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Obama’s State of the Union light on LGBT issues

State of the Union, 2014, Barack Obama, United States House of Representatives, United States Senate, U.S. Congress, gay news, Washington Blade

President Obama was criticized by LGBT advocates over his State of the Union address. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

President Obama had few words in his State of the Union speech Tuesday night on LGBT issues, disappointing advocates who had wanted him to address the lack of federal non-discrimination protections for LGBT people.

Devoting a large portion of his speech to income equality, Obama called on on Congress to pass other initiatives — such as a Voting Rights Act, a measure to ensure equal for pay women, immigration reform — and pledged to sign an executive order raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour for federal contractors.

“In the coming months, let’s see where else we can make progress together,” Obama said. “Let’s make this a year of action. That’s what most Americans want: for all of us in this chamber to focus on their lives, their hopes, their aspirations.”

LGBT advocates had been pushing Obama to include in his speech a call to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and a pledge to sign an executive order barring federal contractors from discriminating against LGBT workers.

Obama’s continued decision to withhold the LGBT executive order became more pronounced after he promised during his speech to take executive action if Congress doesn’t pass legislation, and enumerated a specific plan to boost the minimum wage through executive order. That raised questions about why he hasn’t done the same for LGBT workers.

“What I offer tonight is a set of concrete, practical proposals to speed up growth, strengthen the middle class, and build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class,” Obama said. “Some require congressional action, and I am eager to work with all of you. But America does not stand still — and neither will I. So wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do.”

But Obama’s speech wasn’t completely devoid of any references to the LGBT community. The president identified marriage equality as one of those issues with which the White House is partnering with “mayors, governors and state legislatures” on throughout the country.

Further, he said the administration pursues a robust foreign policy because “we believe in the inherent dignity and equality of every human being” regardless of categories like sexual orientation. Obama also said American values “equality under law” in his speech, which is of importance as courts decide the issue of marriage equality.

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President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Speaker of the House John Boehner at the 2014 State of the Union Address. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Nonetheless, the speech fell short of what LGBT advocates were calling in terms of federal workplace non-discrimination policy, prompting disappointment.

Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, responded the president’s failure to address LGBT issues in his speech with criticism, a striking change in tone from the organization’s usual praise of Obama as a strong LGBT ally.

“The President’s message tonight failed to address the needs of LGBT workers looking for a fair shake in this economy,” Griffin said. “Not only was there no call for the House to pass a federal law to protect LGBT workers nationwide, President Obama also sidestepped his commitment to take action where Congress has left off, leaving out an order prohibiting discrimination by federal contractors.”

Griffin added Obama “missed a real opportunity” to commit in the State of the Union to “executive action to address anti-LGBT discrimination for the millions of Americans employed by federal contractors.”

The absence of ENDA was particularly noteworthy because just months ago, for the first time in history, the Senate approved the measure on bipartisan basis, leaving the House as the only obstacle toward passage.

Although the president made no mention of ENDA during his speech, the White House included the legislation as part of a fact sheet distributed to reporters prior to the address, identifying LGBT non-discrimination as an issue in which the administration is “continuing to work with Congress.”

“Today, federal law prohibits employment discrimination based on race, sex, religion, and disability,” the fact sheet states. “It’s time to add sexual orientation and gender identity to that list, so that no American worker can lose his or her job simply because of who they are or who they love. ”

After noting that the Senate last year passed ENDA by a bipartisan vote, the fact sheet says Obama “renews his call for the House to do the same.”

Others advocates said they would continue to push Obama on the executive order despite the president’s exclusion of the directive from the State of the Union address.

Tico Almeida, president of Freedom to Work, said Obama’s pledge to issue an executive order on minimum wage was “great news” because it means there’s an opportunity for Obama to sign an executive order against LGBT discrimination.

“It’s disappointing ENDA did not make it into the State of the Union,” Almeida said. “But no matter what was omitted from this one address, we can still make 2014 a year of action for LGBT workplace protections by pushing the House of Representatives to allow an ENDA vote and pushing the President to keep his promise of the federal contractor executive order.”

Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, gave Obama mixed reviews after previously calling on Obama to use the word “transgender” and address immigration reform during his speech in addition to LGBT workplace protections.

“The President is right to urge congress to fix our broken immigration system this year, the creation of more jobs, equal pay for women, and the restoration of the Voting Rights Act,” Carey said. “We are also pleased that the President is using his pen like he said he would to move things forward: in this instance by signing an executive order to increase the minimum wage for federal contract workers. However, he must go further and sign an executive order that bans discrimination against the same contract workers who are LGBT.”

Carey noted some of the workers who are set to receive pay raises because of the minimum wage executive order are vulnerable without the executive order for LGBT workplace non-discrimation.

