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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?

 

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Alabama

Alabama House approves expansion of state’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law

The bill would extend a ban on discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity from fifth grade to eighth grade

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Rep. Mack Butler, R-Rainbow City, speaks during a debate over his bill expanding Alabama’s “Don’t Say Gay” law in the Alabama House of Representatives on April 23, 2024 at the Alabama Statehouse in Montgomery, Alabama. The bill would expand the current prohibitions on discussions of gender or sexuality from fifth grade to eighth grade. (Brian Lyman/Alabama Reflector)

By Alander Rocha | MONTGOMERY, Ala. – The Alabama House of Representatives Tuesday approved a major expansion of the state’s “Don’t Say Gay” law after a two-hour debate. 

HB 130, sponsored by Rep. Mack Butler, R-Rainbow City, would expand the limitations on teachers addressing sexual orientation and gender identity, currently banned in kindergarten through fifth grade instruction, to kindergarten through eighth grade. The bill would also limit pride flags in the classroom.

“We’ve had a few teachers go rogue, and you’d be appalled at some of the things that are being taught. You’d be appalled at some of the things right now that you’re seeing on Chromebooks,” Butler said.

The House approved the measure on a 74-25 vote.

The bill would have previously expanded the ban through 12th grade, but Rep. Barbara Drummond, D-Mobile, offered an amendment to limit the ban on sexual orientation and gender identity instruction to the eighth grade.

Butler said that was a friendly amendment supported by the Alabama State  Department of Education and thanked Drummond for bringing it.

“I’m trying to put lipstick on something that I think is going to be scarring our kids,” Drummond said.

Democrats said the bill could have unintended consequences, especially as it related to children’s mental health.

Rep. Marilyn Lands, D-Huntsville, said that in her background as a counselor, she’s worked with LGBTQ+ youth that have been ostracized and bullied for of their identity.

Lands named Nigel Shelby, a 15-year-old from Huntsville who died by suicide because of bullying. She said to the body that each legislator “knows people that have been personally affected by this kind of cruelty.”

Several Democrats expressed concerns the bill could contribute to suicide rates. Asked by Rep. Phillip Ensler, D-Montgomery, to respond, Butler said he didn’t believe that would be the case “at all.”

“You still would be able to go to your teacher and talk to your teacher. You wouldn’t be able to raise your hand in class and have an open discussion about what you’re going through, which I doubt is what would happen anyway,” Butler said.

Ensler said he was missing the point. He said that what children will take away from the legislation is that the Legislature is homophobic. He said anytime lessons on identity are prohibited, such as discussion on religion and ethnicity, it makes people feel like they don’t matter and are not seen as equal. 

“That is so disturbing, and I just cannot believe that we’re going to potentially now pass something any moment here that could lead to a child — a child — taking his or her own life because of something that we’re going to do here today,” Ensler said.

Other Democrats questioned which rainbow flag the legislation would outlaw. 

Rep. Neil Rafferty, D-Birmingham, asked whether the bill would be banning the traditional rainbow flag or the solidarity flag, also known as the progress flag. There are at least 25 pride flags, according to the Human Rights Campaign.

“At what point would you know that you’re coming upon another insignia or symbol that would be showing a student that might be struggling, hurting or are really trying to just make the best of what they can and talk to a teacher?” Rafferty asked.

He offered an amendment that would instead prohibit a teacher from having discussions intended to change a student’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

“Very simple. It changes that from regarding to getting to really what the intent of this bill is, and that is to protect children,” Rafferty said.

The amendment was defeated on a 70-27 vote.

Rep. Patrick Sellers, D-Birmingham, said that the issue was not in school, but at home and social media. He said the body was trying to “legislate morality within the home.” 

“I have a little pause because I think we’re trying to do something that we cannot do,” Sellers said.

He added that teachers don’t have the time to teach material outside of the school curriculum.

“Their time is so scheduled, along with dealing with all that they deal with, especially with discipline issues that they deal with within the school system, they don’t have time to teach what I think what you’re suggesting that has been taught,” Sellers said.

Republicans spoke in support of the bill, saying that teachers need to focus on teaching the subject they are assigned.

Rep. Ernie Yarbrough, R-Trinity, said that it is “not the job of public education to sexualize our kids.” He said it was “disingenuous” to say it’s a “ban on teaching historical facts.”

“The sooner we realize that teachers need to focus on teaching, reading, writing and arithmetic, and leaving the purity and the minds, in regard to sexual knowledge, to the parents of our families, the better off our country will be,” Yarbrough said.

The bill goes to the Senate for consideration.

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Alander Rocha

Alander Rocha is a journalist based in Montgomery, and he reports on government, policy and healthcare. He previously worked for KFF Health News and the Red & Black, Georgia’s student newspaper. He is a Tulane and Georgia alumnus with a two-year stint in the U.S. Peace Corps.

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The preceding article was previously published by the Alabama Reflector and is republished with permission.

The Alabama Reflector is an independent, nonprofit news outlet dedicated to covering state government and politics in the state of Alabama. Through daily coverage and investigative journalism, The Reflector covers decision makers in Montgomery; the issues affecting Alabamians, and potential ways to move our state forward.

We’re part of States Newsroom, the nation’s largest state-focused nonprofit news organization.

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Tennessee

Tennessee: Anti-LGBTQ parents can now foster, adopt LGBTQ kids

Advocates have pushed back to say that plain language of the law does not require the state to take into account the child’s own wishes

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Jace Wilder, education manager of the Tennessee Equality Project, says the new law “puts kids at risk of being abused, neglected and harmed again.” (Photo: John Partipilo)

By Anita Wadhwani | NASHVILLE, Tenn. – With Gov. Bill Lee’s signature, Tennessee last week became the first state in the nation to establish the right of adults who claim moral or religious objections to LGBTQ identity to foster and adopt LGBTQ kids.

