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Should Atlantis Events come with a warning label?

Circuit party cruises, drugs, and obfuscation-you worried?

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Another Atlantis Events cruise is underway—this one an 11-day cruise from Auckland, New Zealand to Sydney, Australia.

All that bad press about the death of popular Storm Chasers star Joel Taylor last month has simply faded from memory as the gayest circuit party on the high seas returns to cruising as usual. No more PR finger-pointing and the myopic moralism from social media commentators about “personal responsibility” pretty much assures there will be no accountability for the suspected drug overdose death of a gay man so many say they loved.

Taylor was buried on Jan. 29 in his hometown of Elk City, Oklahoma with his family, best friend and former Storm Chasers co-star Reed Timmer and apparently his other best friend, the Dominator 1—the black armored storm-chasing beast Taylor drove on the Discovery Channel series—attending his funeral. 

No doubt unspoken during the somber service was how protected Taylor was during his dangerous career, only to die alone in his cabin after partying with seafaring friends aboard Harmony of the Seas, an 18-deck ocean liner, the largest of Royal Caribbean’s fleet, chartered by West Hollywood-based Atlantis Events.

TMZ broke the story on  Jan. 24, reporting that Taylor “died from a suspected overdose on a cruise ship—this according to passengers on the boat. Passengers on the Royal Caribbean Cruise Line Harmony of the Seas tell TMZ—drugs on the party boat were plentiful, and they say 38-year-old Taylor was partaking.” TMZ updated the story, reporting that “Law enforcement sources tell TMZ, ‘It appears the death could be an overdose and Joel Taylor was consuming controlled substances.’ A passenger who interacted with Joel tells TMZ, Joel had consumed enough GHB on the dance floor Tuesday that he was rendered unconscious and taken off the dance floor by 2 people and back to his room.”

That information is critical because it appears that TMZ is the only media outlet with a law enforcement source saying the cause of death might be a drug overdose. The Institute of Forensic Sciences of Puerto Rico conducted the autopsy after Taylor’s family identified him. But as of Feb. 18, there appears to be no public toxicology results—hence, no official report of how, exactly, Joel Taylor died. And with no confirmation of a drug overdose, neither Royal Caribbean nor Atlantis Events has yet officially explained how Taylor could have ODed on a ship with a zero tolerance policy for illegal drugs. 

They can also obfuscate when asked whether their medical staff is trained to handle reactions to bad drugs or drug overdoses since—Catch 22 alert—they have a zero tolerance for drugs. It’s like prison officials refusing to comment on rape in prison because rape in prison is illegal.

Royal Caribbean issued a statement without acknowledging Taylor’s name. “As is our standard procedure, law enforcement was notified and responded to the ship when it arrived in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Tuesday, January 23,” Owen Torres, manager of global corporate communications for Royal Caribbean Cruises, said in a statement to PEOPLE and other news outlets. “We extend our most sincere and heartfelt condolences to the family and friends of the 38-year-old male guest from the United States who died while onboard Harmony of the Seas. A member of our Care Team is providing support and assistance to his family.”

Atlantis Events released no statement of condolence or explanation and took down its website page advertising the ‘all-gay Caribbean Cruise on Harmony of the Seas’ running from January 20-27, with an ‘Error 404’ message in its place, TMZ did not disclose which branch of law enforcement gave them the information but there are several with at least a tangential association with the cruise.

Torres said the cruise lines works closely with the US Coast Guard and Customs and Border Patrol which acts like the TSA scanning passengers before boarding. Several Atlantis passengers confirmed this on social media noting that some passengers had been arrested for drug possession or prevented from boarding at the Ft. Lauderdale port before departure.

Ricardo Castrodad, public affairs officer for the Coast Guard’s San Juan sector, told PEOPLE that Royal Caribbean had notified them about a death on board when they docked in San Juan, Puerto Rico but their investigation would be purely from a “marine safety standpoint.”

Several media outlets subsequently reported that the FBI was investigating Taylor’s death. But FBI Miami representative James P. Marshall told the Los Angeles Blade that “FBI Miami is not involved in this matter” and FBI San Juan representative Carlos Osorio said that since no violent crime had been committed, his FBI office was not involved. He said jurisdiction for drug overdoses rested with the San Juan police.

However, no one answered at police headquarters in San Juan when both the Los Angeles Blade and Washington Blade reporter Michael Lavers (who speaks Spanish) repeatedly called. Only one of the four local newspapers reported the death at the time.

Lavers, who has recently filed several in-depth reports from Puerto Rico, offers this perspective. “The Puerto Rico Police Department is overwhelmed because of the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. A lack of resources, increased crime and the devastation itself have combined to create this situation,” Lavers says. “I quite frankly would not expect the Puerto Rico Police Department to conduct a swift investigation into Joel’s death.”

Nonetheless, Royal Caribbean’s Owen Torres insisted there was no drug-related story to report until the San Juan police finish their investigation and the toxicology report identifies the cause of death.

In a roughly 30 minute (tape recorded) sometimes testy phone interview, Torres hammered away at his main talking points that seemed more geared to protect the company from liability than acknowledging a situation fraught with contradictions.

For instance, when the Los Angeles Blade attempted to interview Atlantis Events President & CEO Rich Campbell, an assistant politely but firmly said “we won’t comment” on Taylor’s death. When pressed to answer other drug-related policy questions, the man said, “That’s all I can tell you. You have to contact the cruise line. They’re doing PR.” No one picked up when the Los Angeles Blade tried again.

However, Torres told the Los Angeles Blade: “I cannot speak on behalf of Atlantis charter. You need to contact them in regards to their policies.”

But several times Torres insisted that Royal Caribbean’s policy applies to Atlantis, as well as all of RCCI’s fleet of cruise ships—“all the same rules ally.” Royal Caribbean has “a zero tolerance for illegal drugs, period— whether a charter or a guest.” The “clear list” of banned drugs are on their website and in cruise documents. “And we hold our charter responsible the same way as we do [sic] and we involve law enforcement should we find any violation, whether you’re a charter and our guest.”

And again: “Our rules and regulations apply to charters and we hold them accountable. I can’t speak to what Atlantis does—we need to touch base with them. But we hold them accountable,” Torres said, though he refused to say how Royal Caribbean would hold Atlantis Events accountable for one or more violations of corporate drug policy. But, he added, “as of right now, we are definitely evaluating the situation and will take it from there.”

