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Equality California re-imagined and roiling to work

The statewide LGBT lobbying organization has gone national

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Rick Zbur. (Photos courtesy Claudia Unger)

September 2017 in Donald Trump-land is not exactly the kind of post-summer activism Equality California expected 18 months ago when the 32-year-old statewide lobbying organization became the first major LGBT group to endorse Hillary Clinton for president. At the time, Equality California had been so successful securing so many LGBT equality bills and electing so many LGBT and pro-equality candidates, Executive Director Rick Zbur was growing weary of the same tiresome question: What is left for EQCA and the California LGBT rights movement to do?

And then, once again, the old adage proved true: Elections have consequences.

Despite campaign assurances from Trump that he would “protect” LGBTQ people, with daughter Ivanka winking from the sidelines that she had daddy’s ear and would intervene to squash anti-LGBT policies, the LGBT movement has seen a dramatic and sanctioned outbreak of racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia and white supremacy at the White House. It started on Day One with the new administration wiping the White House website of any mention of LGBT equality. Next was the death of the Office of National AIDS Policy and soon after, the mass resignation of six members of Trump’s AIDS Advisory Council.

Equality California was suddenly tasked with not only introducing new bills to continue advancing LGBT equality but protecting what was already law, especially those involving transgender students in places like Fresno and encouraging legally correct and compassionate teachers at private Rocklin Academy.

But instead of waiting in the safety of California’s big blue state to see what ill winds might blow in from D.C., Zbur picked charging toward the belly of the beast. On Aug. 8, he announced a new logo, a refined mission statement and tagline, and established a national presence in Washington, D.C., to lobby California’s massive congressional delegation of 53 House and two Senate seats.

Equality California will shine “as a beacon of LGBTQ civil rights for the rest of the nation,” says Zbur.

“Help us create a world that is just, healthy and fully equal for all LGBTQ people,” he says in a video that explains the new logo: an “E” and a “C” with an “equal” sign embedded in the State of California. Additionally, “for all,” a press release notes, “acknowledges that LGBTQ people are a part of every racial, ethnic and religious community and that improving the lives of LGBTQ people requires a focus on social justice for all communities of which LGBTQ people are a part.”

In Trump’s America, intersectionality is not just an academic discussion. Health disparities, for instance, “are even greater for LGBTQ people who are also people of color, immigrants or transgender.” Equality California’s new tagline—until the work is done—“reflects our organization’s determination to work vigorously on the significant priorities that remain to be accomplished.”

And on Sept. 5, two major battles came to the fore simultaneously: Trump ended DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and EQCA challenged Trump’s directive to reinstitute the transgender open military service ban.

Zbur is both outraged and heartbroken over Trump’s order to rescind President Obama’s executive order creating DACA. He believes the move is racist, “there’s no other explanation for it.”

DREAMers have lived here since they were children and “are American in every way except for their immigration status. Many have never traveled to their country of origin and do not speak its language, but—without DACA—they live in fear of deportation and are extremely limited in educational and professional opportunities because of their immigration status,” says Zbur, a father of three who is half Latino with family roots in New Mexico. “It’s appalling to me.”  

There are real-life consequences for LGBT undocumented immigrants. “Transgender or HIV-positive immigrants are especially vulnerable, facing abuse or lack of essential medical treatments in detention centers. They face even worse if deported to countries like Honduras, where violence against LGBTQ people is endemic, or Venezuela, which just publicly announced it has run out of vital drugs to treat HIV,” Zbur says.

The Equality California staff in D.C. is urging members of the California congressional delegation to quickly pass the BRIDGE Act and other pending pieces of legislation “to protect these young Americans and to prevent them from cruelly being uprooted from their homes, families, careers and lives.” Zbur notes that EQCA’s 800,000 members include 300,000 from outside California who joined during the Prop 8 battle in 2008 and have remained active.

On Sept. 5, just as much of America was focused on Trump’s DACA announcement, Zbur held a news conference in front of LA City Hall announcing the filing of a federal lawsuit challenging Trump’s Aug. 25 directive to reinstate the ban on transgender military service. Some questioned why EQCA jumped into the fray since national groups—NCLR/GLAD, Lambda Legal/OutServe-SLDN and the ACLU—are already seeking an immediate injunction against implementation of the disruptive personnel change and challenging the ban’s constitutionality.

But the reasoning is clear to Zbur. “California is the state with the largest LGBTQ community. We’re also the state with most LGBTQ people serving in the military and obviously, a state in which are members are really harmed by this directive. So we decided we wanted to bring a suit of our [800,000] members that are affected by this ban. We thought it was important that there be a case in California,” Zbur told the Los Angeles Blade.

