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act; fair immigration reform legislation; and to restore the heart of the Voting Rights Act, so unceremoniously gutted by the Supreme Court this past year. We must win on these issues in 2014; we can win on these issues in 2014.”

Meanwhile, campaigns are ramping up for elections in 2014. For the first time ever, at least two openly gay candidates may appear as gubernatorial candidates representing a major party.

In Maryland, lesbian Del. Heather Mizeur is running against two other candidates in a bid for the Democratic nomination for governor. Her primary is June 24.

And in Maine, Rep. Mike Michaud (D-Maine), who came out as gay in 2013, is seeking to oust Republican Gov. Paul LePage. Michaud is the only declared candidate on the Democratic side.

In Congress, six openly LGB members of the U.S. House will be seeking to retain their seats. Those running in moderate districts who may face more challenging re-election bids are Reps. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.).

Sean Eldridge, an entrepreneur known for his work advocating for marriage equality in New York and also known for being married to Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, is seeking to unseat incumbent Republican Chris Gibson to represent New York’s 19th congressional district.

Other gay newcomers are on the Republican side. Former Massachusetts State Sen. Richard Tisei, who narrowly lost a challenge to Rep. John Tierney (D-Mass.) in 2012, is considering a rematch in 2014.

Former San Diego City Council member Carl DeMaio is seeking to represent the San Diego area in the U.S. House and University of New Hampshire administrator Dan Innis has launched a bid to unseat Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D-N.H.).

Despite openly gay candidates on the Republican side, LGBT advocates will likely also work for Democratic majorities in Congress — achieving it in the House and preserving it in the Senate — to foster a better climate for passing pro-LGBT legislation.

That may be an uphill battle. A recent survey from CNN/ORC International shows Republicans have increased their edge in the race for control of Congress. Republicans lead Democrats by 49 percent to 44 percent among registered voters asked to pick between unnamed candidates from each party in their district. That’s up from a smaller two-point edge in favor of Republicans last month.

Stuart Rothenberg, editor of the Rothenberg Political Report, said he doesn’t think the House will be in play given the abysmal state of President Obama’s polling numbers, and Republicans have a strong chance of winning the Senate.

“The Senate definitely is up for grabs,” Rothenberg said. “It’s probably close to 50-50 that Republicans will net the six seats that they will need to get to 51 seats. But there is plenty of time for events to occur that could change the current outlook.”

Whatever happens in Congress, LGBT advocates pledge to work at all levels of the government — federal, state and local — to continue to advance rights for the LGBT community.

Fred Sainz, the Human Rights Campaign’s vice president of communications, said 2014 will present “tremendous opportunities” for the LGBT community in the aftermath of 2013′s victories.

“We will continue to advance all measures of equality in the states, most importantly non-discrimination laws that affect the greatest number of LGBT people,” Sainz said. “And federally, we will continue to grow support for ENDA toward its eventual passage — as well as other bills that are part of our legislative agenda.”

01
Jan
2014

Playwright dies in N.Y. fire

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(Image capture via YouTube)

NEW YORK—An aspiring playwright died on Jan. 5 from injuries he suffered during a fire in his Manhattan high-rise building.

The New York Times reported Daniel McClung, 27, succumbed to smoke inhalation after he and his husband, Michael Cohen, 32, sought refuge in a smoky stairwell in the Hell’s Kitchen high-rise. The New York Daily News on Jan. 6 reported Cohen suffered critical injuries.

The couple married last year in Massachusetts.

“This was a legally married couple living a new life together,” Marriage Equality USA Executive Director Brian Silva told the New York Times.

The Daily News and other New York media outlets reported an overloaded power strip in a 20th floor apartment sparked the blaze.

08
Jan
2014

Olympic athletes urged to speak out against Russia LGBT record

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Members of Queer Nation NY protest outside of the New York Stock Exchange. (Image via Queer Nation’s YouTube Page)

With less than a month until the 2014 Winter Olympics begin in Sochi, Russia, LGBT activists hope athletes who take part in the games will speak out against the Kremlin’s gay rights record.

“It’s important for the athletes to speak out, in Russia, about their belief that the way the Russian government is treating its gay and lesbian citizens is unacceptable,” said Andrew Miller of Queer Nation NY, which has held a number of protests in New York over the last few months to highlight Russia’s LGBT crackdown.

Speaking out against Russia’s gay propaganda to minors law and other anti-LGBT measures while in Sochi could prove easier said than done.