Though Torres noted that no one knows the facts, he said TMZ’s reporting was wrong. “I’m telling you right now you need to look into what the local law enforcement [says] to see what exactly is the cause of death because as far as I know—you and I don’t know what the cause of death is. You’re just speculating from what TMZ said and that kind of stuff and that is not correct. We’re not in the business to speculate [sic] and that is for law enforcement to finalize their investigation,” Torres told the Los Angeles Blade.

Torres also insisted that information about the onboard medical center is adequately addressed in ship documents and that the medical staff is trained to handle any contingency. “Our hospital and medical staff provide treatment for anyone for anything of that matter,” Torres said. Asked specifically about whether the staff is prepared to handle drug overdoses (drug interactions can be fatal, as well), Torres’ had a strange reaction “No, no, no, no! You’re misquoting me right there,” he said. “I’m not saying anything you’re saying about what you’re just now saying.”

Finally, Torres said that if a passenger shows up and is overdosing, “there’s a procedure our medical team deals with” but he is not aware of what it is. Additionally, the ship will medically evacuate serious medical cases.

Towards the end of the interview, Torres was exasperated by the questions culled from comments on websites and social media about rampant drug use on that trip.

“The drug use on this cruise was the worst we had ever seen. Out in the open as it was widely accepted and no one had shame. We had never seen people do GHB, Coke and Meth all while dancing but we did on this cruise. It was so widespread that we choose to go back to our rooms because it was really getting to us seeing it,” Anthony, for example, who commented Jan. 29 on Jim Walker’s Cruise Law News. “It was so accepted that it became the joke of all the shows. “

“If you’re saying things are rampant, I’m trying to figure out what it is our crew did not do in? Of not reporting it, because then that’s a different story because we have security guards all over our ship,” Torres said. But “just coming to me with ‘he said, she said’—that’s not the business we’re in.”

“So nothing can be reported about what the cause of death is or what happened on board because right now, we are working with law enforcement, period,” Torres continued. “At the end of the day, Royal is Royal but [Atlantis CEO] Rich Campbell is who you need to touch base with….I have made it very clear—I don’t speak on behalf of Atlantis. Never.”

The veracity of this is difficult to determine, considering what the Puerto Rican Police Department is experiencing. As of Feb. 13, more than 400,000 customers still didn’t have electricity and intermittent blackouts are common in the wake of Hurricane Maria, a Category 4 storm with 155-mph winds that devastated the island on Sept. 20. At least 64 people died, thousand were left homeless and thousands more were left with no electricity or clean water for months.

And as the Associated Press reported, the police have been stretched to the limit with 32 people killed in the first 11 days of the new year and a reign of lawlessness as police—complaining they haven’t been paid overtime—staged a walkout in January that took about 2,000 officers off the street each day.

“The police and people in government are focused right now on solving immediate needs that emerged with the hurricane so they are not as focused on watching crime rates or fulfilling typical duties, like public security, as they would under normal circumstances,” expert Monica Caudillo told the New York Daily News. 

Additionally, for all the repeated messages about how drugs are not allowed, at least one person didn’t get the message. On Jan. 30, Sam commented on maritime attorney Jim Walkers’ website: “You know what is something is that when AIDS took front and center and the gay community grew up and realized what was causing it, the community took the situation seriously and it curbed the effects. The community stood behind one another and saved one each other from what was a certain death. But when it comes to drugs it is a personal responsibility. Where is our responsibility coming into play? I hold myself to the same level of moral decency as I expect Atlantis Events to be held to the same. These drugs were being used in plain view of the security and staff of Atlantis and not once was someone told to put it away. YET we were told that smoking cigarettes was prohibited on most of the ship except…… But never once was drugs prohibited., Not a single message. There was a message about sex in the open take it to your room but never mentioned about drugs YOU Know why because it comes down to dollars and sense. Atlantis is more about the profits than the safety. They have stooped to the corporate level of making money at the client’s expense and we are fueling it for them. Unfortunately, they bought out the only other gay cruise line to monopolize the industry in such a way that we have no other choices if we want to cruise on our own. At least when RSVP was not affiliated with Atlantis we had a choice now we are left with none and the brand RSVP has been dwindled done to worthless.”

Such lack of communal response and apparent obfuscation by Royal Caribbean and Atlantis Events also concerns LGBT advocates such as Jim Key, former Chief Marketing Officer at the Los Angeles LGBT Center. Key is concerned that by not squarely addressing the issue of drug use at sea, more people could die.

“I can certainly understand why Royal Caribbean has a policy against drug use. It’s a huge travel company, not a nightclub promoter. But the time for Royal Caribbean’s president and the president of Atlantis to pretend people aren’t using drugs should have stopped after the first drug-related death (that I know of), nine years ago,” Key told the Los Angeles Blade. “The only question is how will they care for people who have overdosed? Telling passengers Royal Caribbean has zero tolerance for drug use won’t stop people from using, but it does make it even less likely they’ll seek medical care on the ship.”

On Jan. 29, Key posted an open letter to Royal Caribbean International President Michael Bayley on Towleroad calling for responsibility and action.

“Dear Mr. Bayley,” Key wrote, “Since Atlantis Events refuses to take responsibility to protect the lives of passengers on Royal Caribbean-chartered and operated ships, you—and the heads of other cruise lines that do business with Atlantis—must take action.”

Taylor’s tragic death wasn’t the first death on an Atlantis cruise “resulting from an accidental overdose of party drugs. In recent years, at least two other people on Royal Caribbean ships—and perhaps many more—have died similarly. One of them was my friend Spencer Yu, in 2009,” Key wrote. “If three people had died from drug overdoses at a nightclub on land, that club would be shut down, but on Atlantis-chartered ships, the parties continue and the number of deaths keep growing.”

Key aimed his ire at Atlantis Events president Rich Campbell, with whom he and Center COO Darrel Cummings had met to suggest ways to protect other passengers from Spencer’s fate.” He disclosed that The Center had used donated cruise packages for silent auctions.

Key and Cummings asked Campbell to have onboard medical staff experienced in caring for passengers who might accidentally overdose, common at all-night circuit-type parties.

“I was stunned when he refused our request, saying ‘that’s news to me’ in regard to my comments about the wide use of drugs on his cruises,” Key wrote. “We were prepared with a number of recommendations to help protect passengers, but by refusing to even acknowledge the truth, he had no interest in hearing our suggestions.” After all, a friend of Campbell’s “was arrested on your Allure of the Seas in 2011 for dealing drugs.”