“The irony is that some LGBT federal contract workers will get a pay raise but they could still be fired for who they are and who they love,” Carey said. “The longer the President waits the more damage LGBT people will face; discrimination is a painful reality that is too often the lived experience of LGBT people. The President has to act when Congress won’t.”

Gregory Angelo, executive director of the National Log Cabin Republicans, took issue with the speech as a whole, not simply for Obama’s handling of workplace issues.

“For a moment, I thought the news accidentally re-ran last year’s State of the Union, because all I really saw was more of the same,” Angelo said. “In the midst of a stagnant economy, understated unemployment, and ballooning debt, the only new ideas presented by the President involved using ‘a pen and a phone’ to push a liberal agenda for which hard-working Americans have no appetite.”

Coming off a victory in which Rep. Michael Grimm (R-N.Y.) agreed to sign on as co-sponsor of ENDA, Angelo also chided Obama for his lack of attention in the State of the Union to LGBT non-discrimination in the workforce.

“While the President’s calls for a more equal nation are welcome, there is a profound irony in the absence of any mention of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act for LGBT workers tonight, and likewise in the President’s threat to exercise unilateral Executive actions with the explosive potential to ignite class warfare, while at the same time remaining silent on signing a common-sense Executive Order barring federal workplace discrimination: an empty promise to LGBT Americans that stands unfulfilled after six years,” Angelo said.

Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, defended the speech by saying it wasn’t “a comprehensive list of all of the president’s positions or priorities. ”

“The President has long supported ENDA, and its inclusion in our fact sheet reflects the President’s belief that Congress needs to act,” Inouye said.

Among the guests seated behind first lady Michelle Obama in her box during the speech was Jason Collins, a former Washington Wizards center who made headlines last year after coming out as gay.

Following the speech, lawmakers who spoke to the Washington Blade on Capitol Hill said they noted the absence of the ENDA in his speech, but felt assured by the president’s leadership.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said she thinks the minimum wage executive order will be a “down payment” on an LGBT directive the president will issue at a later time, but took issue with the lack of any mention of ENDA.

“I would love to have seen a mention, and I don’t think I saw, other than a passing mention of the LGBT community,” Norton said. “I think the way to have done it, frankly, would have been with ENDA, because ENDA is overwhelmingly supported by the American people. It’s already been supported by the Senate. It’s ripe, so I am disappointed that that did not occur, but I’m heartened that he’s going to move, and, frankly, I think we can get ENDA out of here in the next year or two.”

Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), one of seven openly gay members of the U.S. House, said he was confident Obama would take executive action to protect LGBT workers based on his previous actions.

“I tell you, 2013 was one of the gayest years in the history of human kind, and this president has used his executive orders already in how he’s interpreted the Supreme Court decisions, the way he’s applied in the ruling in the Windsor case, in ways that have been very favorable,” Takano said. “He’s done that through executive orders and interpretations, so he’s already used his executive order in the gayest way possible. So, I have hope that he’ll continue to do so.”

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Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) at the 2014 State of the Union Address. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)


Gay judicial nominee confirmed to Oregon federal court

Michael McShane, United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Washington Blade, gay news

The U.S. Senate confirmed Michael McShane to the federal bench by voice vote. (Photo courtesy of the United States Senate)

The Senate confirmed a gay Oregon judge to the federal bench on Monday after nearly an eight-month wait from when he was first nominated by President Obama.

By voice vote, U.S. senators confirmed the nomination of Michael McShane for a seat on the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon — making him the sixth openly gay person to serve on the federal bench.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who recommended the nomination, praised the Senate in a statement for sending McShane to the federal bench.

“Over the years Oregon has been blessed with a long line of distinguished judges,” Wyden said. “Judge McShane will be a tremendous asset to the court and he will certainly add to that tradition. He’s got a heart for people, a head for the law and a high-minded sense of justice.”

Previously, McShane served as a judge on the Multnomah County Circuit Court. Now that the Senate has confirmed him to the federal judiciary, McShane will serve as a replacement for U.S. District Court Judge Michael Hogan.

Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, also commended the Senate for confirming McShane, whom Obama first named in September before renominating him at the start of the 113th Congress.

“The president welcomes the confirmation of Michael McShane,” Inouye said. “He will serve the American people well from the District of Oregon bench.

McShane’s confirmation makes him fifth openly gay nominee during the Obama administration to obtain confirmation by the Senate.

Other openly gay judicial nominations that are outstanding are Nitza Quinones Alejandro, who was nominated to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania; Todd Hughes, who was nominated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit; Elaine Kaplan, who was nominated to the U.S. Court of Federal Claims; and William Thomas, who was nominated to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida.