The Olympic Charter that the International Olympic Committee adopted in 2001 states “no form of publicity or propaganda, commercial or otherwise, may appear on persons, on sportswear, accessories or, more generally, on any article of clothing or equipment whatsoever worn or used by the athletes or other participants in the Olympic games” outside of a manufacturer’s logo. Any athlete who violates this rule could face disqualification or a loss of their accreditation at the Sochi games.

“I am very reluctant to call on athletes to do anything that would explicitly jeopardize their ability to compete in the games or jeopardize their ability to win a medal,” Hudson Taylor, a former University of Maryland wrestler who founded Athlete Ally in 2010 to combat homophobia and transphobia in sports, told the Washington Blade on Tuesday.

Taylor, who is currently an assistant wrestling coach at Columbia University, described the Sochi games as “an enormous moment where international attention is going to focus on sport.” He also told the Blade the athletes who compete in the Olympics will have a platform they could potentially use to highlight LGBT rights abuses in Russia.

“I would like athletes if they are asked about their opinions on these laws, to give their opinion on the laws or give their opinion around support for the LGBT community,” said Taylor.

Ty Cobb, director of global engagement for the Human Rights Campaign, made a similar point.

“A lot’s on the line for athletes who may speak out in ways that the IOC does not like, such as losing their medal,” said Cobb. “I would never want to advocate for someone to put themselves in a situation to lose their medal or be chastised by the IOC, but at the same time we would support any athlete in their effort to really highlight what’s going on with LGBT Russians and to show solidarity with their fight.”

Retired tennis champion Billie Jean King, whom President Obama last month tapped alongside gay figure skater Brian Boitano and others to join the U.S. delegation to the Sochi games, discussed the issue on Tuesday during an appearance on “The Colbert Report.”

“I probably won’t protest,” King told Stephen Colbert. “But if the media asks me a question, I’m going to answer it.”

Doubts about enforcement of law remain

Russian President Vladimir Putin told reporters during an October press conference in Sochi with IOC President Thomas Bach that gays and lesbians will not suffer discrimination during the games. The IOC maintains it has received repeated assurances from the Kremlin the gay propaganda ban will not affect athletes and others who plan to travel to Sochi, even though Russian officials have previously said the statute will apply to those who attend the Olympics.

Taylor acknowledged it is highly unlikely Russia will repeal the gay propaganda law and other anti-LGBT statutes before the Sochi games begin.

“At this stage of things I think the most that we can hope for is to make sure these laws are not being enforced for the duration of the games,” he said, noting Russian officials have created specific areas where they say people can gather and protest. “I’m not convinced those same people protesting will be safe once they leave the protest zones.”

Miller told the Blade he would like to see the U.S. Olympic Committee, along with Coke and other Olympic sponsors pressure the Russian government to overturn the country’s anti-LGBT laws. He said members of Queer Nation NY will continue to hold protests and other actions during and after the Sochi games to highlight Putin’s LGBT rights record.

“He may be counting on the world’s attention focusing elsewhere after the Olympics,” said Miller. “It’s important to pressure them.”

He also said NBC, which will broadcast the Sochi games, can “cover what’s going on in Russia beyond the Olympics.”

Gay MSNBC anchor Thomas Roberts criticized Russia’s gay propaganda law in a series of interviews he gave before he co-hosted the Miss Universe 2013 pageant in Moscow last November with singer Mel B. Neither he, nor pageant participants discussed the Kremlin’s LGBT rights record during the broadcast of the event that NBC Universal co-owns with Donald Trump.

“They’ve done little to nothing about speaking out against the anti-gay laws and have done little to nothing about covering them or their effect,” said Miller.

Bob Costas, who will anchor the network’s prime time coverage of the Sochi games, told the Associated Press in November he welcomes the opportunity to directly ask Putin about the gay propaganda ban as opposed to offering his own commentary about it. He sought to clarify his comments during a Jan. 7 press conference in New York with NBC executives.

“If Putin doesn’t drag his butt into the studio, then we’ll talk about it without him,” said Costas as the Huffington Post reported. “But if he shows up, we’d rather talk to him. Wouldn’t you rather hear it from the horse’s mouth? I would. That’s what I was trying to say.”

State Department issues Sochi travel alert

The U.S. State Department on Jan. 10 issued a travel alert to Americans planning to travel to Sochi following two suicide bombings in the city of Volgograd late last month that killed 34 people. The advisory also highlighted the vagueness of Russia’s gay propaganda law.

“The U.S. government understands that this law applies to both Russian citizens and foreigners in Russia,” reads the State Department alert. “Russian authorities have indicated a broad interpretation of what constitutes ‘LGBT propaganda’ and provided vague guidance as to which actions will be interpreted by authorities as ‘LGBT propaganda.’”