Key explained that he had enjoyed his three times on Atlantis cruises. “Unfortunately, the cruises are also the perfect storm for potential tragedy,” he wrote. “On cruises, where there are no security personnel, people are able to quickly go back and forth to their cabin during parties, night after night, increasing the likelihood they’ll take more drugs than their bodies can handle. And when that happens, there are no nearby hospitals.”

Since Campbell profits while dodging culpability, Key wrote, “if Royal Caribbean continues to operate ships for Atlantis, you—and the head of Holland America and other cruise lines chartered by his company—must take action to prevent any more needless deaths. If you remain complicit, you’ll have on your hands the blood of those who die on future cruises.”

It’s not a brain twister: medical staff must know how to treat distressed guests—and “passengers must know how to recognize the signs someone has overdosed and how to quickly get them the treatment they need, without fear of prosecution or discrimination,” Key wrote.

Dr. Travis Cosban, an ER doctor and passenger aboard Taylor’s cruise, also responded to critics holding Atlantis blameless and touting each passenger’s “personal responsibility,” ignoring that partygoers may not know the strength of the drugs they’re taking or how they might react to combinations of drugs.

In his letter to Bayley and Atlantis talked about the “fear” of coming forward. “Rumors were flying on social media that if anyone was caught with or under the influence of drugs they may be detained, arrested or removed from the boat. Consequentially, it does not surprise me that passengers would be hesitant to bring anyone to the appropriate medical facility on board. This culture of fear was created by Atlantis,” Cosban wrote. “Providing staff and medical treatment locations that are safe spaces is essential to healthcare delivery and passenger safety. This is true on land and it is true on water…. Atlantis cannot claim ignorance now.”

“The best step forward,” Cosban continued, “is taking reasonable actions to ensure prevention is a priority for future cruises. This requires a change in attitude and a change in culture. No one should ever fear seeking help when they most need it and Atlantis should put resources in place to ensure that doctors can be the safety net they are trained to be.”

For some people, the controversy over the Royal Caribbean/Atlantis Events drug-fueled party scene is out of line. But for others, it hits home.

“As a survivor of dance floor drugs and a serious meth addiction that nearly killed me, I was once one of the bodies carried from a dance floor and into an ambulance,” longtime AIDS activist Mark S, King, writer at MyFabulousDisease.com, tells the Los Angeles Blade. “Fortunately for me, this occurred on land, in a city where medical personnel and a hospital were nearby. I barely escaped becoming a statistic myself. So I have empathy for the gay men who believe they are having the times of their lives.”

King’s revelry blinded him to his naiveté about mixing drugs. ”That’s where my heart goes out to the clueless party boys aboard the Atlantis cruises,” he says. “Except, when they dose themselves into oblivion, there are no experienced EMT people at the ready, no ambulances, no hospitals. Their relative experience has deadly consequences.

“If we learned anything from HIV activism, it is that moral judgments get us nowhere when addressing a public health crisis, which this certainly is,” King continues. “None of us should sentence anyone to a death ‘they deserved’ because they were careless, when they were trying to find a tribe with which to belong. I get that. It’s easy for others to pass judgment. I would rather demand that these cruise lines have the guts to address this issue and quit hiding behind their soft porn marketing campaigns. They must address this.”

And what if they don’t?

 

The White House

Biden’s second State of the Union prioritizes bipartisanship

“To my Republican friends, if we could work together in the last Congress, there is no reason we can’t work together in this new Congress”

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President Joe Biden delivers his 2023 State of the Union address (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden’s second State of the Union address on Tuesday focused on building upon recent accomplishments, especially legislative milestones that were reached with bipartisan cooperation.

Nevertheless, the speech was met with vocal objections from Republican lawmakers over Biden’s comments about the debt ceiling and mention of some GOP members’ plans to cut social security and Medicare.

“From reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act, to the Electoral Count Reform Act, to the Respect for Marriage Act that protects the right to marry the person you love,” Biden said, “To my Republican friends, if we could work together in the last Congress, there is no reason we can’t work together in this new Congress.”

On the subject of legislation, for the second year in a row, Biden repeated his plea for Congress to revisit the Equality Act “to ensure LGBTQ Americans, especially transgender young people, can live with safety and dignity.”

He also focused part of Tuesday’s address on public health. “Twenty years ago, under the leadership of President Bush and countless advocates and champions, we undertook a bipartisan effort through PEPFAR to transform the global fight against HIV/AIDS,” Biden said.

The successful effort should be repeated in the fight against cancer, he added.

These matters aside, Biden included little mention of LGBTQ issues, or the extremism of Republicans who are poised to run for the presidency next year. Instead, the bulk of his remarks were focused on themes like implementing the provisions of the Inflation Reduction Act and the bipartisan infrastructure law.

The country’s economic recovery was another well-trod message, on the heels of a January jobs report whose data showed record low unemployment and steady growth in new jobs and workers’ wages.

Biden did devote some time to reproductive justice. “The Vice President and I are doing everything we can to protect access to reproductive health care and safeguard patient privacy,” he said. “But already, more than a dozen states are enforcing extreme abortion bans.”

The president then vowed to veto a national abortion ban if Congress should pass one.

During last year’s State of the Union, Biden said “The onslaught of state laws targeting transgender Americans and their families is wrong,” adding, “As I said last year, especially to our younger transgender Americans, I will always have your back as your President, so you can be yourself and reach your God-given potential.”

One sign of solidarity with the LGBTQ community this year was the invitation of Gina and Heidi Nortonsmith, plaintiffs in the Massachusetts case that led the state to become the first to legalize same-sex marriage, to join First Lady Dr. Jill Biden’s box.

And House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) brought Human Rights Campaign President Kelley Robinson as his guest. Biden honored the former House Speaker, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), as “someone who I think will be considered the greatest Speaker in the history of this country.”

President Biden delivers 2023 State of the Union address:

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Crime & Justice

Gay man beaten, hospitalized after leaving bar in San Francisco

Anyone with information is asked to contact the SFPD at 415-575-4444 or text a tip to TIP411 and start the message with SFPD

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Photo Credit: San Francisco Police Department

By John Ferrannini | SAN FRANCISCO – A gay man said that he was beaten near a South of Market LGBTQ bar over the weekend, leading to his hospitalization, and a GoFundMe has been set up to help pay for his living expenses.

Barry Miles posted a picture of himself post-attack to his Instagram page Monday, February 6. Miles wrote, “Last night I got jumped when I left powerhouse by two guys. My wallet was taken? I also had a heart attack. They put in two stents. From high cholesterol. my face hit the sidewalk. also a front tooth was knocked out, and a small fracture in my neck. I’m pretty banged up.”