As of May 2016, California has the most military bases and installations in the country, 32, with the most active duty and reserves members of the military, 190,160. That number goes up to more than 360,000 employed by the Department of Defense in California when civilian employees are included.

“The cases seek to block the order,” says Zbur. “The order is one that doesn’t give the military discretion about whether to allow service of transgender people in the military, despite some of the communications that have come out by (Defense Sec) Gen. James Mattis that appear to indicate that there is some discretion. In fact, the president’s directive leaves no discretion to the military and requires that they take action to discharge members of the military currently serving and to also enlistment of people that would want to serve and have taken steps to join the military. And it prohibits medical care that’s necessary for transgender service members. So our case raises a number of claims that the order violates the Constitution of the United States and is obviously motivated by animus towards transgender people and on a variety of Constitutional grounds, seeks to block the order.”

(Photos courtesy Claudia Unger)

Some see a loophole in the line in the order that says the old policy should be reinstated “until such time as a sufficient basis exists upon which to conclude that terminating that policy and practice would not have the negative effects discussed above.  The Secretary of Defense, after consulting with the Secretary of Homeland Security, may advise me at any time, in writing, that a change to this policy is warranted.” (Emphasis added.) Some LGBT military watchers think that could come as a result of recommendations made by an expert panel Mattis is putting together.

Zbur, an attorney, is not among them. “The directive is very clear and it does not give the military leadership discretion. It gives them a certain amount of time into either February or March to implement it but there is no discretion in the president’s order,” he says emphatically.

“The period that Gen. Mattis has indicated they will be studying this issue is consistent with the timing in the president’s order and the order does not leave discretion for the military to not implement the ban and discharge members of the military or prevent re-enlistment or to allow for necessary medical care.”

Zbur notes that training has already happened in the entire military—and it happened without controversy. Additionally, commanding officers have been openly supportive of their trans troops.

“This is disruptive,” Zbur says. “It is harmful to military readiness. It is expensive for the military—essentially they will be ripping transgender service members out of key and important roles and will be in a position where they will have to identify people to replace them and train them. So there’s no justification for this order. There’s no justification in terms of cost or military readiness. In fact, if anything, all arguments go in the other direction. This is harmful.”

Equality California is simultaneously tackling issues and working on bills within the state, as well. As the legislative year winds down, they are focused on four bills in particular: SB 239, Modernizing Discriminatory HIV Criminalization Laws (HIV decriminalization); SB 179, Gender Recognition Act of 2017 (appropriate documents); SB 219 – Seniors Long Term Care Bill of Rights; and SB 421 – Tiered System for California Sex Offender Registry (based on crime, not lifetime).

Anti-LGBT California right-wing groups join Steve Bannon’s Brietbart and company in targeting the senior rights bill, which essentially calls for cultural competency when placing seniors, especially trans seniors, in roommate situations.  

And, of course, Equality California is preparing for the 2018 midterm elections. If California LGBT politicos can’t recoup Hillary Clinton, at least EQCA can help vote the GOP disruptors out while achieving full equality in the state.

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GOP Trans City Councilwoman says she’s uniquely positioned

“If we aren’t a part of our government, we cannot be a voice of freedom- of reason if & when issues regarding our LGBTQ [identities] come up”

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Trenton N.J. City Councilwoman Jennifer Williams. (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Williams)

Note: Other portions of Jennifer Williams’ interview with The Washington Blade were featured in a previous article alongside interviews with four other LGBTQ officeholders

TRENTON, N.J. – Jennifer Williams, who recently became the first LGBTQ person on the Trenton City Councilmember and the first openly transgender person elected in New Jersey, connected with the Washington Blade last week to discuss topics including how she reconciles her gender identity with her membership in the Republican Party.

While Williams is grateful for her broad base of support, including from progressive Democrats, it perhaps did not come as a surprise considering her record as a longtime LGBTQ advocate and public servant who chaired the municipal Republican Party in Trenton and served on the city’s Zoning Board of Adjustment for 14 years.

Plus, Williams said in emailed responses to questions from the Blade that her views on LGBTQ matters are closer to those held by Democrats than by Republicans.

“If I have to put my views on LGBTQ policy issues in one mainstream bucket, I would clearly be more aligned with national and New Jersey Democrats on our rights, equalities and freedoms than the Republican National Committee’s platform and what some GOP leaders espouse,” Williams said.

“That important difference between the two major parties is why it is integral that I stay and fight against anti-LGBTQ bigotry and discrimination,” she added.