Cobb acknowledged security remains a serious concern ahead of the Sochi games. He stressed, however, those who plan to travel to the Olympics need to know about the Kremlin’s ongoing crackdown of LGBT rights and other issues that include freedom of speech.

“It’s important for the State Department to be very clear with people traveling to Sochi about what the laws are in Russia,” Cobb told the Blade.

Hudson also said those who plan to attend the games should be “mindful of” the ongoing security concerns.

“We have to be careful and measured in how we are speaking out or how someone is protesting,” he said. “I don’t want somebody to expose themselves to potential physical harm. However, I think that there will be opportunities to speak your mind, to show support for the LGBT community without exposing yourself to those risks.”

15
Jan
2014

Second gay couple alleges discrimination at Colombia airport

César Zapata, Hunter Carter, gay news, Washington Blade

From left, César Zapata and Hunter Carter. (Photo courtesy of César Zapata)

A prominent same-sex marriage advocate and his husband are the second gay couple in less than a month to accuse American Airlines personnel at a Colombian airport of wrongfully separating them before boarding a flight to the U.S.

Hunter Carter, who represents three Chilean couples in a same-sex marriage lawsuit before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and spearheads other efforts in support of gay nuptials throughout Latin America, and César Zapata told the Washington Blade on Monday an American Airlines ticket agent at the airport in the Colombian city of Medellín, where the couple has a home, asked them why they were traveling together as they tried to check in to their Miami-bound flight on Jan. 18. The men, who married in Connecticut in 2008 and again in New York in 2012, said they told the agent they were “a family traveling together.”

“She had this look on her face,” Carter told the Blade from New York. “She looked over to the manager and she said, ‘well I need to speak to the manager.’ We sort of knew something was funny.”

Carter said the manager whom he identified as Héctor Carmona told them they needed to separate because airline policy states only “male-female couples can be treated as legally married” and can go through pre-flight security screenings together. Carter told the Blade that American Airlines had never treated him and Zapata separately.

“We buy tickets together; we travel together,” said Carter.

Carter told the Blade that Carmona said to “do what you have to do” when he said he was going to file a complaint. Carter said Carmona then told Zapata to stand back.

“By now everybody was watching,” said Carter. “That was humiliating.”

Carter told the Blade he was given a luggage tag on which to write Carmona’s name.

He said Carmona approached him “intimidatingly close to me, face-to-face” after he took his picture and said he needed his permission to take it. Carter posted it to his Twitter page with a caption that read “Carmona separated us like strangers. Only MF=married. Homophobe or AA policy?” before he and Zapata flew to Miami.

“I said, ‘no, in fact I do not,’” Carter told the Blade as he recalled the exchange he said he had with Carmona. “This is a public place and you just humiliated me and I’m taking the picture for proof.”

Héctor Carmona, American Airlines, Colombia, gay news, Washington Blade

Hunter Carter and César Zapata say Héctor Carmona, an American Airlines manager at the Medellín, Colombia, airport, unfairly separated them during a pre-flight security screening before boarding their flight to Miami on Jan. 18. (Photo by Hunter Carter)

The alleged incident took place less than five weeks after Ana Elisa Leiderman said an American Airlines ticket agent at the Medellín airport separated her from her wife, Verónica Botero, and their two small children as they tried to check in to their Miami-bound flight.

An American Airlines spokesperson told the Blade the company regrets “the circumstances” that Leiderman, Botero and their family faced before their Dec. 13 flight to the U.S.

The spokesperson said airport personnel in Medellín “followed existing security screening rules mandated” by the Transportation Security Administration.”

American Airlines stressed to the Blade it had “flagged for TSA” prior to the incident with Leiderman and Botero that “same-sex and opposite sex married couples faced different screening procedures.” The spokesperson added the company has recommended that TSA officials “revisit and update the process so that all married couples can be treated equally in the future.”

A spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which oversees TSA, did not immediately return the Blade’s request for comment.

The two alleged incidents took place against the ongoing debate over marriage rights for same-sex couples in Colombia.

The country’s highest court in 2011 ruled lawmakers had two years to extend the same benefits to same-sex couples that heterosexuals receive through marriage. The deadline passed last June amid lingering confusion as to whether gays and lesbians could actually tie the knot in the South American country because the ruling did not explicitly contain the word “marriage.”

Colombian Attorney General Alejandro Ordóñez Maldonado has spearheaded efforts to challenge the handful of same-sex marriages that have taken place in the country since last July.

“The procurador (attorney general in Colombian Spanish) has become… for a certain segment of the population, a kind of hero,” Zapata told the Blade as he discussed the way he said Carmona treated him and Hunter. “I guess this guy felt like he was some kind of procurador trying to defend the morals of the country.”