In the days since the law became effective, the Department of Children’s Services (DCS) has shelved a 10-year-old policy that said children in state custody must receive care that “promotes dignity and respect for all children/youth and families inclusive of their gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation.”

That policy is now “under review and will be updated on the web site once the review is complete,” DCS spokesperson Ashley Zarach said. New guidelines for how the state will navigate foster kids’ sexual orientation and gender identity in deciding where to place them are expected to be hashed out in the coming months.

The law’s passage has raised alarms among advocates for LGBTQ youth in Tennessee and elsewhere, who say it upends a central principle of child welfare systems: prioritizing the best interest of a child.

Instead, they say, the law gives gives greater weight to a prospective parent’s religious and moral beliefs over the need of a child for a loving, safe and supportive home.

“What’s really sad about this is there’s a really high volume of LGBTQ+ kids in the foster system whose needs aren’t being met now,” said Molly Quinn, executive director of OUTMemphis. Among the LGBTQ nonprofit’s programs is one that aids 18- to 24-year-old LGBTQ youth facing homelessness, many of whom are former foster kids who faced a tough time in the child welfare system.

“The fact that the state would accept a family that is willing to discriminate into this broken system with such vulnerable kids is difficult to understand,” she said.

Best interests of the child?

The law, formally called the Tennessee Foster and Adoptive Parent Protection Act, was backed overwhelmingly by Tennessee Republican lawmakers, who two years ago also approved a first-of-its-kind law allowing private adoption and foster care agencies that accept tax dollars to reject prospective parents for a variety of religious or moral reasons, including their faith or whether they are LGBTQ.

In advocating for this year’s bill, Dickson Republican Rep. Mary Littleton characterized it as a necessary safeguard for families who want to offer loving homes to foster and adoptive kids but worry that they would have to compromise their faith or moral beliefs. Littleton also cited an urgent need for more willing families to step forward. Tennessee currently has 4,948 fully approved foster homes, but needs 400 more.

At the end of the day the state should be acting in the best interest of the kids and this doesn’t do this. This puts emphasis on beliefs of foster and adoptive parents.” – Laura Brennan, Family Equity

Littleton stressed that the new law says DCS is not precluded from taking a child’s preferences into account before placing them in a home.

“This bill does not disregard the values and beliefs of the child,” Littleton said, noting state child welfare officials can still take into account “a comprehensive list of factors.” before placing any child in any home.

Advocates have pushed back to say that plain language of the law does not require the state to take into account the child’s own wishes.

They also criticized what they call a mischaracterization by the law’s supporters that prospective foster and adoptive parents in Tennessee have been rejected for holding anti-LGBTQ beliefs.

Parents in Tennessee have not been required to be gender- or sexual-orientation-affirming as a condition of becoming approved as a foster or adoptive parent. They have, however, been required to promote dignity and respect of a child’s identity if they take an LGBTQ kid in their home — until now.

DCS: parents preferences already taken into account

According to the Department of Children’s Services,  prospective parents’ “preferences” have routinely been taken into account before a child is placed in a home, a spokesperson for the Department of Children’s Services said in a statement.

“Prior to this legislation, the DCS home study process included asking prospective foster and adoptive parents a series of questions to identify their placement preferences,” a statement from DCS said.

“Among those are questions regarding willingness to parent a child who identifies as LGBTQ+. Our goal always is to find the most appropriate placement to meet the unique needs of each child in our care,” the statement said.

Tennessee currently has 8,854 kids in state custody — 6,686 of them residing in foster homes. Up to a third of all foster youth nationwide identify as LBGTQ — often kicked out of home or winding up in state custody as a result of mistreatment or rejection based on their gender identity, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Jace Wilder, education manager Tennessee Equality Project, an LGBTQ+ advocacy organization that has vocally opposed the law, pointed to his own tough childhood as an example of the importance of supportive adults in a child’s life.

Wilder, who is transgender, was raised, in part, by a friend’s parents after suffering abuse at the hands of his father, he said. His mother was disabled and frequently hospitalized.

Wilder said the abuse wasn’t solely because of his gender identity, but “it kind of gave him more ammo to use against me, so that did not help.” He was also able to connect with LGBTQ people for support in his teens and college years, he said.

“Without finding people that accepted me and really helped me grow, I think I would have been stuck in the position of being too afraid to transition, too afraid of being out.” he said. “I think this puts kids at risk of being abused, neglected and harmed again.”

The nature of discourse over LGBTQ youth in Tennessee already exemplifies the need for safe and affirming homes, said Eli Givens, a college freshman from Tennessee who also serves as an advocate for the Tennessee Equality Project.

“It’s been just really unbelievable watching this session,” Givens said. “I’ve had adults telling me I need to go gas myself, that I was clearly molested when I was younger, just a wide array of threats,” they said.

“It’s bewildering that the same adults who told me to gas myself can adopt an LGBTQ child. That’s an extremely scary reality.”

Tennessee AG pushes back on proposed federal LGBTQ foster protections

The law was enacted on the heels of proposed new rules currently being considered by the U.S. The Department of Health and Human Services related to the placement of LGBTQI+ youth in foster care. Among the proposed rules for all foster homes is they “establish an environment free of hostility, mistreatment, or abuse based on the child’s LGBTQI+ status.”

In November, Tennessee Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti led a 17-state coalition opposing the rules, saying in a letter to the federal government that they would shrink the pool of available foster families and “further divert resources away from protecting foster children from physical abuse and toward enforcing compliance with controversial gender ideology.”