Obama praises Boy Scouts, but hopes for more change

President Obama praised the Boy Scouts of America’s decision to lift its ban on openly gay youth, but added he hopes the organization will take further action to allow openly gay Scout leaders, according to the White House.

Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, issued the response to the 103-year-old organization’s decision to end its ban on gay youth on Friday in response to an inquiry from the Washington Blade.

“The President welcomes the decision by the Boy Scouts of America to open its membership to all, regardless of sexual orientation,” Inouye said. “He has long believed that the Scouts is a valuable organization that has helped educate and build character in American boys for more than a century.”

Inouye continued, “He continues to believe that leadership positions in the Scouts should be open to all, regardless of sexual orientation.”

On Thursday, the 1,400 members of the Boy Scouts National Council approved a resolution to end its ban on gay youth from participating by a margin of 61-38 percent. But the measure leaves in place the ban on openly gay leaders.

Obama’s views on the Boy Scouts’ policy on gay members is particularly significant because, as president of the United States, he also serves as honorary president of the Boy Scouts.

Deron Smith, a Boy Scouts spokesperson, responded to the White House by saying the organization continues to appreciate Obama’s support for the organization.

“For 103 years, the Boy Scouts of America has been a part of the fabric of this nation, with a focus on working together to deliver the nation’s foremost youth program of character development and values-based leadership training,” Smith said. “We are thankful President Obama recognizes the value of the organization.”

GLAAD praised Obama’s statement.

“As the Honorary President of the Boy Scouts of America, this statement on President Obama’s support is significant,” said Rich Ferraro, a GLAAD spokesperson. “Gay parents and adults should be accepted into Scouting and our campaign for change will continue until that happens. As openly gay youth begin participating in Scouting and earn Eagle Rank, the Boy Scouts will come to realize that gay Americans and our families only strengthen Scouting as an institution.”


LGBT-inclusive education reform bill introduced in Senate

Senate HELP Committee Chair Tom Harkin has pledged to move ENDA this year (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Senate HELP Committee Chair Tom Harkin has pledged to advance ENDA this year. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

The lead Democrat on education issues in the U.S. Senate introduced on Tuesday an education reform bill that includes provisions aimed at prohibiting bullying and discrimination of LGBT students.

For the first time, Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee Chair Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) introduced the LGBT-inclusive legislation to reauthorize the Elementary & Secondary Education Act with language along the lines of  the Student Non-Discrimination Act and the Safe School Schools Improvement Act.

In a statement to the Washington Blade, Harkin touted the inclusion of the LGBT bills in his 1,150-page long bill known as the  Strengthening America’s Schools Act of 2013

“Because every child deserves a safe and healthy place to learn, we have included the Student Non-Discrimination Act and the Safe Schools Improvement Act in this year’s reauthorization of ESEA,” Harkin said. “These provisions will help to ensure that all students, regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation, are treated fairly and afforded equal opportunities to succeed in the classroom.”

Modeled after Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, the SNDA-like provision in the bill establishes LGBT students as a protected class and prohibits schools from discriminating against any student based on actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. The discrimination includes allowing bullying against them.

The bill also contains provisions similar to SSIA that advocates for a positive school climate and requires reporting on incidents of bullying, including on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

Plans are already underway to advance the bill out of committee. In a statement, Harkin announced he’ll start the markup of the bill, which is co-sponsored by every Democratic member of the committee, starting Tuesday.

The LGBT provisions are a small portion of the bill. The reauthorization of the Elementary & Secondary Education Act, which intends to restructure “No Child Left Behind,” aims to support teachers and principals to help provide high-quality instruction and focus federal attention on supporting states in turning around low-performing schools.

Given that every Democrat on the panel is a co-sponsor of the education reform bill, the measure should have sufficient support for a successful committee vote. It remains to be seen whether any Republicans will vote in favor of the measure.

On the same day that Harkin introduced the education reform bill, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) introduced the standalone version of the Student Non-Discrimination Act.

“No child should dread going to school because they don’t feel safe,” Franken said. “Our nation’s civil rights laws protect our children from bullying due to race, sex, religion, disability and national origin. My proposal extends these protections to our gay and lesbian students who shouldn’t ever feel afraid of going to school.”

Franken’s legislation has 30 co-sponsors, including lesbian Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), although the co-sponsors are Democrats.

In the House, SNDA has already been introduced. Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), a gay lawmaker who’s sponsoring the bill, commended Harkin for including the LGBT measure as part of his education reform bill.

“SNDA’s inclusion in this important bill is reflective of how important protecting all students is and I look forward to working with my colleagues on the Education & Workforce Committee to move forward on our bipartisan bill in the House,” Polis said.

SSIA has also already been introduced in the House and Senate. In the House, the bill is sponsored by Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.) while in the Senate, the chief sponsor is Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.).