Barry Miles, left, before he said he was attacked by two men, and right, after he was hospitalized.
Photos: Via GoFundMe

Allison Maxie, a spokesperson for the San Francisco Police Department, corroborated Miles’ account in a statement to the Bay Area Reporter on Tuesday.

“On February 5, 2023 at approximately 12:02 a.m., San Francisco Police Officers from Southern Station responded to the unit block of Langton Street regarding a call for a well-being check,” Maxie wrote. “Officers arrived on scene and located an adult male being treated by medics. During the initial interaction with officers, the victim was unable to provide details regarding what led up to his injuries.”

Then, “officers responded to a business on the 1300 block of Folsom Street where the male stated he had come from and during their initial investigation, officers were unable to determine that a crime had occurred at that location,” Maxie added.

“At this time, we do not have evidence that this incident was hate-motivated,” Maxie stated.

Scott Richard Peterson, the general manager of Powerhouse, stated to the B.A.R. that an officer showed up after midnight.

“A policeman came by after midnight,” Peterson stated. “The incident didn’t happen at Powerhouse, on the alley or on Folsom [Street] that we could see … Officer didn’t give me any details.

“This city is getting rough,” he added.

Maxie said that “the male was transported to a nearby hospital with non-life-threatening injuries. Officers provided the male with a follow up form for this open investigation.”

Gary Virginia, a longtime gay activist and friend of Miles, set up the GoFundMe for him.

The fundraiser has raised $8,000 out of a $10,000 goal as of press time. Virginia found out from the social media post that Miles had been hurt.

Since Powerhouse is between Ninth and 10th streets, and Miles lives on Sixth Street, Virginia said Miles was probably on his way home.

Virginia has been communicating with Miles via text since “I didn’t want him to feel pressure to answer the phone or talk.”

“He lives on a tight budget,” Virginia told the B.A.R. “He’d had stents put in, a neck fracture, a heart attack, and lost a front tooth. I thought ‘that’s going to be a long time of recovery for him.'”

Virginia said that he’s known Miles for about two decades.

“We’ve been friends through the Castro and leather communities,” Virginia said. “I don’t really know when he moved here.”

The two are involved in Krewe de Kinque, a Mardi Gras-themed club. Miles was King XIV of the club (there’ve been 20 kings thus far, one per year).

Virginia said Miles needs about $5,000 for a tooth implant.

Virginia said he would text Miles to ask if the latter would be interested in speaking with the B.A.R.; Miles was also messaged directly by the B.A.R. via Instagram, but has not responded as of press time.

“I feel there could be some trauma he’s not realizing from the attack,” Virginia said.

Virginia said there’s no indication he has heard yet from Miles that this was an attack motivated by anti-gay animus.

San Francisco Pride President Nguyen Pham, a gay man, condemned “this horrific attack against a member of our community.”

“While we might not know the motive for the attack, we cannot ignore the growing nationwide trend of violence against the LGBTQ+ community, from the streets to the statehouses,” Pham wrote in an email. “We remain in solidarity with Barry, as well as other victims of anti-LGBTQ+ hate, and we will hold him in our hearts toward his speedy recovery.”

Powerhouse, a leather and cruise bar, is an anchor of the LGBTQ community in the SOMA neighborhood. It’s located on Folsom Street, once dubbed the “Miracle Mile” for its string of queer establishments. Powerhouse opened under its present ownership in 1997 after a variety of bars had done business in the space.

Anyone with information is asked to contact the SFPD at 415-575-4444 or text a tip to TIP411 and start the message with SFPD.

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The preceding article was previously published by the Bay Area Reporter and is republished by permission.

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Congress

Speaker McCarthy confirms Santos faces House Ethics probe

“If ethics finds something, we’ll take action,’ McCarthy said. “Right now we’re not allowing him to be on committees”

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House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) (L) with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) (Photo Credit: Office of the Speaker of the House of Representatives/Facebook)

WASHINGTON – House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) confirmed to CNN on Tuesday that GOP Rep. George Santos (N.Y.) faces an investigation by the House Ethics Committee.

“Ethics is moving through, and if ethics finds something, we’ll take action,” McCarthy said.

For his part, Santos continued to lean into the defiant attitude with which he has recently treated the many scandals that have enveloped him since his arrival to Washington.

Santos told CNN he is “not concerned” about the Ethics probe and is eager to welcome the constituents from his district, New York’s Third Congressional, who are headed to Capitol Hill today to demand his resignation.

“Right now we’re not allowing him to be on committees from the standpoint of the questions that have arisen,” McCarthy told the network, following reports last week that Santos stepped down from the House Committees on Small Business and Science, Space and Technology.

Asked whether his resignations came at the speaker’s behest, Santos told reporters at the time: “Nobody tells me to do anything.”

Also last week came reports that the FBI was exploring allegations that Santos ran a GoFundMe scam, allegedly stealing crowdsourced money that was intended for oncology treatments for a homeless veteran’s treasured service dog.

Politico reported that on Tuesday, dozens of constituents from Santos’ district called on the beleaguered New York Republican to resign — or demanded House GOP leadership call a vote to expel him.

Gathering on Capitol Hill outside of congressional offices on the day that President Joe Biden is to deliver his State of the Union address, constituents waved a number of signs including those that read “I believe in Santa more than Santos,” “Scamtos,” and “Sashay away George.” They chanted: “Force him out!” The New York Republican has given no indication he’d resign.

One of his GOP constituents said he found Santos’ lie that his mother perished during 9/11 particularly offensive. “You have to be really psychologically impaired to throw that around like it’s nickels,” Ben Marzouk, a local Republican, said.

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Montana

Montana Republicans support anti-Trans medical conscience bill

HB 303, which allows medical providers to decline services based on moral or religious beliefs, cleared a key House vote Monday

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Rep. Zooey Zephyr, D-Missoula (Photo Credit: August Payton Photography)

By Mara Silvers | HELENA – State lawmakers in the House of Representatives gave broad approval Monday to a bill that would allow medical providers, health care facilities and insurers to deny services based on “ethical, moral, or religious beliefs or principles,” signaling the bill’s likely advancement to the Senate this week. 

House Bill 303, sponsored by Rep. Amy Regier, R-Kalispell, passed the Republican-majority chamber largely along party lines, with 65 votes in favor and 35 against, after roughly 20 minutes of debate.

Regier portrayed the bill as a “preservation and protection for medical conscience” in the state for practitioners and health care institutions that object to specific “lifestyle and elective procedures” such as physician aid in dying, prescribing marijuana or opioids, abortion procedures and gender-affirming medical care for transgender people.