Laura Brennan, associate director for child welfare policy for Family Equality, which advocates for LGBTQ families, said national advocates are keeping a close eye on what’s happening in Tennessee. The state’s 2022 law allowing publicly-funded private adoption and foster care agencies to exclude LGBTQ parents has seen been adopted by 13 other states, she said.

“At the end of the day the state should be acting in the best interest of the kids and this doesn’t do this,” she said. “This puts emphasis on beliefs of foster and adoptive parents.”

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Anita Wadhwani

Anita Wadhwani is a senior reporter for the Tennessee Lookout. The Tennessee AP Broadcasters and Media (TAPME) named her Journalist of the Year in 2019 as well as giving her the Malcolm Law Award for Investigative Journalism. Wadhwani is formerly an investigative reporter with The Tennessean who focused on the impact of public policies on the people and places across Tennessee.

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The preceding piece was previously published by the Tennessee Lookout and is republished with permission.

Now more than ever, tough and fair journalism is important. The Tennessee Lookout is your watchdog, telling the stories of politics and policy that affect the people of the Volunteer State.

We’re part of States Newsroom, the nation’s largest state-focused nonprofit news organization.

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The White House

Biden announces action plan targeting pollutants in drinking water

The administration has led more than 500 programs geared toward communities most impacted by health and safety hazards like pollution

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President Joe Biden speaks with reporters following an Earth Day event on April 22, 2024 (Screen capture: Forbes/YouTube)

WASHINGTON — Headlining an Earth Day event in Northern Virginia’s Prince William Forest on Monday, President Joe Biden announced the disbursement of $7 billion in new grants for solar projects and warned of his Republican opponent’s plans to roll back the progress his administration has made toward addressing the harms of climate change.

The administration has led more than 500 programs geared toward communities most impacted by health and safety hazards like pollution and extreme weather events.

In a statement to the Washington Blade on Wednesday, Brenda Mallory, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said, “President Biden is leading the most ambitious climate, conservation, and environmental justice agenda in history – and that means working toward a future where all people can breathe clean air, drink clean water, and live in a healthy community.”

“This Earth Week, the Biden-Harris Administration announced $7 billion in solar energy projects for over 900,000 households in disadvantaged communities while creating hundreds of thousands of clean energy jobs, which are being made more accessible by the American Climate Corps,” she said. “President Biden is delivering on his promise to help protect all communities from the impacts of climate change – including the LGBTQI+ community – and that we leave no community behind as we build an equitable and inclusive clean energy economy for all.”

Recent milestones in the administration’s climate policies include the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s issuance on April 10 of legally enforceable standard for detecting and treating drinking water contaminated with polyfluoroalkyl substances.

“This rule sets health safeguards and will require public water systems to monitor and reduce the levels of PFAS in our nation’s drinking water, and notify the public of any exceedances of those levels,” according to a White House fact sheet. “The rule sets drinking water limits for five individual PFAS, including the most frequently found PFOA and PFOS.”

The move is expected to protect 100 million Americans from exposure to the “forever chemicals,” which have been linked to severe health problems including cancers, liver and heart damage, and developmental impacts in children.

An interactive dashboard from the United States Geological Survey shows the concentrations of polyfluoroalkyl substances in tapwater are highest in urban areas with dense populations, including cities like New York and Los Angeles.

During Biden’s tenure, the federal government has launched more than 500 programs that are geared toward investing in the communities most impacted by climate change, whether the harms may arise from chemical pollutants, extreme weather events, or other causes.

New research by the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law found that because LGBTQ Americans are likelier to live in coastal areas and densely populated cities, households with same-sex couples are likelier to experience the adverse effects of climate change.

The report notes that previous research, including a study that used “national Census data on same-sex households by census tract combined with data on hazardous air pollutants (HAPs) from the National Air Toxics Assessment” to model “the relationship between same-sex households and risk of cancer and respiratory illness” found “that higher prevalence of same-sex households is associated with higher risks for these diseases.”

“Climate change action plans at federal, state, and local levels, including disaster preparedness, response, and recovery plans, must be inclusive and address the specific needs and vulnerabilities facing LGBT people,” the Williams Institute wrote.

With respect to polyfluoroalkyl substances, the EPA’s adoption of new standards follows other federal actions undertaken during the Biden-Harris administration to protect firefighters and healthcare workers, test for and clean up pollution, and phase out or reduce use of the chemicals in fire suppressants, food packaging, and federal procurement.

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Maine

Maine’s Governor Mills signs trans & abortion sanctuary bill into law

Despite a series of bomb threats against legislators in the state, Gov. Janet Mills has signed a trans & abortion sanctuary bill

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Maine Governor Janet T. Mills congratulates members of Maine Women's Basketball. In March the team won the America East championship. (Photo Credit: Office of the Governor)

By Erin Reed | AUGUSTA, Maine – On Tuesday, Gov. Janet Mills of Maine signed LD 227, a sanctuary bill that protects transgender and abortion providers and patients from out-of-state prosecution, into law.

With this action, Maine becomes the 16th state to explicitly protect transgender and abortion care in state law from prosecution. This follows several bomb threats targeting state legislators after social media attacks from far-right anti-trans influencers such as Riley Gaines and Chaya Raichik of Libs of TikTok.

An earlier version of the bill failed in committee after similar attacks in January. Undeterred, Democrats reconvened and added additional protections to the bill before it was passed into law.

The law is extensive. It asserts that gender-affirming care and reproductive health care are “legal rights” in Maine. It states that criminal and civil actions against providers and patients are not enforceable if the provision or access to that care occurred within Maine’s borders, asserting jurisdiction over those matters.

It bars cooperation with out-of-state subpoenas and arrest warrants for gender-affirming care and abortion that happen within the state. It even protects doctors who provide gender-affirming care and abortion from certain adverse actions by medical boards, malpractice insurance, and other regulating entities, shielding those providers from attempts to economically harm them through out-of-state legislation designed to dissuade them from providing care.