Last year, Harkin introduced a version of ESEA reauthorization that lacked either SNDA or SSIA. During committee markup, advocates pressured Franken and Casey to introduce their legislation as amendments during the committee markup. They ultimately withdrew their amendments in committee while promising to offer the bills as amendments on the Senate floor. However, the full Senate never considered ESEA reauthorization.

LGBT advocates praised Harkin for introducing the LGBT-inclusive education reform bill and said they’d work to make sure the measure is signed into law.

Ian Thompson, legislative representative of the American Civil Liberties Union, said his organization is “very pleased” Harkin included in ESEA reauthorization a piece of LGBT legislation the ACLU has long sought.

“The fact that there is still no federal law – in the year 2013 – that explicitly protects LGBT students from discrimination and harassment in our nation’s public schools is unacceptable,” Thompson said. “We look forward to working with Chairman Harkin and Sen. Franken, SNDA’s longtime Senate champion, to advance this much-needed and long-overdue civil rights measure through the HELP Committee.”

Eliza Byard, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, called the introduction of the LGBT-inclusive bill “a significant moment for our nation’s education system.”

“We are thrilled that the Senate is moving to address the long overdue issue of school bullying and harassment” Byard said. “This bill includes critical components to ensure safer learning environments. We will continue to work with the Senate as the process moves forward to make sure that key provisions remain intact so that every student can reach their fullest potential.”

Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, also expressed support for working with Congress on issues of bullying and harassment as the legislation goes forward.

“As the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is being considered, we look forward to working with Congress to ensure that all students are safe and healthy and can learn in environments free from discrimination, bullying and harassment,” Inouye said.


DNC treasurer says ‘process’ underway for ENDA directive

Democratic National Committee Treasurer Andrew Tobias says a 'process' under over an ENDA executive order (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Democratic National Committee Treasurer Andrew Tobias (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

The treasurer of the Democratic National Committee is telling LGBT donors that “a process” is underway that would lead to President Obama signing an executive order banning LGBT workplace discrimination among federal contractors.

In an email dated May 30 from an off-the-record listserv leaked to the Washington Blade, Andy Tobias, who’s gay, said in response to questions about the directive that he’s spoken to officials within the administration and “everyone’s for it,” but the hold up is related to “process.”

“I have spoken to people in an attempt to understand better myself what the delay is — and to lobby for its getting done,” Tobias wrote. “Those people have left me satisfied that our frustration is heard, that the hold-up is not staffers who oppose our rights but a process that is broader than just this one very important and long delayed agenda item. To which I basically respond: can I share more of the specifics? (‘Please don’t') and can you please get a move on?! (‘we hear you brother; keep the faith’).”

Tobias, who’s gay, concludes by saying other LGBT agenda items were achieved under President Obama, including hate crimes protection legislation, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal and the completion of the president’s evolution on same-sex marriage. He added, “But they got done and this will get done too.

The email is a follow-up to an email that Tobias wrote already published by the Washington Blade from the same listserv responding to criticism over first lady Michelle Obama’s speech during a DNC LGBT gala in New York. The second email is in response to a question from Freedom to Work’s Tico Almeida.

Tobias declined to comment on the emails, although multiple individuals on the listserv confirmed they came from his email address.

Other emails from Tobias leaked to the Blade reveal that he’s attempted to tamp down concerns among some on the listserv over the White House withholding the executive order. The second email is the one in which he talks most explicitly about a process potentially leading to the directive.

Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, reiterated that an executive order is a “hypothetical” matter for the administration.

“As we’ve said before, the White House has no updates regarding a hypothetical Executive Order on LGBT non-discrimination for federal contractors,” Inouye said.

Still, this assertion of a process is consistent with indications from the White House that some kind of study is underway — or possibly completed — on LGBT discrimination protections.

In April, Inouye alluded to an examination in a previously unpublished response to the Blade over a little-noticed year-old quote from the Center for American Progress’ Winnie Stachelberg about a study on the issue from the Council of Economic Advisers. Inouye said, “We continue to study the issue.”

That year-old quote came after a high-level White House meeting in which Senior Adviser to the President Valerie Jarrett told LGBT advocates the administration wouldn’t at the time issue an executive order for LGBT workplace protections. A source familiar with the meeting, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said White House officials didn’t say CEA would conduct a study, but noted there are multiple options for how to study the issue and gave CEA as an example.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney didn’t deny the existence of the study last week when questioned about it during a news briefing, saying, “I don’t have any updated status on that for you.” The White House didn’t respond to further requests from the Blade to elaborate.

Internal work within the Obama administration on the executive order reportedly was done more than a year ago. Sources told the Blade last year that the Labor and Justice departments indicated they could implement the order if Obama signed it.