Williams sees her position as an elected official who is both trans and a Republican as an opportunity to effectuate positive change from within her own party.

“Other LGBTQ folks may not understand why I try to advocate on the right and in the Republican Party,” she said. “But all I know is that until I am no longer the first LGBTQ or transgender person [whom] many Republican leaders meet, we will always have to worry about legislative actions or executive orders against us.”

Williams said she is in a unique position, and one that is imbued with a big responsibility:

“If I can be effective in helping some bad Republicans rethink their opinions of who we are,” she said. “Maybe we can get some of them to ‘tap the brakes’ on anti-LGBTQ legislation coming down the pike.”

“I have a ‘particular set of skills,’” Williams added, “And I feel called to use them to help protect our community.”

The Republican Party was founded in the mid-19th century by abolitionists who sought to fight for individual freedoms, liberties, self-determination and happiness, Williams noted, even if some GOP leaders do not demonstrate those values where it concerns LGBTQ people.  

LGBTQ Americans “really do need to be in the corridors of power and at the table where decisions are made,” Williams said. “Coming from the same home state as Marsha P. Johnson, who did so much for us so long ago, I know how important my being a [member of the] City Council can be.”

Of course, Williams said, she is not alone. LGBTQ officeholders across the country are putting into practice the idea that representation is crucially important in the fight for equal rights no matter who they are or where they have been elected, she said.

“If we aren’t a part of our government, we cannot be a voice of freedom and of reason if and when issues regarding our LGBTQ [identities] come up,” Williams said.

Despite the proliferation of state and local anti-LGBTQ bills, particularly proposals targeting the trans community, Williams sees reason to be hopeful.

“What is exciting is that we have gone from [Virginia state Del.] Danica Roem being the first transgender person to be elected to a state legislature just over five years ago to where now, she is running for [Virginia] Senate and there are at least eight other transgender legislators,” Williams said.

The visibility of LGBTQ officeholders tends to encourage other members of the community to run for public office, she said.

“That is wonderful, and I think is what we need to duplicate and triplicate wherever we can,” Williams said, adding that the LGBTQ Victory Fund “is working very hard at this.”

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Justice Dept. eyes criminal probe of Santos’ campaign finances

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, along with the rest of Republican leadership in the chamber, has addressed the controversies minimally

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(Screenshot/CBS News)

WASHINGTON – The Justice Department has asked the Federal Election Commission (FEC) to hold off on law enforcement activity over Republican Rep. George Santos (Ny.) as federal prosecutors conduct their own criminal probe into the congressman’s campaign finances.

The news, first reported Friday by the Washington Post, was confirmed Saturday by The Blade via a Justice Department source familiar with the matter who was not authorized to speak with the press.

The attorney who filed the FEC complaint against Santos previously told The Blade that the agency would yield to the Justice Department if prosecutors initiate a criminal probe—indicating that in Washington the matter would be overseen by the Department’s Public Integrity Section. 

The Nassau County District Attorney’s Office and the office of New York Attorney General Letitia James are also looking into Santos’s financial conduct, while the congressman has simultaneously been enmeshed in controversies over his compulsive lying, having fabricated virtually every part of his life and identity. 

As of this publication, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s (R-Calif.) office has not responded to a request seeking comment. McCarthy, along with the rest of Republican leadership in the chamber, have addressed the controversies only minimally, telling reporters they have no plans to ask Santos to step down until or unless criminal proceedings against him are underway.

Santos voted for McCarthy’s bid for speakership in each of the 15 ballots that were required to unite the House GOP conference behind him due to the objections of a couple dozen ultra-conservative members who were able to delay the vote and extract painful concessions because of the party’s narrow control of the House majority.

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Ruben Gallego announces run for Kyrsten Sinema’s Senate seat

Sinema has often earned the ire of many of her Democratic colleagues for stymying progressive legislation- refusing to abandon the filibuster

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Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

WASHINGTON – Democratic U.S. Rep. Ruben Gallego of Arizona announced plans to run for the Senate in 2024, setting up a possible three-way race if newly declared Independent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema decides to seek reelection for her seat representing the Grand Canyon State next year.

Gallego disclosed his forthcoming senatorial bid on Monday, sharing a video on Twitter in which the congressman accused Sinema of breaking her promises to Arizonans in favor of advancing the interests of multinational pharmaceutical companies and financial institutions.

A spokesperson for Sinema’s office declined to comment. On Friday, Sinema told Arizona Radio Station KTAR: “I’m not really thinking or talking about the election right now, although others are,” adding, I’m staying focused on the work.”