“To be clear, this bill would not give the right to refuse to serve a person. It would only apply to the narrow circumstances where a nurse or physician cannot conscientiously perform a specific procedure,” Regier said.

A subsection of the bill says it is not meant to conflict with the federal emergency health care access law known as EMTALA as it applies to health care institutions, such as hospitals. But the bill does not provide a holistic exemption for emergency departments and emergency health care providers. When it comes to abortion, for example, the bill would require providers to opt-in to participating in those procedures in writing beforehand.

Similar legislation has had recent success in other states. For instance, a Medical Ethics and Diversity Act was signed into law in South Carolina last spring. The legislation in that state saw support from the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative religious advocacy group that is also backing the Montana proposal. 

The opposition to South Carolina’s legislation, including from transgender patients and LGBTQ advocacy groups, echoes concerns now surfacing in Montana over HB 303. Medical associations and groups, including the Montana Hospital Association, Montana Primary Care Association, Montana Nurses Association and the Montana Medical Association, testified against the bill during a January committee hearing, saying it would put patients’ care at risk. 

During Monday’s debate on the House floor, Democrats reiterated that the bill includes no discrimination protection for patients, and does not guarantee that a patient has a right to access health care even if a specific provider declines to participate in those services. 

Rep. Zooey Zephyr, D-Missoula, told fellow lawmakers the bill would mean transgender people like herself could be turned away from medical services they need.

“What is actually going to happen is it will be a denial based on diagnosis. Something like, I am diagnosed with gender dysphoria,” Zephyr said. “And the thing is, that is inherently discriminatory because you cannot pass my diagnosis from who I am. To deny me based on my diagnosis of gender dysphoria is to deny me based on my being a trans woman.”

Republican moderates appeared to try and derail the bill by proposing a strategic amendment during Monday’s floor session. 

As written, HB 303 does not apply to a “health care institution or health care payer owned or operated by the state or a political subdivision of the state.” Some Republican representatives showed interest in striking that provision from the bill, an amendment that would have triggered a higher threshold for the bill to pass because of a specific provision of the state constitution. That amendment, proposed by Rep. Tom Welch, R-Dillon, failed in a 39-61 vote. 

Republicans who spoke in support of the bill on the floor said they hoped the bill would protect freedom of expression for medical providers, even those they disagree with. 

“I think in this increasingly lack of traditional values and conscience world, and oftentimes profit-driven world, that protection needs to be provided for providers and health care workers that do have those values and do have that conscience,” said Rep. Jerry Schilling, R-Circle. 

Other Democrats who considered the bill as part of the House Judiciary Committee urged lawmakers to consider the unintended consequences of the bill. Rep. Laura Smith, D-Helena, said she’d heard stories from parents of young children faced with challenging medical circumstances who feared that, had HB 303 been in place, their desires for care would have been trumped by the prerogative or ideology of their providers. 

“This is just one of many examples that I receive where medical teams have tried to deny parents’ rights to choose procedures for their children,” Smith said. “If the bill passes, it will take away parental rights, and your constituents’ parental rights, to make these life-and-death procedural and medical decisions for our own children.”

The bill ultimately passed with widespread Republican support and one affirmative vote from Rep. Frank Smith, D-Poplar. Four Republican lawmakers joined Democrats in opposition.

If the bill passes a third, non-debatable vote this week, it will then be transmitted to the Senate and assigned to a committee for a second hearing. 

Speaking to Montana Free Press Monday afternoon, Regier said she was pleased by the vote margin. 

“It’s what we all hope for,” she said. 

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Mara Silvers writes about health and human services stories happening in local communities, the Montana statehouse and the court system. She also produces the Shared State podcast in collaboration with MTPR and YPR. Before joining Montana Free Press, Mara worked in podcast and radio production at Slate and WNYC. She was born and raised in Helena, MT and graduated from Seattle University in 2016.

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The preceding piece was previously published by Montana Free Press and is republished with permission.

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State Department

State Department spokesperson welcomes Pope Francis’ opposition to criminalization laws

Ned Price is openly gay, said pontiff ‘speaks with authority’

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State Department spokesperson Ned Price, center, speaks at the LGBTQ Victory Institute's International LGBTQ Leaders Conference in D.C. on Dec. 3, 2022. Price, who is openly gay, welcomes Pope Francis' recent comments against laws that criminalize LGBTQ and intersex people. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

WASHINGTON — State Department spokesperson Ned Price on Monday said he welcomes Pope Francis’ recent comments against criminalization laws.

“His Holiness using his voice in this way is something that will be noticed by people and governments around the world,” Price told the Washington Blade during his daily press briefing. “He obviously speaks with authority that perhaps no one else can. We welcome those remarks.”

Francis, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and the Rt. Rev. Ian Greenshields of the Church of Scotland on Sunday after they left South Sudan publicly denounced criminalization laws and said their respective churches should welcome LGBTQ+ and intersex people. Francis during an exclusive interview with the Associated Press on Jan. 24 described criminalization laws as “unjust” and said “being homosexual is not a crime.”

The Vatican’s tone towards LGBTQ+ and intersex issues has softened since Francis assumed the papacy in 2013, but the church continues to consider homosexuality a sin. The Vatican remains opposed to marriage rights for same-sex couples. 

Price on Monday referred to President Joe Biden’s memorandum that committed the U.S. to promoting LGBTQ+ and intersex rights abroad as part of his administration’s overall foreign policy. 

The openly gay State Department spokesperson in May 2021 told the Blade the decriminalization of consensual same-sex sexual relations is one of the five priorities for the White House in its efforts to promote LGBTQ+ and intersex rights abroad. Singapore, Barbados, Antigua and Barbuda and St. Kitts and Nevis have legalized homosexuality since that interview.

“We will continue, as an administration, as a government, to doing (sic) what we can, perhaps in a very different way, but practical steps that we can to promote and protect the rights of LGBTQI+ persons around the world,” said Price on Monday, referring to Biden’s foreign policy memorandum. 

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Crime & Justice

Patrons of Gay bar in New York City robbed of thousands

NYPD investigators believe the criminals used facial recognition to access the victims’ phones and funds once they were incapacitated

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The Eagle NYC (Screenshot/YouTube)

NEW YORK – The New York City Police Department, (NYPD) confirmed that a series of robberies committed at The Eagle NYC, a Chelsea gay leather bar last Fall, had the three victims losing thousands of dollars after the criminals used facial recognition to access the victims’ phones.