You can see the findings section of the bill here:

The bill also explicitly enshrines the World Professional Association of Transgender Health’s Standards of Care, which have been the target of right-wing disinformation campaigns, into state law for the coverage of transgender healthcare:

The bill is said to be necessary due to attempts to prosecute doctors and seek information from patients across state lines. In recent months, attorneys general in other states have attempted to obtain health care data on transgender patients who traveled to obtain care. According to the United States Senate Finance Committee, attorneys general in Tennessee, Indiana, Missouri, and Texas attempted to obtain detailed medical records “to terrorize transgender teens in their states… opening the door to criminalizing women’s private reproductive health care choices.”

The most blatant of these attempts was from the Attorney General of Texas, who, according to the Senate Finance Committee, “sent demands to at least two non-Texas entities.” One of these entities was Seattle Children’s Hospital, which received a letter threatening administrators with arrest unless they sent data on Texas patients traveling to Seattle to obtain gender-affirming care.

Seattle Children’s Hospital settled that case out of court this week, agreeing to withdraw its Texas business registration in return for Texas dropping its investigation. This likely will have no impact on Seattle Children’s Hospital, which has stated it did not treat any youth via telemedicine or in person in Texas; the hospital will be able to continue treating Texas youth who travel outside of Texas to obtain their care. That settlement was likely compelling due to a nearly identical law in Washington that barred out-of-state investigations on transgender care obtained solely in the state of Washington.

The bill has faced a rocky road to passage. A similar bill was debated in January, but after coming under intense attack from anti-trans activists who misleadingly called it a “transgender trafficking bill,” the bill was voluntarily withdrawn by its sponsor.

When LD 227 was introduced, it faced even more attacks from Riley Gaines and Libs of TikTok. These attacks were followed by bomb threats that forced the evacuation of the legislature, promising “death to pedophiles” and stating that a bomb would detonate within a few hours in the capitol building.

Despite these threats, legislators strengthened both the abortion and gender-affirming care provisions and pressed forward, passing the bill into law. Provisions found in the new bill include protecting people who “aid and assist” gender-affirming care and abortion, protections against court orders from other states for care obtained in Maine, and even protections against adverse actions by health insurance and malpractice insurance providers, which have been recent targets of out-of-state legislation aimed at financially discouraging doctors from providing gender-affirming care and abortion care even in states where it is legal.

See a few of the extensive health insurance and malpractice provisions here:

Speaking about the bill, Gia Drew, executive director of EqualityMaine, said in a statement, “We are thrilled to see LD 227, the shield bill, be signed into law by Governor Mills. Thanks to our pro equality and pro reproductive choice elected officials who refused to back down in the face of disinformation. This bill couldn’t come into effect at a better time, as more than 40% of states across the country have either banned or attempted to block access to reproductive care, which includes abortions, as well as transgender healthcare for minors. Thanks to our coalition partners who worked tirelessly to phone bank, lobby, and get this bill over the finish line to protect community health.” 

Related

Destie Hohman Sprague of Maine Women’s Lobby celebrated the passage of the bill despite threats of violence, saying in a statement, “A gender-just Maine ensures that all Mainers have access to quality health care that supports their mental and physical wellbeing and bodily autonomy, including comprehensive reproductive and gender-affirming care. We celebrate the passage of LD 227, which helps us meet that goal. Still, the patterns of violence and disinformation ahead of the vote reflected the growing connections between misogyny, extremism, and anti-democratic threats and actions. We must continue to advocate for policies that protect bodily autonomy, and push back against extremist rhetoric that threatens our states’ rights and our citizens’ freedoms.”

The decision to pass the legislation comes as the Biden administration released updated HIPAA protections that protect “reproductive health care” from out-of-state prosecutions and investigations.

Although the definition of “reproductive health care” is broad in the new HIPAA regulations, it is uncertain whether they will include gender-affirming care. For at least 16 states, though, gender-affirming care is now explicitly protected by state law and shielded from out-of-state legislation, providing transgender people and those seeking abortions with protections as the fight increasingly crosses state lines.

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Erin Reed is a transgender woman (she/her pronouns) and researcher who tracks anti-LGBTQ+ legislation around the world and helps people become better advocates for their queer family, friends, colleagues, and community. Reed also is a social media consultant and public speaker.

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The preceding article was first published at Erin In The Morning and is republished with permission.

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State Department

State Department releases 2023 human rights report

Antony Blinken reiterates criticism of Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act

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WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Monday once again reiterated his criticism of Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Act upon release of the State Department’s annual human rights report.

“This year’s report also captures human rights abuses against members of vulnerable communities,” he told reporters. “In Afghanistan, the Taliban have limited work opportunities for women, shuttered institutions found educating girls, and increasing floggings for women and men accused of, quote, ‘immoral behavior,’ end quote. Uganda passed a draconian and discriminatory Anti-Homosexuality Act, threatening LGBTQI+ individuals with life imprisonment, even death, simply for being with the person they loved.”

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni last May signed the law, which contains a death penalty provision for “aggravated homosexuality.”

The U.S. subsequently imposed visa restrictions on Ugandan officials and removed the country from a program that allows sub-Saharan African countries to trade duty-free with the U.S. The World Bank Group also announced the suspension of new loans to Uganda.

Uganda’s Constitutional Court earlier this month refused to “nullify the Anti-Homosexuality Act in its totality.” More than a dozen Ugandan LGBTQ+ activists have appealed the ruling.

Clare Byarugaba of Chapter Four Uganda, a Ugandan LGBTQ+ rights group, on Monday met with National Security Council Chief-of-Staff Curtis Ried. Jay Gilliam, the senior LGBTQI+ coordinator for the U.S. Agency for International Development, in February traveled to Uganda and met with LGBTQ+ activists who discussed the Anti-Homosexuality Act’s impact. 