If elected, Gallego, whose announcement video was recorded in English and Spanish, would become Arizona’s first Latino senator.

Sinema became the first bisexual member and, after Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin, the second LGBTQ woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate in 2012 and 2018, respectively.

Last year, she was widely credited for her role in the Senate’s passage of the Respect for Marriage Act, hailed as the most significant pro-LGBTQ legislative achievement since the 2010 repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

However, since her election to the Senate, Sinema has often earned the ire of many of her Democratic colleagues for stymying progressive legislation by refusing to abandon the filibuster and tacking to the right on fiscal issues.

The Arizona Democratic Party executive board voted to censure Sinema last January for voting with Republicans to preserve the filibuster at the expense of a voting rights bill.

On Dec. 9, Sinema announced her decision to switch her party affiliation from Democrat to Independent, pledging not to caucus with Republicans and promising that “Nothing will change about my values or my behavior.”

Sinema has also come under fire during her tenure in the Senate for taking positions seen as favorable to the drug industry and Wall Street, seemingly in exchange for financial backing from these and other affiliated interests.

For instance, in 2021 The Guardian reported that “In the current Congress, Big Pharma appears to have zeroed in on Senator Kyrsten Sinema, Democrat from Arizona, as one of their lead obstructionists to help kill or gut the Democrats’ drug pricing plan. In the 2020 election cycle, pharmaceutical political action committees suddenly funneled more money to her than they did the whole six years she served in the US House.”

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ACLU: 120 new anti-LGBTQ bills in the first few weeks of 2023

“Across the country, trans people & families are gearing up to fight back- prevent every one of these bills from becoming law”

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Chase Strangio, deputy director for transgender justice at the ACLU’s LGBTQ & HIV Project. (Screenshot/YouTube)

NEW YORK – Lawmakers across the country have introduced more than 120 anti-LGBTQ bills so far this year, according to a press release issued Thursday by the ACLU, America’s largest and best-known litigation and lobbying group for individual rights and civil liberties.

In a press release announcing the findings, the ACLU introduced a digital dashboard, which summarizes the proposed anti-LGBTQ policies, organizes the bills by category, and tracks their progress through state legislatures.

“These bills represented a coordinated effort to deny transgender people our freedom, our safety, and our dignity,” said Chase Strangio, deputy director for transgender justice at the ACLU’s LGBTQ & HIV Project.

“Across the country, trans people and our families are gearing up to fight back and prevent every one of these bills from becoming law,” he said in the press release.

Last year, the ACLU reports there were a record breaking 278 bills targeting LGBTQ people, of which 20 have become law. The group’s litigation team has fought against “bills across the country restricting access to gender-affirming health care, barring trans people from updating identity documents, and denying transgender students equal access to school facilities and activities, as well as defending inclusive policies from political and legal attacks.”

Additionally, the ACLU has brought lawsuits challenging book bans that target materials with LGBTQ characters or themes and represented parties in litigation over a Texas law that criminalizes parents who facilitate their trans children’s access to guideline directed, medically necessary healthcare treatments and procedures.

The number of new anti-LGBTQ legislative proposals seen in the first few weeks of 2023 is especially remarkable considering that some state legislatures have not yet begun filing new bills.

In a Washington Blade article published Wednesday, activist and legislative researcher Erin Reed said that in addition to the fact that lawmakers are now on track to eclipse last year’s record number of anti-LGBTQ bills, the proposals introduced so far this year have tended to be more extreme and cruel than in years past.

The ACLU has categorized them in seven primary focus areas: healthcare access, schools and education, free speech and expression, access to accurate IDs, Weakening Civil Rights Laws, Public Accommodations, and Other Anti-LGBTQ Bills.

The ACLU’s press release describes each of these types of legislative proposals:

  • Health Care Access
    • Lawmakers are targeting access to medically-necessary health care for transgender people. Many of these bills ban affirming care for trans youth, and can even create criminal penalties for providing this care. 35 bills target health care access for transgender people.
  • Schools & Education
    • State lawmakers are trying to prevent trans students from participating in school activities like sports, force teachers to out students, and censor in-school discussions of LGBTQ people and issues. 58 bills target LGBTQ rights in schools and educational settings.
  • Free Speech & Expression
    • Despite the safeguards of the First Amendment’s right to free expression, politicians are fighting to restrict how and when LGBTQ people can be themselves, limiting access to books about them and trying to ban or censor performances like drag shows. 19 bills target freedom of speech and expression for LGBTQ people.
  • Access to Accurate IDs
    • These bills attempt to limit the ability to update gender information on IDs and records, such as birth certificates and driver’s licenses. Four bills target the right to accurate identity documents for transgender people.
  • Weakening Civil Rights Laws
    • These bills attempt to undermine and weaken nondiscrimination laws by allowing employers, businesses, and even hospitals to turn away LGBTQ people or refuse them equal treatment. Seven bills seek to weaken existing civil rights laws.
  • Public Accommodations
    • These bills prohibit transgender people from using facilities like public restrooms and locker rooms.
  • Other Anti-LGBTQ Bills
    • These bills don’t quite fit in any of the other categories, but nonetheless target the rights of LGBTQ people. Examples include restrictions on marriage and bills preempting local nondiscrimination protections. Five bills target LGBTQ people and rights, including proposed amendments to define transgender people out of existence.
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Reports indicate George Santos was a drag queen in Brazil