21
Jan
2014

Jason Collins to attend State of the Union

Jason Collins Washington Wizards screenshot via YouTube

Jason Collins is slated to attend the State of the Union address (Screenshot via YouTube).

The professional basketball player who caused a media frenzy by coming out as gay last year is slated to attend the upcoming the State of the Union address, the Washington Blade has learned.

Jason Collins, a former center for the Washington Wizards and now a free agent, is slated to sit next to first lady Michelle Obama during the speech in her box in the House gallery. President Obama is set to deliver the remarks before a joint session of Congress on Tuesday evening.

After coming out as gay in a Sports Illustrated article in April, Collins has enjoyed a strong relationship with the Obamas. On the day the piece was published, Collins received a personal phone call from Obama, who later said during a news conference he was “very proud” of the athlete.

Collins also appeared alongside Michelle Obama during the Democratic National Committee’s annual LGBT gala in New York City in May.

Even though Collins is considered the first openly gay player in a major North American team sport, he has yet to land a contract with any sports team or play a single game after coming out. In December, he told the Washington Blade he doesn’t think his sexual orientation is a factor in why he hasn’t been signed. The deadline for teams to send their playoff rosters to the NBA is March 1.

Other guests slated to sit in the box with the first lady are Boston residents Carlos Arredondo and Jeff Bauman, who survived the Boston Marathon Bombing; Fire Chief Gary Bird of Moore, Okla.; Joey Hudy, an intern for the company Intel from Anthem, Ariz.; and D.C.’s Public School Teacher of the Year for 2013 Kathy Hollowell-Makle.

27
Jan
2014

Pennsylvania couple seeks marriage rights

Independence Hall, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, gay news, Washington Blade

Independence Hall in Philadelphia. (Photo by Rdsmith4; courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

PHILADELPHIA—A married lesbian couple from suburban Philadelphia has filed a federal lawsuit against a Pennsylvania law that prohibits the recognition of same-sex marriages legally performed in other jurisdictions.

Isabelle Barker and Cara Palladino tied the knot in Massachusetts in 2005.

The couple moved to Pennsylvania shortly after their wedding when Barker accepted a position at Bryn Mawr College. Barker gave birth to the couple’s son in 2009.

“We took on the commitment of marriage in 2005 and have supported each other through life’s ups and down,” said Palladino. “We think it is wrong for Pennsylvania to void our marriage and treat us as though we are unmarried when we are very much a loving family.”

Equality Forum, a Philadelphia-based LGBT advocacy group, initiated the lawsuit that was filed on Jan. 13 in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. Mary Bonauto of the Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders is among those who are co-counsel in the case.

“On behalf of Cara and Isabelle and other legally married same-sex families, we will take this injustice as far as is needed to affirm the nation’s 226-year-old history of recognizing marriages from sister states,” said Equality Forum Executive Director Malcolm Lazin.

The American Civil Liberties Union last July filed a lawsuit against Pennsylvania’s statutory gay marriage ban on behalf of 11 same-sex couples and a widow. State Reps. Brian Sims (D-Philadelphia) and Steve McCarter (D-Montgomery County) and state Sen. Daylin Leach (D-Montgomery County) have introduced same-sex marriage bills in the Pennsylvania Legislature.

30
Jan
2014

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.

07
Feb
2014

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.

Raúl Rafael Labrador, Raul Labrador, Idaho, United States House of Representatives, Republican Party, gay news, Washington Blade

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.

13
Feb
2014

Conservative group blasts gay D.C. mayoral candidate

Bruce Majors, Libertarian Party, gay news, Washington Blade

Libertarian mayoral candidate Bruce Majors. (Photo courtesy of Bruce Majors)

The Republican Security Council, a conservative group that advocates for U.S. “military strength,” released a statement this week denouncing gay D.C. mayoral candidate Bruce Majors as an “avowed homosexual” whose positions on foreign policy are “well to the left” of President Obama and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi.

Majors is running as a Libertarian Party candidate. The Republican Security Council says in its statement that Majors has embraced the Libertarian Party’s “anti-war” positions that it says would weaken U.S. foreign policy initiatives and hinder the fight against terrorism.

“I actually pledge, if elected mayor of D.C., not to remove any of the D.C. government military bases from Japan or Germany,” Majors quipped in a statement of his own. “So the Republican Security Council has nothing to fear.”

The RSC says on its website that it has no official connection with the Republican Party. In its statement about Majors, the group criticizes him for backing the Libertarian Party candidate for governor of Virginia last year.

The group says the Libertarian candidate took away votes from GOP gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli, who opposes LGBT rights, resulting in the election of Democrat Terry McAuliffe, a strong supporter of LGBT rights.