NBC News Out correspondent Matt Lavietes reported the three men, who were in their late 30s and 40s, visited The Eagle NYC, on separate nights in October and November and were each robbed of $1,000 to $5,000, according to the NYPD’s deputy commissioner of public information. 

No arrests have been made and the investigation is ongoing, authorities said.

Capt. Robert Gault of the city’s 10th Precinct, who spoke about the incidents at a police community council meeting last week, told NBC News that NYPD investigators believe the criminals used facial recognition to access the victims’ phones and funds once they were incapacitated.

“What we think is happening with this scheme is they’re being lured away from the club, maybe to say, ‘Hey, you wanna come with me? I got some good drugs,’ or something like that,’” Gault said. “And then, once they get into a car to do whatever it is that they’re going to do, at some point or another, they don’t know what happened when they wake up.”

Criminals use facial recognition to rob patrons at NYC gay bar:

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Florida

DeSantis targets Orlando non-profit over holiday drag show

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The Plaza Live venue, Orlando, Florida (Photo Credit: Orlando Philharmonic Plaza Foundation)

ORLANDO – Florida’s Republican Governor Ron DeSantis escalated his war on the state’s LGBTQ+ community ordering a state agency to launch a complaint against a Orlando non-profit over a drag holiday event it hosted in which children under age 18 were allowed to attend.

The state’s Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco under the Department of Business and Professional Regulation filed the complaint on Friday against the Orlando Philharmonic Plaza Foundation alleging the foundation violated Florida law in allowing for a person to “commit lewd or lascivious exhibition” in the presence of an individual who is less than 16 years old. 

“A Drag Queen Christmas” was hosted by the foundation on Dec. 28 and during the performance sold alcoholic drinks at its Plaza Live venue. In the complaint, the agency states that the foundation used “Christmas-themed promotional materials” that did not give advance notice of the “sexually explicit nature” of the show’s contents. 

The complaint also states that the division sent the foundation a letter ahead of the show saying “sexually explicit drag show performances constitute public nuisances, lewd activity, and disorderly conduct when minors are in attendance” and the foundation’s license could be subject to penalties if it did not ensure minors could not attend the event. 

In its capacity as a regulator of alcohol, the division attempting to revoke the foundation’s liquor license for six alleged counts of violating Florida statutes. 

When asked about the move by the DeSantis administration targeting the non-profit, Bryan D. Griffin, the spokesman for DeSantis said “Governor DeSantis stands to protect the innocence of children, and the governor always follows through when he says he will do something.”

Orlando Weekly writer Matthew Moyer noted that The Plaza Live — besides serving as the performing home base of the Orlando Philharmonic — hosts a robust slate of touring bands, comedians, YouTubers and, yes, drag performers.

State Rep. Anna Eskamani released a statement to Orlando Weekly late Friday afternoon, condemning the state’s actions in no uncertain terms. “Governor Ron DeSantis’ culture wars are destroying people’s jobs and livelihoods. The very notion of shutting down a small business over a drag show is insane and extreme,” said Eskamani. “In the United States we do not allow the government to determine what we can read, see or hear or who we can gather with. Targeting drag performances limits everyone’s freedom of speech and is all a part of the Governor’s sick anti-LGBTQ+ agenda.”

DeSantis previously filed a complaint against a popular restaurant and pub in the Miami’s Wynwood neighborhood in July, alleging that it violated a public decency law in allowing children to attend a drag show.

The R house, is a unique casual fine dining establishment and lounge with an integrated gallery right in the heart of the vibrant Miami-Wynwood arts district named for Rocco Carulli, the executive chef as well as creator of the restaurant. The R House identifies itself on its Facebook page as “the proud home of South Florida’s most popular weekend drag brunches! Make some time to check us out and experience R House.”

The complaint was filed by the Department of Business and Professional Regulation on asking that the R House restaurant is a declared a public nuisance and has its liquor license revoked. 

According to the South Florida Sun Sentinel, the complaint was issued after a video of a recent performance at the bar’s drag brunch went viral. A topless drag queen wearing lingerie stuffed with money can be seen in the video attempting to dance with a young girl, who the DPBR estimates is “between three and five years old.” Twitter account “Libs of Tik Tok” originally found the footage on Tik Tok, posted by a user who wrote, “Children belong at drag shows!!!! Children deserve to see fun & expression & freedom.”

The department cited multiple incidents of inappropriate drag performances with kids in the audience, including one in which a child “between the ages of ten and twelve” was “seen recoiling and turning away in her seat as a Brunch performer climbed on the back of the child’s bench, squatted, and gyrated a couple of feet above the child’s head.”

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Iowa

Iowa Governor notes ‘parental rights’ at anti-LGBTQ+ town hall

Reynolds and Republican lawmakers pledged to pass legislation this session banning LGBTQ materials in schools

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Gov. Kim Reynolds addressed a town hall hosted by the conservative nonprofit Moms for Liberty Feb. 2, 2023, discussing “parental rights” legislation in Iowa. (Photo by Robin Opsahl/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

By Robin Opsahl | DES MOINES – Gov. Kim Reynolds and Republican legislators speaking at a “parental rights” event Thursday pledged to pass legislation this session banning LGBTQ materials in schools and policies allowing students to socially transition without their parents’ consent.

“School choice” supporters gathered at Franklin Junior High School  in Des Moines Thursday evening for the town hall event, hosted by the conservative nonprofit Moms for Liberty. Reynolds cheered the passage of her private school scholarship plan in the first weeks of the 2023 session, and promised they were not done with education legislation.

“The last few years have provided so many reasons to be in this fight in the arena for kids,” Reynolds said. “And maybe for you it was how they were kept out of school wearing masks for no good reason. Maybe it was demonizing our country. Or an obsession with race in the classroom … I guess my message to you is, stay involved because parents and freedom still matter in Iowa.”

 A demonstrator yelled over Gov. Kim Reynolds speech while holding up a transgender pride flag at a Moms for Liberty Town Hall at Franklin Junior High School Feb. 2, 2023.
(Photo by Robin Opsahl/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Protesters tried to shout over Reynolds’ speech, with one demonstrator holding up a transgender flag. Others in the room cheered and shouted “USA” as police officers removed protesters from the room.

Supporters celebrated approval of the Educational Savings Account (ESA) program, which gives students an account of $7,598 each year to use for private school tuition and associated costs. The national co-founder of Moms for Liberty, Tina Descovich, said she was excited to hear about Iowa successfully passing ESAs, but said that’s just “one small little portion of issues that are facing public education.”