Santos’ alleged financial malfeasance & potential violations of campaign finance laws have triggered investigations

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New York Congressman George Santos (Screenshot/YouTube)

WASHINGTON — Embattled U.S. Rep. George Santos (R-N.Y.) was a drag performer in his native Brazil about 15 years ago, according to a Reuters article published on Wednesday that quoted two former acquaintances. 

Despite the online circulation of photos appearing to show the congressman dressed in drag, Santos denied the report on Thursday. 

“The most recent obsession from the media claiming that I am a drag queen or ‘performed’ as a drag queen is categorically false,” tweeted the New York Republican. “The media continues to make outrageous claims about my life while I am working to deliver results.” 

“I will not be distracted nor fazed by this,” added Santos.

Bruna Benevides of Associação Nacional de Travestis e Transsexuais (National Association of Travestis and Transsexuals), a Brazilian transgender rights group known by the acronym ANTRA, in a Jan. 1 tweet in response to a New York Times story about Santos said his drag name was Kitara Ravache.

Benevides has yet to respond to the Washington Blade’s request for comment. A source in Rio de Janeiro said she had “never heard” that Santos was a drag queen when he lived in Brazil. 

Steven Grattan, a Reuters reporter in São Paulo, on Thursday posted to his Twitter page a video that appears to show Santos in drag in the Rio de Janeiro suburb of Niterói.

Santos has taken a hard-right stance on social issues, keeping company with his most extreme Republican colleagues who have increasingly targeted organizers of all-ages drag events with false accusations that performers are abusing or exploiting children.

In contrast with most House Republicans and the entirety of Republican leadership, these lawmakers have not distanced themselves from Santos amid the scandals that have unfolded over his apparent financial improprieties and compulsive lying about his life, identity, and career.

Several GOP U.S. House members, joined last week by more than a dozen Republican elected officials serving in or near Santos’s 3rd Congressional District in New York, have demanded Santos’s immediate resignation.

The congressman’s alleged financial malfeasance and potential violations of campaign finance laws have triggered investigations by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York, the Nassau County District Attorney’s Office, the U.S. House Ethics Committee, the Federal Election Commission, and the office of New York Attorney General Letitia James, while Brazilian authorities have revived fraud charges that were brought against him in 2008 over a stolen checkbook. 

Also on Wednesday, two military veterans told CNN Santos had set up a GoFundMe to help finance lifesaving surgery for their pitt bull and then absconded with the money.

GoFundMe issued a statement to CNN on the company’s decision to remove the fundraiser from its platform:

“When we received a report of an issue with this fundraiser in late 2016, our trust and safety team sought proof of the delivery of funds from the organizer. The organizer failed to respond, which led to the fundraiser being removed and the email associated with that account prohibited from further use on our platform. GoFundMe has a zero tolerance policy for misuse of our platform and cooperates with law enforcement investigations of those accused of wrongdoing.”

The men said Santos stopped responding to their messages requesting access to the crowdsourced funds. They never received the money, and once the dog’s cancer reached an advanced stage they had to panhandle to afford to euthanize her.

Santos denied the report in a statement to CNN.

Michael K. Lavers contributed to this story

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Latino Leaders Network honors gay San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria

Last year’s honorees were Albuquerque, New Mexico Mayor Tim Keller and San Antonio, Texas Mayor Ron Nirenberg

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San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria recieves the Antonio Villaraigosa Leadership Award at the Latino Leaders Network's Tribute to Mayors event on Jan. 18. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

WASHINGTON – Openly gay San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria became the latest recipient of the Latino Leaders Network’s Antonio Villaraigosa Leadership Award during the organization’s Tribute to Mayors on Wednesday night.

The biannual event, which was held at the St. Regis hotel in Washington, D.C., was attended by more than 80 mayors – including Eric Adams of New York and Francis Suarez of Miami, who serves as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors – along with other elected representatives like Rhode Island Lieutenant Gov. Sabina Matos.