But if a study is underway within the White House, it’s being kept under tight wraps.

The Human Rights Campaign, Freedom to Work, the National Center for Transgender Equality and the Williams Institute said they’re unaware of such a study. Center for American Progress didn’t respond to requests for comment about it.

Groups that did respond said LGBT advocates — particularly Stachelberg and then-HRC president Joe Solmonese — strongly pushed back on the idea of a White House study a year ago, saying additional information was unnecessary amid other reports that have already been published.

For example, LGBT groups led by the Movement Advancement Project, HRC and CAP last week unveiled a 131-page report, titled “A Broken Bargain: Discrimination, Fewer Benefits and More Taxes for LGBT Workers” detailing the harms of the absence of any federal LGBT workplace discrimination protections. Among the findings were 67 percent of small business owners support federal workplace non-discrimination protections and 63 percent of Americans believe religious beliefs aren’t an acceptable reason to fire LGBT workers.

Meanwhile, advocates, particularly at Freedom to Work, say the executive order is a campaign promise from President Obama based on a response to the Houston GLBT Political Caucus in 2008 indicating that he supports a non-discrimination policy for all federal contractors based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

It’s possible the administration is awaiting the rulings from the Supreme Court in the Prop 8 and DOMA cases before the end of this month to evaluate what further action to take.

Tico Almeida, president of Freedom of Work, said he’s hopeful that the administration is in the middle of a process that will lead to Obama signing the order sometime in June in accordance with Pride, but would “bet on a signature at some point later this year.”

“I have never lost faith that President Obama is a man of his word who will fulfill his written campaign promise and sign the executive order,” Almeida said. “He will build on his unmatched record as the best president ever for advancing LGBT equality. I’m keeping faith in President Obama.”

The full email from Tobias follows:

Hey, Tico.  I can only give you an unsatisfactory answer.  But here it is.

I have spoken to people in an attempt to understand better myself what the delay is — and to lobby for its getting done.  Those people have left me satisfied that our frustration is heard, that the hold-up is not staffers who oppose our rights but a process that is broader than just this one very important and long delayed agenda item.

To which I basically respond: can I share more of the specifics? (“Please don’t”) and can you please get a move on?! (“we hear you brother; keep the faith”).

If this just serves to make you more angry, then of course I should have ignored your question.  But it’s a completely fair question and I’d rather be damned for trying to provide at least a little context, unsatisfactory though it surely is, than for failing to respond.

If we all keep pushing, not least with this Exxon action to focus around, we’ll get there — later than we should have but a great deal sooner than we would have if we hadn’t helped reelect the President.

Hate crimes was done too slowly — we deserved it 20 years ago. DADT and evolution on marriage and all the rest. But they got done and this will get done too.

Push and support.  Both directly in our self interest.



Bi advocates seek visibility through White House roundtable

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The White House is set to hold a closed-door bisexual roundtable on Monday (Photo by Peter Salanki via Wikimedia Commons).

Bisexual advocates are hailing an upcoming roundtable at the White House as an opportunity for greater discussion about their issues — despite the closed-door nature of the panel.

For the first-time ever, the White House Office of Public Engagement is set on Monday to hold a meeting on bisexual issues at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. The roundtable, which is closed to the press, will take place on Celebrate Bisexuality Day on which bisexual visibility is observed.

Two groups responsible for putting together the roundtable are the Boston-based Bisexual Resource Center and BiNet USA, an umbrella organization for bisexual groups.

Faith Cheltenham, president of BiNet USA, said she’s “excited” the administration is taking time to talk to members of the bisexual community about their issues.

“Our community is definitely in desperate need,” Cheltenham said. “We’re hoping that this dialogue is just the start of a very long, fruitful relationship to help serve our community.”

An observer might reject the idea of the need for a separate discussion on bisexual issues when they’re closely to tied to gay and lesbian issues. After all, bills like the Employment Non-Discrimination Act provide protections based on sexual orientation, which is inclusive of bisexuality.

Cheltenham, who’s married to a straight man, rejected the notion that bisexuals automatically face the same challenges as gay or lesbian people, saying many bisexual people suffer additional discrimination.

“When we do come out, the things that happen to us are different than what happens to gays or lesbians,” Cheltenham said. “We won’t get promoted sometimes because we’re out and people think we’re flaky. That has nothing to do it. Bisexuality is sexual orientation; it’s an innate part of who we are.”

These advocates also say bisexual visibility is necessary because bisexuals face disparity not only in the general population, but within the LGBT community.

For example, as Cheltenham noted, a 2013 report from the Centers for Disease Control Control found 61 percent of bisexual women have faced intimate partner violence, sexual violence and stalking based on their sexual orientation. Comparatively, the numbers are 44 percent for lesbians, 35 percent for straight woman, 26 percent for gay men and 37 percent for bisexual men.