“LGBTQI+ activists reported police arrested numerous individuals on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity and subjected many to forced anal exams, a medically discredited practice with no evidentiary value that was considered a form of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment and could amount to torture,” reads the human rights report.

The report, among other things, also notes Ugandan human rights activists “reported numerous instances of state and non-state actor violence and harassment against LGBTQI+ persons and noted authorities did not adequately investigate the cases.”

Report highlights anti-LGBTQ+ crackdowns in Ghana, Hungary, Russia

Ghanaian lawmakers on Feb. 28 approved the Promotion of Proper Human Sexual Rights and Ghanaian Family Values Bill. The country’s president, Nana Akufo-Addo, has said he will not sign the measure until the Ghanaian Supreme Court rules on whether it is constitutional or not.

The human rights report notes “laws criminalizing consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults” and “crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or intersex persons” are among the “significant human rights issues” in Ghana. 

The report documents Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and members of his right-wing Fidesz party’s continued rhetoric against “gender ideology.” It also notes Russia’s ongoing crackdown against LGBTQ+ people that includes reports of “state actors committed violence against LGBTQI+ individuals based on their sexual orientation or gender identity, particularly in Chechnya.”

The report specifically notes Russian President Vladimir Putin on July 24 signed a law that bans “legal gender recognition, medical interventions aimed at changing the sex of a person, and gender-affirming care.” It also points out Papua New Guinea is among the countries in which consensual same-sex sexual relations remain criminalized.

The Hungarian Parliament on April 4, 2024. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his right-wing Fidesz party in 2023 continued their anti-LGBTQ+ crackdown. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

The Cook Islands and Mauritius in decriminalized homosexuality in 2023.

The report notes the Namibia Supreme Court last May ruled the country must recognize same-sex marriages legally performed outside the country. The report also highlights the Indian Supreme Court’s ruling against marriage equality that it issued last October. (It later announced it would consider an appeal of the decision.)

Congress requires the State Department to release a human rights report each year. 

The Biden-Harris administration in 2021 released a memorandum that committed the U.S. to promoting LGBTQ+ and intersex rights abroad.

The full report can be read here.

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Florida

Gov. DeSantis denounces ‘weaponization’ of book challenges

‘They’re going to be holding many teachers accountable,’ he said signing a bill restricting nonparents to 1 book challenge per month

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“Gender Queer,” a graphic memoir by Maia Kobabe, was the most challenged book in America in 2022, according to the American Library Association. (Photo by New Jersey Monitor)

By Michael Moline | TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The DeSantis administration plans to punish teachers and principals deemed to be exploiting public school book challenges to, in the governor’s view, “weaponize” Florida’s parental rights laws.

DeSantis leveled that charge Monday during a news conference in Pensacola. On Tuesday, he raised it again during a second news conference in Jacksonville, where he signed legislation restricting nonparents to one book challenge per month.

The challenges come under state law allowing anyone to complain about the content of classroom materials they deem objectionable or pornographic. The laws require removal of challenged books pending reviews that can take considerable time. DeSantis began trying to tone down the situation in February, in advance of the 2024 legislative session.

 Gov. Ron DeSantis addresses a news conference on April 16, 2024, in Jacksonville. Source: Screenshot/DeSantis Facebook

“Manny, in the Department of Education, they’re going to be holding many principals or teachers accountable who are weaponizing this,” DeSantis said Tuesday, referring to Education Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr.

DeSantis cited Sarasota County teachers who “papered over every book in the classroom, saying, ‘Oh! You can’t have books! The state’s not letting me show you books! That’s a lie. That’s not true. That’s performative.

“And so, that’s somebody who’s entrusted to teach kids putting their political agenda over the best interests of the students’ education and their access to learning. That’s wrong; that’s not going to stand in the state of Florida. So, we don’t have time for your activism; we don’t have time for your nonsense. We have a process in place to empower parents,” the governor said.

Teachers told the Sarasota Herald Tribune in January 2023 that they feared prosecution if they put students in contact with unvetted books.

The Phoenix asked the administration for an explanation of any investigations launched or punishment inflicted on school employees but hasn’t heard back yet.

Rebuttal

Florida Education Association President Andrew Spar issued a rebuttal in the form of a written statement.

“It’s important to remember that Gov. DeSantis’ full throated support is the reason why fringe groups who do not represent the majority of Floridians and often do not have students in the classroom have felt so comfortable removing books off shelves and making Florida the leader in the nation on book banning,” Spar said.

 Andrew Spar, president, Florida Education Association. Credit: FEA

“This rule does nothing to fix the vague language that caused the issue in the first place, no matter how much the Governor and Commissioner Manny Diaz try to shift blame. Schools, teachers, and media specialists have long been asking for guidance on this issue and once again, instead of providing students what they need, Florida’s elected and appointed officials decide to play the blame game instead of taking responsibility,” Spar continued.

The American Library Association has reported that the bulk of the book challenges nationally come from conservatives.

“Recent censorship data are evidence of a growing, well-organized, conservative political movement, the goals of which include removing books about race, history, gender identity, sexuality, and reproductive health from America’s public and school libraries that do not meet their approval,” the association says in a written statement on its website.

“Using social media and other channels, these groups distribute book lists to their local chapters and individual adherents, who then utilize the lists to initiate a mass challenge that can empty the shelves of a library,” the association continues.

Florida saw 2,672 titles challenged during 2023, it says.

Meanwhile, PEN America recorded 1,406 book ban cases in Florida during the 2022-2023 school year, which accounted for 40% of the national total.