Also in attendance were high profile government officials including Julie Chavez Rodriguez, senior advisor to the President and director of the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, as well as Esteban Moctezuma and Batbayar Ulziidelger, ambassadors of Mexico and Mongolia to the U.S.

Upon receiving the award, Gloria expressed gratitude for the “open door policy” with which the Biden-Harris administration has welcomed input from the nation’s mayors, particularly with respect to issues concerning immigration. He said San Diego is a better and more prosperous city by virtue of its close proximity to the southern border.

Gloria also remarked on how “far we’ve come as a community,” noting his identity as an openly gay man with Puerto Rican, Filipino, Native American, and Dutch heritage who learned from his parents – who worked as a gardener and hotel maid – that one should “leave things better than you found them.”

Introducing Gloria was the award’s namesake, Villaraigosa, former Los Angeles mayor and California gubernatorial candidate, who said the latest honoree embodies the principle that, “when we break a glass ceiling and open up the door, we do that because we know we got there on the shoulders of others, and we say, ‘this door is open to all of us.'”

“When we celebrate mayors who bring us together and unite us at a time when the country is so divided, we should really celebrate,” Villaraigosa said.

The Latino Leadership Network presents the Antonio Villaraigosa Leadership Award to “a mayor from a city with a significant Latino population who has exhibited an outstanding commitment to bringing diverse communities together.”

Last year’s honorees were Albuquerque, New Mexico Mayor Tim Keller and San Antonio, Texas Mayor Ron Nirenberg.

(Washington Blade photos by Michael Key)

Former Mayor of Los Angeles Antonio Villaraigosa.
Tucson, Ariz. Mayor Regina Romero.
Mickey Ibarra, chairman of the Latino Leaders Network.
Lidia S. Martinez, board member of the Latino Leaders Network.
White House Senior Advisor Julie Chavez Rodriguez.
Miami Mayor Francis X. Suarez.
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Matt Schlapp’s accuser files civil action alleging sexual battery

An influential figure in conservative politics, Schlapp serves as chair of the American Conservative Union

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Matt Schlapp at CPAC (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

WASHINGTON – The Republican staffer who went public early this month with allegations of sexual assault against high powered conservative activist Matt Schlapp filed a civil lawsuit Tuesday against Schlapp and his wife, Mercedes, for $9 million.

According to the complaint, the couple and “others associated with and acting in concert with them” were engaged in “dishonest efforts” to “discredit Mr. Doe,” thereby causing him to suffer “damages, including and without limitation embarrassment, humiliation, stress, and reputational harm.”

Mr. Doe told NBC on Jan. 5 that when he was working for Herschel Walker’s senatorial campaign last October, Schlapp fondled him while the two were headed back to their hotel from an Atlanta bar.

An influential figure in conservative politics, Schlapp serves as chair of the American Conservative Union, which hosts the annual Conservative Political Action Conference.

An attorney representing the Schlapps, Charlie Spies, issued a statement Tuesday denying the allegations in the civil complaint.

The “Schlapp family is suffering unbearable pain and stress due to the false allegation from an anonymous individual,” the statement reads. “No family should ever go through this and the Schlapps and their legal team are assessing counter-lawsuit options.”

Before joining the corporate law firm Dickinson Wright, Spies served as election law counsel to the Republican National Committee and as chief financial officer and counsel to Sen. Mitt Romney’s (R-Utah) 2008 presidential campaign.

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Quantity, cruelty of anti-LGBTQ state bills raise alarm bells

“We really need to support local LGBTQ organizations- lift them up as much as possible,” particularly those in conservative & rural states”

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Los Angeles Blade graphic

WASHINGTON – When the Washington Blade connected with activist and legislative researcher Erin Reed on Tuesday to discuss the new anti-LGBTQ bills that have been introduced in statehouses across the country, it was just as the news of an especially hateful proposal came across her desk.

Senators in West Virginia had teed up an anti-trans law that would criminalize “displays” that “shall include, but not be limited to, any transvestite and/or transgender exposure, performances, or display to any minor.”

The move recalled anti-LGBTQ laws from the 1960s that criminalized the very existence of transgender and gender non-conforming persons as well as drag performers, while providing pretexts for police raids of LGBTQ establishments like the Stonewall Inn, Reed said.

For example, she said, many states once enforced dress codes that required people to wear at least three articles of clothing consistent with their sex assigned at birth.