Cheltenham also said bisexual men face unique problems compared to gay men in terms of increased vulnerability to mental health issues and HIV/AIDS.

“Te HIV prevention models that have been working or do work for gay men and heterosexual men — there’s no specific bisexual one, and that’s a problem,” Cheltenham said. “So bisexual men aren’t being educated on HIV at the levels that we want them to be. We’re not seeing them reflected in HIV materials.”

Ellyn Ruthstrom, president of the Bisexual Resource Center, said the White House roundtable provides an important opportunity for bisexual advocates to come together to “share their perspectives” with LGBT advocates and administration officials.

“Our bisexual community is suffering to a larger degree on many of these different health disparities, mental health issues,” Ruthstrom said. “You just assume if we’re addressing just the LGBT community as a whole, then we must be taking care of bisexuals. And that is not the case.”

Although bisexuals may not be considered as publicly prominent as lesbian or gay people, a 2011 report from the Williams Institute estimated that they actually make up a majority of those who identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual.

Among the 3.5 percent of the population identifying as LGB, bisexuals comprise a slight majority, or 1.8 percent, compared to the 1.7 percent who identify as lesbian or gay, the report says.

Cheltenham and Ruthstrom were reluctant to talk about how many people will attend the roundtable, or disclose any names of participating advocates or administration officials because the event is off the record.

Still, they confirmed they planned to attend along other bisexual advocates and researchers from across the country, including a large percentage of people of color. The Human Rights Campaign has previously said it would take part in some capacity.

Asked whether President Obama would attend, Cheltenham said she couldn’t speak to it, but hasn’t heard he’ll be in attendance.

Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, confirmed the roundtable would take place on Monday, but declined to provide additional information other than to affirm it’s closed to the press.

“As it routinely does with interested parties on any number of issues, the White House Office of Public Engagement will hold a briefing on Monday on issues of concern to the bisexual community,” Inouye said. “This event is closed press.”

It’s not unusual for the Office of Public Engagement to hold meetings that aren’t public. That’s generally the ground rules for the events that office holds — LGBT or otherwise.

Asked whether she wants the White House to open up the event, Cheltenham would only say generally she sees value in discussions on bisexual issues be open to the public.

“I’m totally in support of any public event that gives us a chance to dialogue about the disparities of our community — whatever they may be, whether that’s at the White House, or at HRC or at other places,” Cheltenham said.

While the meeting may be a first for the White House, bisexuals have been organizing independently of the LGBT community for some time. The Bisexual Resource Center, for example, was founded in 1985 following a regional conference.

Cheltenham said bisexual advocates have engaged with the White House for years and first brought up the idea for a panel with then-White House LGBT liaison Brian Bond in June 2010.

“From there, we started having discussions about what that would look like,” Cheltenham said. “We engaged the White House, and this is sort of where we came together.”

Robyn Ochs, a Boston-based bisexual activist and educator, told the Washington Blade via email she’s “delighted” the roundtable is taking place because the needs of bisexual people “are not exactly the same” as others in the LGBT community.

“Yet in research, in public policy and in health policy we are usually either lumped in with lesbians and gay men, or else completely ignored,” Ochs said. “For this reason, I am delighted that this meeting is taking place, as it is an opportunity to shine some light on issue facing this sizable population.”


White House responds to R.I. marriage equality bills

The White House has responded to pending legislation in Rhode Island that would legalize marriage equality in that state, suggesting President Obama backs the approval of the bills in the last New England state without same-sex marriage rights.

“While the President does not weigh in on every measure being considered by the states, he believes all couples should be treated fairly and equally, with dignity and respect,” said White House spokesperson Shin Inouye. “As he has said, his personal view is that it’s wrong to prevent couples who are in loving, committed relationships, and want to marry, from doing so.”

Inouye delivered the statement to the Washington Blade earlier this week in response to a request for comment on the legislation, which was introduced last week in the House by State Rep. Arthur Handy and the Senate by lesbian State Sen. Donna Nesselbush. A vote is expected later this month.

The response to the Rhode Island legislation is similar to a statement on legislation in Illinois issued late last month. In that response — the first time the White House has weighed in on pending marriage equality legislation before a state legislature — Inouye specifically mentioned Illinois and said Obama would vote for the marriage equality legislation if he were still a member of the state legislature.



Advocates urge Obama to issue ENDA executive order

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GetEQUAL members gathered outside the White House on Feb. 10 to urge President Obama to sign an ENDA executive director. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Activists who gathered outside the White House on Sunday urged President Obama to sign an executive order that would ban federal contractors from discriminating against their LGBT employees.