One challenge per customer

The new law (HB 1285) restricts challenges by people without children in a school district to one per month, while parents and guardians remain free to issue unlimited challenges.

 Florida Education Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr. Credit: Florida Department of Education

That would still allow 12 challenges by nonparents per year, Diaz observed during Tuesday’s news conference. However, “Anyone who creates a cottage industry of going around the state and just creating challenges just to gunk up the system and put schools in arrears as far as reviewing these books, that person won’t be able to do it anymore,” Diaz said.

DeSantis complained that the news media have inflated challenges against classic books and biographies of important Americans while playing down other materials, including LGBTQ content, that he considers unsuitable for young kids or even pornographic.

“They’ve said, ‘Oh, you know, you’re not having Rosa Parks’ — and yet that’s on the summer reading list. Things about Hank Aaron, a book of the month from the Department of Education. So that’s clearly a bad-faith challenge, just trying to create a narrative,” DeSantis said.

“Some of those bad-faith actions have been done from people within the school system who are doing that to try to create a narrative. So, Manny will be able to hold those folks accountable because clearly there’s nothing in Florida law that would tell you to do that,” he continued.

Spar observed: “What Gov. DeSantis and Commissioner Manny Diaz always seem to forget when they attack public schools is that they have failed public schools through their punitive policies that have worsened the teacher and staff shortage and kept teacher and staff pay low. It is clear their political agenda is more important than the needs of Florida’s students.”

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Michael Moline

Michael Moline has covered politics and the legal system for more than 30 years. He is a former managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal and former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal.

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The preceding article was previously published by the Florida Phoenix and is republished with permission.

The Phoenix is a nonprofit news site that’s free of advertising and free to readers. We cover state government and politics with a staff of five journalists located at the Florida Press Center in downtown Tallahassee.

We’re part of States Newsroom, the nation’s largest state-focused nonprofit news organization.

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Louisiana

Louisiana’s Superintendent of Education decries new Title IX rules

“The Title IX rule changes recklessly endanger students and seek to dismantle equal opportunities for females”

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Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley being interviewed on WVLA-TV NBC 33 local news. (Screenshot/YouTube WVLA)

BATON ROUGE, La. – In a letter sent out Monday to all Louisiana school districts, state Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley warned that administrators should not comply with new federal rules that extend civil rights protections to LGBTQ+ students.

The Biden-Harris administration’s revised final rule of Title IX policy protects LGBTQ+ students from discrimination and other abuse was issued by the U.S. Department of Education last Friday.

While the new rule does not provide guidance on whether schools must allow transgender students to play on sports teams corresponding with their gender identity to comply with Title IX, the question is addressed in a separate rule proposed by the agency in April.

In his letter, reported by NOLA.com/The Advocate, Brumley said the federal rules, which take effect Aug. 1, would force schools to allow transgender girls to use girls’ restrooms and locker rooms. He also said the rules would compel teachers to call students by their preferred names and pronouns — a requirement that would appear to conflict with a bill in the Louisiana Legislature to protect teachers who refuse to refer to students by pronouns that don’t match their sex assigned at birth.

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Brumley said he believes the rules would also conflict would a 2022 state law that bans transgender girls and women from participating on female sports teams at the K-12 school or college level, NOLA.com/The Advocate reported.

“The Title IX rule changes recklessly endanger students and seek to dismantle equal opportunities for females,” he wrote in the April 22 letter.

Restating his “staunch opposition” to the federal rules, Brumley said “it remains my position that schools should not alter policies or procedures at this time.”

Jennifer Klein, the director of the White House Gender Policy Council, said during a call with reporters Thursday that the administration sought to strike a balance with respect to these issues, “reaffirming our longstanding commitment to fundamental fairness.”

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North Carolina

Raleigh N.C. Moms for Liberty panel touts anti-LGBTQ+ agenda 

Panelists argued that public schools are trying to undermine parental rights and advocate for Critical Race Theory and “gender ideology”

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Panelists at Wednesday’s Moms for Liberty in Raleigh – Photo: Ahmed Jallow

By Ahmed Jallow | RALEIGH, N.C. – At a town hall meeting in Raleigh on Wednesday night sponsored by the organization Moms for Liberty, national and local leaders of the conservative group blamed unsafe schools, among other reasons, as the cause for North Carolina teachers leaving the profession, rather than low pay.

Roughly 50 people attended the event, which featured the group’s co-founder Tiffany Justice and panelists, including local Moms for Liberty organizers and supporters. The North Carolina Republican Party’s nominee for Superintendent of Public Instruction, Michele Morrow attended the event but did not speak.

Moms for Liberty was founded in Florida in 2021 and gained prominence for its opposition to COVID-19 school closures and mask mandates.

It is now a national organization with chapters in 48 states, including 20 in North Carolina. The group has shifted its focus to curriculum content and calls for limitations on discussions of gender, sexuality, and DEI in schools. The group also calls for the removal of books they believe are inappropriate for certain age groups.

On Wednesday, former Union County Education Board Chair Melissa Merrell was hailed for her resistance to state officials’ efforts aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19 in 2021. The school board’s decision in 2021 to do away with quarantines and contact tracing for students exposed to COVID-19 sparked controversy.

Merrell served on the school board from 2014 to 2022.  

Merrell, who is now a Union County commissioner, claimed that new teachers replacing those lost to retirement and other factors are “indoctrinated” and that her county is being targeted. “The ones that are coming in have certainly been indoctrinated in their universities and their internships,” she said. “I truly believe that Union County has a target, that there is an agenda to change Union County. And so, they are moving in in mass droves.”

Mary Summa of the conservative NC Values Coalition credits State Rep. Tricia Cotham’s switch to the Republican Party as a turning point. “She saw the light and became a Republican,” Summa said. “It changed the game for us because we had an agenda that included a Pro-life bill, the Save Women’s sports bill which we tried for several years to get passed.”