For years, she said, politicians were not paying much attention to education. But in Iowa and other states across the country, Descovich said parents are putting the issue “front and center” in their state’s policy agendas, and lawmakers in states like Iowa are listening to their requests to let families decide the best educational path for their children.

“I think I think parents want that now, you know, everything in society is more custom made, and so education should be a little bit more accessible and custom made,” Descovich said.

Seven Republican legislators answered questions from attendees about Iowa’s education system. Many questions were focused on class material and discussion around gender identity. Reynolds and parents brought up Linn-Mar Community School District as an example of what’s wrong with modern schools.

The school district has a “gender support policy,” which allows a student to meet with the school to discuss socially transitioning by using a different name, pronouns and facilities corresponding with their gender identity. The district allows children to choose who is involved in those meetings with the school, and lets the child decide whether to involve their parent or guardian.

Lawmaker calls gender-affirming policies a ‘slippery slope’

Rep. Jeff Shipley, R-Fairfield, said school board members claimed the school could not reverse this policy because it would violate state and federal civil rights protections given based on gender identity.

House lawmakers approved legislation Tuesday banning school districts from letting a student use a different name or pronouns than what they were given at birth without written parental consent. House File 190 was also introduced Thursday to remove gender identity as a protected category from the state’s civil rights act.

“Mental illness should not be accommodated as a civil right,” Shipley said Thursday.

When a teacher asked the legislators at the forum about studies that showed the use of a transgender child’s preferred name and pronouns lowers suicide rates, Shipley said there were conflicting reports how to help transgender children with mental health problems. But he said policies like Linn-Mar Community School District’s are a “slippery slope.”

Using a child’s preferred name and pronouns without their parents’ knowledge could lead to them undergoing hormone replacement therapy or having gender-affirming surgeries without their parents consent, he said. How to best support transgender people is a conversation the Legislature will be discussing a lot going forward he said.

“I know other states have done things to prohibit these therapies,” he said, referencing conversation therapy. “So I think this is a conversation we’re going to have to have as a state to really decide what is the best standards of practice of therapy, what do kids need to alleviate the dysphoria and form actual identities that can be healthy and happy for the rest of their lives.”

Lawmakers address concerns about lack of choice access for special-needs students

Multiple parents also brought up concerns about how the ESA program will impact their special needs children. Legislators said they hoped to see expanded private school options for children with special needs, and were in discussions about potential future legislation to encourage more private institutions to special education students and offer more specialized educational programs.

Rep. Steven Holt, R-Denison, said he believes some private schools have not accepted special-education students because they didn’t have the resources. “And this bill was going to give them a lot more resources,” he said. “And so I’m hopeful that that alone is going to allow them to take a lot more special needs children.”

The conservative legislators assured the crowd that they would continue to provide parents more options for their children’s schooling going forward. Rep. Eddie Andrews, R-Johnston, said Iowa’s decision to desegregate schools 86 years before the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on Brown v. Board of Education shows the state has always been committed to school choice.

“And that is all we are asking, and yes, demanding, that we have the ability to educate our children in the best way at the best school that is appropriate for my child’s success. To prepare my boy, my girl, your child, for success,” Andrews said. “And that’s all school choice.”

Moms For Liberty: Giving Parents A Voice Town Hall – IOWA

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Robin Opsahl is an Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter covering the state Legislature and politics. Robin has experience covering government, elections and more at media organizations including Roll Call, the Sacramento Bee and the Wausau Daily Herald, in addition to working on multimedia projects, newsletters and visualizations.

They were a political reporter for the Des Moines Register covering the Iowa caucuses leading up to the 2020 presidential election, assisting with the Register’s Iowa Poll, and reporting on Iowa’s 4th District elections.

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The preceding article was previously published by the Iowa Capital Dispatch and is republished with permission.

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Missouri

FBI joins investigation of threats against LGBTQ+ bars in St. Louis

Since September of 2022 the FBI has been on heightened alert over violence against LGBTQ+ facilities, groups and events

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St. Louis Grove Neighborhood Business Association/Facebook

ST. LOUIS – The FBI has joined the investigation into violent threats of bombs and shootings against three LGBTQ+ bars in the Grove neighborhood of St. Louis this past weekend. A fourth threat against a children’s playground and adult café that was scheduled to hold a drag queen story hour is also being looked into by the FBI.

The three establishments, PRISM STL, Just John, and Rehab, are all located on Manchester Avenue in the city’s trendy Grove neighborhood and entertainment district. According to St. Louis’ alternative weekly press outlet The Riverfront Times, late Saturday afternoon, the bars received calls from an individual threatening violence.

Around 4 p.m. at Prism, bartender Jordan Cox answered the phone. “The caller off the bat started talking about how they were the Joker, and they were going to blow up the bar, send bombs and shoot up everybody,” Cox said, adding that it sounded like at least two people were on the other line.

Just John bar owner John Arnold said he received a voicemail around the same time.

“They said they were going to come in at 3 a.m. and burn the place down,” Arnold says. “And that they were fed up with us ‘fags’.” The same voicemail named a Just John employee whom the caller liked. “They told us to make sure he wasn’t there,” Arnold added.

St. Louis NBC affiliate KSDK NBC 5 reported that a bartender at Michael Klataske and Sean Abernathy’s bar PRISM actually spoke to the suspect.

In the incident regarding the fourth location, CBS affiliate KMOV 4 reported that the FBI is also investigating threats against a children’s playground and adult café called Urban Fort in South City. The owner said they received violent threats and were forced to tighten security and change the date, time and location of a scheduled story time lesson featuring a drag performer.

Photo Credit: Federal Bureau of Investigation

Since September, the FBI has been on heightened alert over violence against LGBTQ+ facilities, groups and events. A threat assessment distributed by the Department of Homeland Security after November Club Q mass-shooting in Colorado Springs warned that hate criminals and violent domestic extremists could increase threats to the LGBTQ+ community “due to their responses to legislative or societal changes in the United States.” related to LGBTQ+ issues, and conspiracy theories involving the LGBTQ+ community.”

In the bulletin issued by DHS, the HSI agency noted: “Some domestic violent extremists who have conducted attacks have cited previous attacks and attackers as inspiration. Following the late November shooting at an LGBTQI+ bar in Colorado Springs, Colorado—which remains under investigation—we have observed actors on forums known to post racially or ethnically motivated violent extremist content praising the alleged attacker.