Roughly a dozen members of GetEQUAL and the Maryland Light Brigade held panels with illuminated letters that spelled out “Sign ENDA EO” on the Ellipse and in front of the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue.

“The State of the Union is coming up in two days and our hope would be the president would get the message,” Heather Cronk, managing director of GetEQUAL, told the Washington Blade. “He has the power to take action to end employment discrimination.”

Obama specifically mentioned gay men and lesbians, marriage rights for same-sex couples and the Stonewall riots in his second inaugural address last month. LGBT advocates with whom the Blade spoke last week said they hope the president would urge lawmakers during his State of the Union address on Tuesday to pass the long-stalled Employment Non-Discrimination Act this year.

“While it is not our usual practice to discuss executive orders that may or may not be under consideration, we do not expect that an executive order on LGBT non-discrimination for federal contractors will be issued at this time,” White House spokesperson Shin Inouye told the Blade in response to GetEQUAL’s protest. “We support ENDA and we will continue to work to build support for it.”

Cronk said such an executive order would impact a quarter of the American workforce.

“If he [Obama] is taking workplace equality seriously and if he’s taking unemployment seriously than this is something that he could do very easily the night of the State of the Union and show LGBT Americans that he’s actually in our corner in a significant way,” she said.


Still waiting for first LGBT Cabinet appointment

California Assembly Speaker John A. Perez is set to be in contention as labor secretary, but are LGBT groups pushing for his nomination? (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

California Assembly Speaker John A. Perez is set to be in contention as labor secretary, but are LGBT groups pushing for his nomination? (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

President Obama is facing a flurry of requests to take administrative action on behalf of the LGBT community at the onset of his second term. One call that has so far been ignored is for the appointment of an openly LGBT Cabinet member.

In recent months, LGBT groups — such as the Human Rights Campaign and the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund — have said the appointment of an openly LGBT Cabinet member is important because it would provide visibility to the community and break a key remaining glass ceiling. No president has ever appointed an openly LGBT Cabinet member.

In November, Fred Sainz, HRC’s vice president of communications, told the Washington Blade the LGBT community is “rightly interested” in a Cabinet appointment as well as a G-20 ambassadorship.

But in comparison to other requests, such as participation in the lawsuit before the U.S. Supreme Court against California’s Proposition 8 or an executive order barring anti-LGBT workplace discrimination among federal contractors, the issue of appointing an LGBT Cabinet member hasn’t yet received significant attention.

Richard Socarides, a gay New York-based advocate and proponent of an LGBT Cabinet appointment, said he couldn’t say whether action from advocacy groups on the appointment is sufficient because he doesn’t know what’s happening behind the scenes, but acknowledged the public pressure is “rather muted.”

“I think that right now the organized political gay community in Washington has a very strong connection with, and relationship with the president, and he has delivered for us in many ways,” Socarides said. “So I think that there is, no doubt, a reluctance to rock the boat for the most part.”

Jim Burroway, a gay editor of the Tuczon, Ariz.-based blog Box Turtle Bulletin, said he hasn’t given the issue the “thought it deserves,” but acknowledged the importance of pushing for high-profile LGBT appointments.

“I’m always reluctant to say that this appointment or that appointment needs to be an LGBT person, but in the general scheme of things, it’s certainly time that an appointment somewhere reflects the diversity of the nation, or even of corporate America, when it comes to LGBT inclusion,” Burroway said.

HRC and the Victory Fund had no comment last month when Obama selected Sally Jewell, a Washington State-based businessperson, for the role of interior secretary, even though that selection meant John Berry, the gay head of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, didn’t get the job. Although Berry was passed over, Jewell is a known advocate of the LGBT community and helped drive business support for marriage equality when it was on the ballot last year in her state.

Media speculation that Berry would be tapped to head the Interior Department was widespread because of his close ties to the administration and his background as a lower-level official in the department during the Clinton years and service as head of the National Wildlife Federation and National Zoo.

Comparatively, LGBT groups like HRC and OutServe-SLDN were aggressive in calling on Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to extend the available benefits to gay troops with same-sex partners, which ultimately led to the Pentagon taking action.

Michael Cole-Schwartz, an HRC spokesperson, said in response to the comparative silence that HRC has “been clear from the start” that it would like high-profile LGBT appointments during Obama’s second term.

“We have not called for any specific position to be filled by any specific individual and it is not our intent to comment on every personnel decision,” Cole-Schwartz said. “As the president continues to make nominations in his second term, there remains an abundance of exceptional LGBT Americans willing and able to serve and it is our hope that we will see an openly gay Cabinet secretary and other historic appointments.”

Denis Dison, a Victory Fund spokesperson, touted the success of the Presidential Appointments Project in response to a similar inquiry. The Project has helped facilitate the appointment of at least 260 openly LGBT officials within the Obama administration.