Restorative justice practices prioritize making amends over punishment, but Moms of Liberty see this as one of the reasons for the rise in school violence. “What we’ve seen in schools across the United States and in North Carolina are programs and practices like restorative justice, which means kids aren’t being held accountable for their for their actions, there is no consequence for this type of behavior,” said Justice.

She cited a recent incident caught on social media at a Forsyth County high school. A student has been charged with misdemeanor assault and is facing expulsion after allegedly slapping a teacher in the face twice, according to the Winston-Salem Journal.

Throughout the discussion, panelists argued that public schools are trying to undermine parental rights and advocate for Critical Race Theory and “gender ideology.” Speakers called for schools to stop working with outside groups, such as educational nonprofits and health organizations.

“Our children are being taught to hate America, to hate the Christian values and the principles of liberty that America was founded upon …” said Abigail Prado, chair of Moms for Liberty’s Union County chapter. “Our children are not being educated. They are being indoctrinated.”

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Ahmed Jallow

Reporter Ahmed Jallow covers education as well as politics and elections

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The preceding article was previously published by the NC Newsline and is republished with permission.

NC Newsline is a Raleigh-based nonpartisan, nonprofit newsroom dedicated to fearless reporting and hard-hitting commentary that shines a light on injustice, holds public officials accountable, and helps improve the quality of life throughout North Carolina.

We’re part of States Newsroom, the nation’s largest state-focused nonprofit news organization.

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Texas

Texas Governor Abbott: “We Want To End” trans teachers

Abbott announced in a keynote speech to the Young Conservatives of Texas an intention to “end” trans and GNC teachers being able to teach

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Texas Gov. Greg Abbott addresses Young Conservatives of Texas convention in Dallas Saturday April 20. (Photo Credit: YCT/Twittwr)

By Erin Reed | DALLAS, Texas – During a session at the 2024 Young Conservatives of Texas Convention held at the Hilton Anatole in Dallas this weekend, Gov. Greg Abbott stated that trans and gender nonconforming (GNC) teachers must be “ended” in the state. 

This statement follows crackdowns on transgender teachers in various Republican-controlled states in the United States. Book bans“Don’t Say Gay” legislation, and anti-drag laws have increasingly been weaponized against all transgender and GNC individuals, especially within educational settings. In Texas, many of these laws have been blocked due to being likely unconstitutional; however, this has not prevented the governor from making one of his strongest statements yet in support of overt discrimination toward transgender people.

The statement, first reported by journalist Steven Monacelli, addresses a teacher in a small town in Texas. Abbott, who repeatedly refers to the teacher as a “man dressed as a woman,” states that the teacher’s mere presence “normalizes the concept” of being transgender or GNC—a concept Gov. Abbott then asserts the state should try to prohibit. He states, “This kind of behavior is something we need to end in the state of Texas.”

Abbott said:

Up the street from where we are right now is Lewisville, Texas. In Lewisville, Texas, in the high school, recently, as in just a month ago, they had a high school teacher who was a man who would go to school dressed as a woman in a dress, high heels, and makeup. Now, what do you think is going through the mind of the students that’s in that classroom? Are they focusing on the subject that this person is trying to teach? I don’t know. What I do know are these two things. One is this person, a man, dressing as a woman, in a public high school in the state of Texas, he’s trying to normalize the concept that this type of behavior is okay. This type of behavior is not okay. And this is the type of behavior that we wanna make sure we end in the state of Texas.”

Within hours, multiple GOP officials in Texas signed onto Abbott’s call to ban trans and GNC teachers from teaching. These include Texas GOP Chair Matt Rinaldi and multiple Texas State legislators and candidates such as Briscoe Cain and Brent Money. Their reaction to Abbott’s comments are in line with the Texas GOP platform passed in 2022 that call extensive restrictions on trans and GNC individuals in schools.

It is important to note that federal law prohibits discrimination against LGBTQ+ people in the workplace. A Supreme Court decision, Bostock vs. Clayton County, specifically stated that Title VII protections around nondiscrimination in the workplace apply to trans and GNC people. That court decision is currently being used to overturn anti-trans laws in Title IX cases in schools as well as bathroom banssports bans, and more.

Recent efforts have targeted transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals within state school systems. For example, Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” legislation was recently extended to apply to transgender teachers who share pronouns or use titles different from their sex assigned at birth. This law forced a transgender female teacher to go by Mr. and use he/him pronouns in the classroom or face termination. Similarly, a nonbinary teacher was banned from using the title Mx. in school.

A recent case in the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, however, blocked that Florida law as likely in violation of the First Amendment. Like Governor Abbott, attorneys for the state of Florida argued that transgender teachers in the classroom were a “distraction” to students and that a trans woman teacher was harming her students’ education with her mere existence and expression of her identity. The judge, however, struck down this notion, noting that the trans woman teacher had higher test scores than the district average.

It remains to be seen whether Gov. Abbott and the Republican Party of Texas will lean into anti-trans politics going into the 2024 elections. The willingness of some influential Texas Republicans to endorse Gov. Abbott’s position in the video suggests that they might. If so, there is evidence that this could harm candidates who are in tight races in the state and espouse such positions. For instance, in 2023, candidates running on anti-trans issues experienced significant defeats nationwide, including the defeat of 70% of all Moms For Liberty candidates in school boards.

Regardless of electoral consequences, the state has become harsher for transgender people in recent years. Attorney General Ken Paxton has continued to subpoena medical records of transgender individuals who cross state lines to obtain care. He has also attempted to obtain lists of PFLAG members, including addresses and phone numbers.