Similarly, some domestic violent extremists in the United States praised an October 2022 shooting at a LGBTQI+ bar in Slovakia and encouraged additional violence. The attacker in Slovakia posted a manifesto online espousing white supremacist beliefs and his admiration for prior attackers, including some within the United States.”

The St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department said in a statement, “The investigation is ongoing.”

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Missouri

Rabbi & 11-year-old son testify against anti-trans legislation

Daniel Bogard and his family are part of an interfaith movement led by Missouri clergy aimed at stopping bills targeting the LGBTQ community

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Courtesy of Rabbi Daniel Bogard

ST. LOUIS, MO. — Rabbi Daniel Bogard should be spending this Shabbat preparing for tonight’s service at the synagogue he leads in St. Louis, Central Reform Congregation. Instead, he’s defending his family from death threats and planning his next trip to the state capitol, two hours away in Jefferson City, where Republicans hold a super majority in the state legislature and the governorship. 

That’s also where the state GOP is pushing forward six bills: Three that would ban gender-affirming healthcare for transgender children and three more that would prohibit them from competing in school sports according to their authentic gender identity. Every year for the past few years, Bogard said he has testified against bills like these.

“Every year, again and again and again,” he said. “And it’s dehumanizing and degrading and genuinely traumatic.”

In fact, Missouri lawmakers have filed the most anti-LGBTQ+ bills of any state, according to a database from the American Civil Liberties Union that tracks anti-LGBTQ+ legislation nationwide. The ACLU called this the “most dangerous” session of the Missouri Legislature for the LGBTQ+ community it’s seen in years. 

“The Republicans said that targeting trans kids is the single most important agenda on their list, especially targeting trans because it is their top priority this session. And I think, ‘What the fuck?’” said the rabbi. “We had, I don’t know, 50, 60 Jews who showed up in the state capitol with 25 hours’ notice to protest these bills last Tuesday.”

That day, Bogard was one of a half dozen fellow Jewish as well as Christian clergy who spoke out against the legislation, many of them testifying at a marathon, nine-hour hearing focused on student-athletes. 

Bogard’s 11-year-old eldest son testified, and boy’s grandmother was there in support. The young man told lawmakers he was there to represent his nine-year-old brother and a friend, who are both transgender.

“I have to be here because you, the Missouri government, keeps trying to take away what they have a passion for. Why do you keep trying to take things from these kids? Kids just want to have fun, playing sports, not being stressed having to come here to tell you to let them play,” he said. “This has affected my brother, because now he is scared he will not get to do what he loves.” 

The Blade agreed to not disclose either boy’s name or their faces for their protection. “I’ve had a half dozen death threats in the last year,” Bogard said. “It’s taken a huge toll. It colors everything about how I see the world at this point. I find hope really hard, which is tough as a rabbi.”

And this week wasn’t the first time the rabbi’s oldest son testified, he said. But he draws the line at putting his youngest child in the hot seat. 

“My 11-year old, he’s been testifying for years now,” Bogard told the Blade. “We don’t allow our child who’s trans to testify because, first of all, he’s only nine. But they are so cruel in that testimony room. They’re cruel, and they say awful things. I mean, they call you groomers in the testimony room. They tell you you’re mutilating your child. They ask children if they’d like to be taken away from their parents, and why their parents are forcing them to believe these things. They ask children what their genitals look like.”

“So, we don’t, we don’t let our nine-year old go there,” he said, noting his child does have plenty of support, and not just from him and his wife, Rabbi Karen Bogard and their oldest son. 

“My kid lives the life that every trans kid deserves. He is embraced and supported by every single one of his relatives, our friends, and the school and his teacher. They threw him a party on the one-year anniversary of his transition. The rabbi made him a kippah in the colors of the trans flag,” the pink, white and blue banner which was designed by Navy veteran and trans activist Monica Helms. 

Bogard’s nine-year-old attends a school which is greatly supportive of the effort to win hearts and minds at the capitol. “The school sends a senior level person to testify against every single one of these bills,” he said. “That’s the world my kid lives in.” 

To give other children like his a chance to live in a better world, even briefly, Bogard teamed-up with PROMO senior director of public policy and advocacy Shira Berkowitz last year, to start Camp Indigo Point, a summer camp for trans youth, at a secret location in Missouri.

“We thought we were going to get 20 kids from this area,” Bogard said. “And we ended up filling every one of the 97 bunks that we had for kids at the facility we had rented out, and had 60 kids on the waitlist. Those kids come from 27 states. It was the most magical thing, the best thing I’ve ever been a part of.”

Bogard said the entire staff at the camp, except for him, is trans and nonbinary. It’s efforts like this and the work he and other cisgender parents do at the capitol that has won him admiration and allies, including one woman who describes herself as an Orthodox feminist.

“The efforts to take away trans rights in Missouri — and attack and erase all LGBTQ+ people in our state — have felt like repeated gut punches as we see more and more bills proposed and work to build up the energy to travel to the capitol week after week to testify. It often feels like more than enough to break a person,” Rori Picker Neiss, Maharat and executive director of the JCRC in St. Louis, told the Blade. “And yet what continues to inspire me each day are these brave kids and their resilience, the parents who fight for them to the ends of the earth, and the faith leaders who refuse to allow religious language to be coopted for harm.”

Bogard and others making this effort do more than testify, they lobby the lawmakers. “Many of these Republicans will tell you in private how much they don’t like these bills and don’t want to be a part of them, but they feel like they have to.” 

And what about those who are pushing the bills forward, such as Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden? Bogard calls them “disgusting” and “enablers of fascism.” 

“They are the people who are torturing my family, because it’s good politics for them,” he said. “I think it’s fascism that’s rising here. I think that’s what this is and that’s what we’re facing. It’s white Christian nationalism, certainly, and it’s taking over red states.” 

As the Blade has reported, families from Texas, Florida and other states of hate are fleeing to sanctuary states like California, Connecticut and Massachusetts because of the kinds of bills being considered in Missouri. Even though Bogard has deep roots in St. Louis, he confessed moving away is something his family may have to consider. 

“I don’t know a loving parent of a trans kid in a red state who isn’t up at night, terrified that they’re going to need to flee,” he said. “I live in the house that my grandpa built, that my dad grew up in, that I grew up in, that my kids are growing up in. My folks are here at home, very close to us and who love their grandkids. My mom came down to testify with us. My brother’s here, his family, my niece.

“I’m terrified we’re going to need to flee the state, because if they give me the choice between doing what is right for my child, and staying, that’s not a choice. The great fear is, government goons showing up at your door to take your child away.”

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