Likewise, the West Virginia bill raises alarming questions about whether transgender parents and teachers in the state might be prosecuted, with a potential five-year prison sentence, said Reed, who is herself a transgender parent.

Additionally, the proposed legislation is “unconstitutionally vague,” written so broadly that it would presumably become illegal to screen the film “Mrs. Doubtfire” or perform certain Shakespearen plays for an audience of minors if the measure were to pass, Reed said.

Less than three weeks into 2023, state legislatures have introduced nearly as many anti-LGBTQ bills as were introduced in the entirety of last year – and qualitatively, many of these new bills are more hateful than anything we have seen in decades, Reed said.

“I see an increase in both the number and in the cruelty towards transgender people,” she said.

There are “new pieces of proposed legislation that go further than bills in 2021 and 2022,” such as by “banning gender affirming care through age 26 in Oklahoma,” and others that “target the drag community in ways that haven’t happened in 30 to 40 years.”

Fear and hate mongering over all-ages drag performances has been ratcheted up in the right-wing ecosystem, fueled by conservative media figures like Matt Walsh and Tucker Carlson, as well as social media accounts like Libs of TikTok and extremist militias, Reed said.

According to the ACLU, “As drag reality competitions and drag brunches become increasingly popular, backlash in the form of armed protests and intimidation of drag performers has followed.”

Consequently, Reed said, this year for the first time anti-LGBTQ legislation has included measures targeting drag performances – with, so far, a dozen new bills. And the concern is not just that many of these proposed laws are draconian, like Nebraska’s bill that would prohibit patrons younger than 21 from attending a drag show.

“Whenever I see those [laws] being proposed, I also see militant organizations storming in” to LGBTQ bars, schools, hospitals, and venues that host drag queen story hours, Reed said. “I see people trying to break into drag events and successfully doing so,” disrupting them with violence and intimidation, she said.

“What I read into [the impetus behind these laws] is these legislators want to change the uniform of the people doing the storming,” from militias comprised of far-right citizens to “people wearing badges.”

Making matters worse, Reed said, there are “lots of cases where drag events have asked for local protection and not received any protection whatsoever.”

Last month, organizers of a drag queen story hour-style event in Columbus, Ohio, had to cancel after they said police failed to work with them to protect participants from demonstrators affiliated with far-right groups like the violent neo-fascist Proud Boys. (Police dispute the organizers’ account of events.)

The ACLU notes that, “Amidst this wave of anti-drag legislation and violence, drag performers and host venues across the country are moving to higher security or cancel performances altogether.”

Looking at the slate of new statewide legislative proposals, many are a continuation of similar anti-trans themes that have emerged in recent years, but “we’re seeing scary attempts to escalate things,” Reed said.

For instance, bills that restrict or prohibit guideline-directed healthcare for transgender and gender non-conforming youth were introduced and passed in several states in 2021 and 2022, but new measures proposed this year would target adults as old as 26.

“It makes me wonder what their ultimate goal is,” Reed said. “To ban transitions entirely?”

Every mainstream medical organization with relevant clinical expertise recommends age-directed gender affirming care according to clinical practice guidelines that are supported by a bevy of research and updated regularly to ensure best practices.

Still, right-wing figures have demagogued the issue and characterized responsible medical care as “experimentation” and child abuse.

Reed noted there are some “new wrinkles” in anti-trans healthcare bans that have been proposed this year.

For instance, she said, Indiana proposed folding gender affirming care into practices that would be outlawed under a conversion therapy ban – thereby conflating supportive and medically necessary healthcare with an abusive, ineffective practice that has been rejected by mainstream science and medicine.

Across the board, Reed noted, there is an increasing reliance on executive authority. This was previewed toward the end of last year, she said, pointing to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s weaponization of the state medical board and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s weaponization of the Department of Family and Protective Services to, respectively, ban gender affirming care and prosecute parents for child abuse for facilitating their trans children’s access to gender affirming care.  

‘The fight is on the state level right now

Amid the onslaught of anti-LGBTQ legislation, Reed emphasized the need for coordinated action by the U.S. Congress, the Biden-Harris White House, progressive and pro-equality legal actors, and state legislatures, as well as local and national LGBTQ groups.

She noted that pro-equality interests have focused significant time, attention, and money urging Congress to pass the Equality Act, which is commendable and necessary, while the courts can provide (and, often, have provided) a path toward effectuating pro-equality policy.

At the same time, Reed said, for the foreseeable future federal legislators are unlikely to find a path forward for any major bills impacting LGBTQ people, while relying on the judiciary – particularly with the U.S. Supreme Court as it is currently construed – is far from a safe bet.