Abbott has not been much better: under his leadership, transgender families across the state were investigated under the premise that providing medical care for their transgender youth amounted to child abuse. This latest statement from Gov. Abbott shows an intent to continue weaponizing state powers against transgender and gender-nonconforming people in Texas.

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Erin Reed is a transgender woman (she/her pronouns) and researcher who tracks anti-LGBTQ+ legislation around the world and helps people become better advocates for their queer family, friends, colleagues, and community. Reed also is a social media consultant and public speaker.

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The preceding article was first published at Erin In The Morning and is republished with permission.

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U.S. Federal Courts

Okla. trans bathroom law appealed after federal judge dismisses it

One of the defendants was state Superintendent Ryan Walters, the most vocal advocate of outlawing school bathroom use by gender identity

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An Oklahoma City federal court judge dismissed a lawsuit that the families of three transgender students had filed in 2022 to challenge a law regulating school bathroom use by biological sex. (Photo by Nuria Martinez-Keel/Oklahoma Voice)

By Nuria Martinez-Keel | OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. – A lawsuit challenging an Oklahoma law affecting transgender students’ use of school restrooms has been appealed after being dismissed in Oklahoma City federal court.

The families of three transgender students sued the Oklahoma State Department of Education in 2022 to overturn Senate Bill 615, which they said is unconstitutional and a Title IX violation. 

SB 615 required school restrooms to be used according to a person’s biological sex, not their gender identity. A single-occupant restroom also must be available as an alternative.

On Friday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma appealed U.S. District Judge Jodi W. Dishman’s decision to throw out the lawsuit. Last month, Dishman fully dismissed the case with prejudice, meaning it cannot be refiled.

The dismissal was “mildly surprising” because it means the judge didn’t just disagree, but found the plaintiffs’ claims to be meritless, said Devraat Awasthi, an ACLU legal fellow working on the case. 

The ACLU of Oklahoma has appealed Dishman’s decision to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals.

“SB 615 is a law that elevates the privacy and safety interest of cisgender students above those of transgender and nonbinary students, and that violates the Constitution’s promise of equality under the law,” Awasthi said. “That’s a promise that all Oklahomans care about, and I think that we are vindicating that important commitment by bringing this appeal.”

Dishman ruled in favor of the state Attorney General’s Office, who contended treatment based on gender identity doesn’t amount to sex discrimination under Title IX.

The three plaintiffs don’t present a danger to fellow students, the judge wrote in her court order, but she decided striking down the law could create a safety issue.

“If the Court adopted Plaintiffs’ position, any biological male could claim to be transgender and then be allowed to use the same restroom or changing area as girls,” Dishman wrote. “This is a major safety concern.

“However, if Plaintiffs’ arguments were adopted, it would put school officials in the position of either having to conduct a subjective analysis of the sincerity of an individual’s gender identity or merely take their word for it.”

The Attorney General’s Office declined to comment on the case.

 State Superintendent Ryan Walters speaks during an Oklahoma State Board of Education meeting Aug. 24 in Oklahoma City. (Photo by Brent Fuchs/For Oklahoma Voice)

One of the defendants was state Superintendent Ryan Walters, the head of the state Education Department. He has been one of the most vocal advocates of outlawing school bathroom use by gender identity, saying it puts female students at risk.

“The (U.S.) District Court was correct in recognizing the real physiological differences between men and women, and the real interest of parents in protecting their kids,” Walters said in a statement. “Oklahomans strongly oppose the radical left trying to force young girls to share bathrooms with boys, and I will always fight to protect our students.”

Walters also has been a supporter of Oklahoma laws that prohibit gender-affirming medical care for minors and that block transgender girls from playing in women’s sports. He pursued new rules at the Education Department to prevent students from retroactively changing prior school records to match their gender identity.

Laws like these embolden bullies and put transgender students at risk, Awasthi said. 

He pointed to the death of Nex Benedict, a nonbinary student from Owasso who had reported bullying. A medical examiner’s report found Benedict, 16, died by suicide on Feb. 8, a day after the student was in a fight in a school restroom. 

“I think an important facet of laws like this in general is it gives cover to bullies and to bigots in our society because it makes them think their kind of discriminatory intent is supported by the state,” Awasthi said. “It kind of gives almost permission for that kind of horrible treatment to occur in our public schools.”

Walters called this argument around Benedict’s death a “grotesquely distorted radical, progressive, Democrat narrative” in a Fox News opinion piece he published on Thursday. Walters’ editorial repeatedly referred to Benedict as a girl, despite the Benedict family having said this is an inaccurate description of who the student was. 

About a dozen other states had passed similar bathroom bills by the time Oklahoma’s governor signed SB 615 into law. Legal challenges have succeeded in overturning similar legislation elsewhere in the country. 

The U.S. Supreme Court has let stand two rulings from the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals that affirmed students’ rights to use the restroom that matches their gender identity.

New rules the U.S. Department of Education introduced on Friday include gender identity protections in Title IX.

A co-author of SB 615, Rep. Kevin West, R-Moore, said several Oklahoma lawmakers worked on the bill’s language to “give that safety and that security to the kids.” He said the legislation’s authors chose not to borrow bill language from other states. 

“I think that might have helped some in it being able to stand up (in court) because we had so many different eyes on it and so many people working on it,” West said.

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Nuria Martinez-Keel

Nuria Martinez-Keel covers education for Oklahoma Voice. She worked in newspapers for six years, more than four of which she spent at The Oklahoman covering education and courts. Nuria is an Oklahoma State University graduate.

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The preceding article was previously published by the Oklahoma Voice and is republished with permission.

Oklahoma Voice provides independent, nonpartisan reporting that holds officials accountable and elevates the voices of those too often sidelined by the political process.

We’re part of States Newsroom, the nation’s largest state-focused nonprofit news organization.

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