“The Project continues to advocate for qualified, experienced openly LGBT individuals who are capable of becoming leaders at all levels of government, including at the Cabinet level,” Dison said. “Because personnel decisions are by their nature sensitive, we believe our advocacy is best done privately.”

Even though the position of interior secretary will be off the table once Jewell receives Senate confirmation, other positions are open in the Cabinet that are possibilities for LGBT appointments.

One that has sparked media attention recently is the potential appointment of gay California Assembly Speaker John Perez as a replacement for Hilda Solis as labor secretary.

John O’Connor, executive director of Equality California, said Perez would be an excellent choice as labor secretary because he’s a champion of both LGBT people and the working class.

“Perez has built bridges between the LGBT community and labor,” O’Connor said. “Given his legacy of accomplishment in our state, we are incredibly supportive of his candidacy and would be so proud to see it happen.”

Fred Hochberg, the gay head of the U.S. Export-Import Bank, has been viewed as a potential candidate for the role of commerce secretary. In December, an administration official told the Blade the White House is “looking carefully” at Hochberg for the position. However, he may have been passed over as well if media reports are correct that Obama is close to nominating banker Penny Pritzker for the role.

Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, said in response to a Blade inquiry on whether the administration values sexual orientation and gender identity as an element of diversity in high-profile appointments that he has “no personnel announcements.”


Senate confirms first openly gay Asian-American to federal bench

Pamela Ki Mai Chen, federal judge nominee, lesbian, attorney, New York, Senate Judicial Committee

Judge Pamela Chen was confirmed to the bench on Monday by a voice vote in the Senate. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The U.S. Senate on Monday evening made history with little difficulty when it confirmed the first openly gay Asian-American for a seat on the federal bench.

By a voice vote, the Senate confirmed Pamela Ki Mai Chen, a lesbian, for a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York. President Obama first nominated her a judgeship in August and renamed her along with others at the start of the 113th Congress.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, who recommended the nomination to Obama, praised the Senate for confirming Chen in a statement and said her background will serve her well on the federal bench.

“Ms. Chen’s wealth of experience and devotion to public service make it clear that she will be an excellent judge,” Schumer said. “Ms. Chen has proven time and again that she is a leader and a pioneer in the legal field. I have every confidence that she will serve her jurisdiction well.”

Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, echoed that sentiment over the confirmation of Obama’s judicial nominee.

“The President welcomes the confirmation of Pamela Ki Mai Chen,” Inouye said. “She will serve the American people well from the Eastern District of New York bench.”

Michael Cole-Schwartz, a spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign, also commended the Senate for taking action to add LGBT representation to the federal bench.

“We congratulate Judge Chen on a much deserved achievement and thank the White House and Senate for their continued commitment to nominating and confirming well-qualified, diverse individuals,” Cole-Schwartz said.

A Chinese-American, Chen’s parents were both born in China, but met after they moved to the United States. Before her confirmation, she worked as an assistant U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of New York for 14 years and focused, among other areas, on combatting human trafficking.

During her confirmation hearing in September, Chen pledged fairness on the bench, saying politics “will play no role in my decision making were I fortunate enough to be confirmed.”

“The assurances I can give you are based on my career as a public servant and working for the Department of Justice,” she said at the time. “No one accused me of ever making a decision based on any kind of political ideology, and I think my record speaks for itself over the last 20 years.”

Prior to her confirmation, Chen was a trial attorney in the Special Litigation Section of the Civil Rights Division at the U.S. Justice Department. She began her legal career in D.C., at the criminal defense firm of Asbill, Junkin, Myers & Buffone and at the law firm of Arnold & Porter after receiving her law degree in 1986 from the Georgetown University. Chen received a rating of “unanimously qualified” from the American Bar Association.

Chen’s confirmation means four additional openly gay judicial nominations remain pending before the Senate. Two of these nominations — Michael McShane, nominated as U.S. District Judge for the District of Oregon; and Nitza Quinones Alejandro, nominated as U.S. District Judge for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania — face a committee vote during an upcoming Senate Judiciary Committee meeting on Thursday.

Other openly gay judicial nominees on which the Senate has yet to take action include William Thomas, who was nominated as U.S. District Judge for the Southern District of Florida. Obama also nominated Todd Hughes to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Court. If confirmed, he’d be the first openly gay person to sit on a federal appeals court.

Chen’s confirmation means a total of four openly gay nominees have been confirmed to the federal bench under the Obama administration. The three others, who were confirmed during the 112th Congress, are Alison Nathan, who was confirmed to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, J. Paul Oetken, who was confirmed to the same court; and Michael Fitzgerald, who was confirmed to the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California.

NOTE: This article has updated to include a comment from Shin Inouye.