By contrast, “at the state level, we’ve seen the GOP focus time and attention and money and efforts on changing state laws,” she said, adding, “it’s important that we do the same.”

Likewise, Reed said, “I also think we really need to support our local LGBT organizations and help lift them up as much as possible,” particularly those located in more conservative and rural states, which largely do not earn commensurate resources and support.

“In places like North Dakota and Oklahoma, South Dakota, and West Virginia, we need to help the people who live there,” Reed said, but also in blue states where significant progress toward LGBTQ equality has been made but there is still room for improvement. “Don’t neglect your own backyard.”

For instance, she said, the gay and trans panic defense is still legal in some progressive states.  

“One of the biggest problems for people in some of these states criminalizing [healthcare for trans people] is they don’t have resources to travel out of state,” Reed said, noting that POLITICO has reported on the plights of people who have been forced to flee states with anti-trans laws.

And while “We have to take care of those people,” Reed said, people should not be in a position where they must flee their home states. “We need federal action and federal protections,” she said.

Thankfully, there is some movement on pro-LGBTQ state bills. Reed said she has seen more this year compared to last year, which is “a bit promising.” She highlighted bills such as the proposal to protect gender affirming care in Maryland, access to bathrooms for trans youth in Minnesota, the ability to change information on birth certificates in West Virginia, and adoption by trans parents in Montana.

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Politics

Texts corroborate sexual assault allegations against Matt Schlapp

Schlapp has close ties to former president Donald Trump, in whose administration his wife served as communications director from 2017 to 2019

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American Conservative Union Chairman Matt Schlapp (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

WASHINGTON – Contemporaneous text messages shared with CNN appear to corroborate allegations of sexual assault against Republican activist Matt Schlapp, who chairs the organization that hosts the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC).

In the messages, which were exchanged in October, a GOP strategist who was working for Herschel Walker’s senatorial campaign consulted a friend for guidance on how to proceed after he says he was groped by Schlapp in the car after an outing in a bar in Atlanta.

Schlapp addressed the allegations through an attorney who told CNN: “The attack is false and Mr. Schlapp denies any improper behavior.”

The Republican staffer texted his friend that Schlapp was “pissed I didn’t follow him to his hotel room.”

“I’m so sorry man,” the friend responded. “What a fucking creep.”

“I just don’t know how to say it to my superiors thst heir [sic] surrogate fondled my junk without my consent,” the staffer wrote.

Schlapp has close ties to former president Donald Trump, in whose administration his wife served as communications director from 2017 to 2019 and whose false claims about the 2020 presidential election he has parroted.

The sexual assault allegations were first reported by the Daily Beast. The group that organizes CPAC, the American Conservative Union, did not immediately return a request for comment.

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California Politics

Field of candidates to replace Feinstein in U.S. Senate grows

In an interview with Nicholas Wu, Politico’s Congressional Reporter, Lee said she officially announce “when it’s appropriate”

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California U. S. Representative Barbara Lee, (Upper Center) with House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) (Upper Right ) & other Democrats during balloting for selection of the Speaker of the House. (Photo Credit: Rep. Barbara Lee, (D-CA)/Facebook)

WASHINGTON – A day after Orange County Congresswoman Katie Porter announced her bid to replace California’s octogenarian senior U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, sources close to California U. S. Representative Barbara Lee told Politico that Lee is likely to also mount a challenge for the seat.

On Wednesday Lee informed her colleagues in a closed-door Congressional Black Caucus meeting that she intends to run to two sources familiar with the situation Politico reported Thursday.

Asked later Wednesday about her plans, Lee said in a brief interview with Nicholas Wu, Politico’s Congressional Reporter and Politics reporter, she’d officially announce “when it’s appropriate.”

“Right now, in respect to [Sen.] Dianne Feinstein and the floods and what I’m doing, I’m doing my work. And we’ll let them know when I intend to go to the next step. But now’s the time not to talk about that,” she said.

Porter’s announcement and Lee’s potential run comes on the heels of Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank-Hollywood) who had appeared on Los Angeles Fox 11 and told The Issue Is host Elex Michaelson that should Feinstein retire in 2024 he will seriously consider replacing her in a campaign.

Politico also noted that while she lacks the fundraising might of Porter and Schiff, Lee is a revered figure in the Oakland-anchored district she has represented for decades. Her deep Bay Area roots could be an asset given that both Porter and Schiff represent southern California districts.

Feinstein, who was first elected to the Senate in 1992, is widely expected to retire instead of running for reelection in 2024. In recent years she has faced questions about her mental acuity an fitness for remaining in her Senate seat and over the past year has has stepped back from some official duties.

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