“He completely supports gay marriage and has worked against candidates who back the Defense of Marriage Act,” the group said of Majors.

Robert Turner, the gay executive director of the D.C. Republican Party, said the D.C. GOP supports marriage equality and its representatives testified in favor of D.C.’s marriage equality law in 2009.

20
Feb
2014

Shaheen poised to help gay veterans on Senate floor

Jeanne Shaheen, United States Senate, gay news, Washington Blade, New Hampshire, Democratic Party

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) filed the Charlie Morgan Act as an amendment to a veterans benefits bill (Pubic domain photo).

The senior U.S. senator from New Hampshire filed an amendment on Wednesday that would ensure married same-sex couples can access spousal veterans benefits wherever the go in the country, although the measure at this time seems unlikely to see a vote.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) submitted the measure, known as the Charlie Morgan Equal Treatment Act, as a potential amendment to S.1982, a veterans benefits bill under debate this week on Senate floor.

“No one who has served openly in our military and fought for our country should be denied benefits that they’ve rightfully earned,” Shaheen said. “The Charlie Morgan Act makes sure that we fulfill the commitment we have made to all of our veterans and military families so that finally no spouse, child or family can be denied the care and benefits they deserve.”

As the Washington Blade previously reported, seven months after the Supreme Court ruling against Section 3 of Defense of the Marriage Act, the Obama administration is still not affording to veterans benefits — such as disability benefits, survivor benefits and joint burial at a veteran’s cemetery — to married same-sex couples who apply for these benefits in non-marriage equality states.

The portion of the law governing spousal benefits for veterans, 103(c) of Title 38, looks to the state the residence, not the state of celebration, to determine whether a couple is married. The Obama administration has said it’s reviewing whether it can afford these to married same-sex couples in states without marriage equality following the DOMA decision, but no announcement has been made.

The amendment is cosponsored by Sens. Mark Udall (D-Colo), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis).

Udall said in a statement the amendment ensure veterans “receive the benefits they have earned regardless of whom they love or in which state they were legally married.”

“Despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision to strike down the discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act, legally married veterans and their families are still being cut off from the benefits they earned through their service to our nation,” Udall said.

Just because the senators filed the amendment, the measure won’t necessarily come up on the Senate floor. Senate leadership has to come to an agreement to allow the amendment to come up for a vote.

Faiz Shakir, a spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), blamed Republicans and said at this time no amendments — including the Charlie Morgan Act — will be able to come up for a vote on the measure.

“The Republicans have been poisoning the debate by insisting that a vote on Iran sanctions be included as part of the bipartisan veterans bill,” Shakir said. “Sen. Reid has insisted that we should allow votes on relevant amendments from both sides (which the Shaheen/Udall proposal would certainly be a candidate for). But until Republicans can agree to the threshold of relevant amendments, we’re stuck in a situation where no progress on amendments can be had.”

Don Stewart, a spokesperson for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), in turn criticized Reid.

“First of all, we’re not even on the bill yet procedurally, so no amendments are in order at this time,” Stewart said. “And once we are, the expectation is that Sen. Reid will ‘fill the tree’ (which blocks ALL other amendments from being considered).

Udall has been vocal about the issue and has written at least two letters to the Obama administration urging federal officials to stop enforcing veterans law in a way that discriminates against same-sex couples.

Mike Saccone, a Udall spokesperson, said the introduction of the amendment shouldn’t be taken as a sign the senator has given up on pushing for an administrative fix to the issue.

“The administration can and should do this on its own, but until that happens Sen. Udall is going to pursue every avenue to fix this and prevent any more incidents of discrimination,” Saccone said.

The amendment is named after New Hampshire National Guard Chief Warrant Officer Charlie Morgan, a plaintiff in the one of the federal lawsuits against the DOMA who passed away last year after a battle with breast cancer. According to Shaheen’s office, Morgan’s spouse and daughter haven’t able to receive certain survivor benefits “due to restrictions in the federal code prohibiting the VA from administering benefits.

Last year, the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs approved the Charlie Morgan Act by voice vote as part of a package of additional bills.

Allison Herwitt, vice president for government affairs at the Human Rights Campaign, was among those calling for passage of the measure.

“While we have made great progress in extending the full range of federal benefits to married lesbian and gay couples, there is still uncertainty regarding the equal recognition of all the families of the brave men and women who have served our nation in uniform,” Herwitt said. “Sen. Shaheen’s bill will honor the memory of Charlie Morgan and ensure that all veteran families get the respect and benefits they deserve.”

26
Feb
2014