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New Trump administration memo on Obama order alarms LGBT advocates

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Former President Obama signed an executive order barring anti-LGBT workplace discrimination among federal contractors (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

In the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, the Trump administration has issued new guidance that seeks to uphold “religious freedom” in the implementation of former President Obama’s executive order against anti-LGBT workplace discrimination among federal contractors — a move troubling to LGBT rights supporters.

The Aug. 10 guidance from the Labor Department purports to “incorporate recent developments in the law regarding religion-exercising organizations and individuals” with the enforcement of the executive order, taking note of the narrow ruling in decision of Colorado baker Jack Phillips as well as other recent rulings in favor of religious freedom, such as the Supreme Court decision in the Hobby Lobby case.

The guidance also takes into account recent executive orders signed by President Trump in favor of “religious freedom,” saying they “have similarly reminded the federal government of its duty to protect religious exercise — and not to impede it.” Trump signed a directive last year with the stated purposed of bolstering religious freedom under federal law and his order ensuring faith-based organizations have access to federal grants.

“In line with the longstanding constitutional requirement that government must permit individuals and organizations, in all but the most narrow circumstances, to participate in a government program ‘without having to disavow [their] religious character,’ OFCCP staff are instructed to take these legal developments into account in all their relevant activities, including when providing compliance assistance, processing complaints, and enforcing the requirements of EO 11246,” the guidance says.

As a result, the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs under the Labor Department is instructed to take into accounts “religious freedom” when enforcing Executive Order 11246 in numerous ways, barring the agency making a “condition the availability of [opportunities] upon a recipient’s willingness to surrender his [or her] religiously impelled status.”

Signed by Obama in 2014, EO 11246 prohibits anti-LGBT discrimination among companies that do $10,000 a year or more in business with the U.S. government in addition and barrs discrimination against federal workers who are transgender.

The instructions seem aimed at allowing religiously-affiliated non-profits to discriminate against workers for being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender despite the executive order. Heretofore, religiously non-profits, including religious schools and universities, were required to abide by the executive order and received no religious exemption.

The latest directive is one of two issued by the Labor Department on Aug. 10 related to the Executive Order 11246. But the other directive doesn’t seem aimed at non-discrimination protections or “religious freedom.” It calls for “a portion of future scheduling lists” to include focused reviews on three authorities OFFCP enforces: EO 11246, Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Vietnam Era Veterans’ Readjustment Assistance Act of 1974.

LGBT rights groups said the “religious freedom” directive is an attempt by the Trump administration to gut the non-discrimination protections in the executive order — which covers an estimated 34 million workers, or about 22 percent of the Americans workforce — and demonstrates the negative impact of the Masterpiece Cakeshop decision.

Sharon McGowan, legal director for Lambda Legal, said her organization has “serious cause for concern” the OFFCP will interpret the mandate with broad view and allow for exemptions to discriminate under the executive order.

“Apparently, this Administration believes – correctly – that rescinding the EO outright would cause a huge public and politically damaging outcry,” McGowan said. “So instead, they are trying to accomplish the same end through different means.”

The directive comes down from the Labor Department about a year-and-a-half after the White House announced in a statement Trump would keep the executive order in place and is “respectful and supportive of LGBTQ rights,” a statement contradicted by subsequent anti-LGBT actions from the Trump administration.

McGowan said nothing in the Masterpiece Cakeshop decision compelled the Labor Department to issue the directive, but Lambda is “not surprised to see this administration seize on the decision as a way to justify its ongoing assault on the civil rights of the LGBT community.”

“We hope that non-discrimination has become part of the standard operating procedures for the overwhelming majority of federal contractors, and they will continue to recognize that a workplace open to all is not only the right thing to do, but also makes smart business sense,” McGowan said. “But in the same way that the Masterpiece Cakeshop decision has embolden anti-LGBT forces to paint themselves as the victims of LGBT equality, these directives from OFCCP sends an encouraging signal to those individual employees within these larger entities who want to insist on a license to discriminate.”

Harper Jean Tobin, director of policy at the National Center for Transgender Equality, said in a statement “is an attempt to encourage businesses to take taxpayer dollars and then fire people for being transgender.”

“Religious organizations have ample protections under federal law, but they are not allowed to use federal money to discriminate against people,” Tobin said. “The language of this directive is so broad and so vague because it is part of a long line of attempts by this administration to sow confusion and encourage any employer to act on their worst prejudices. No employer should be allowed to use taxpayer dollars to fire someone because of who they are.”

A Labor Department spokesperson said in response to the Washington Blade’s inquiry about the directive OFCCP “will follow the law” and non-discrimination provisions in the executive order remain in place.

“FCCP remains committed to enforcing compliance with all of the protections in EO 11246, Section 503 and VEVRAA,” the spokesperson said. “Collectively, these laws prohibit federal contractors and subcontractors from discriminating on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, disability or status as a protected veteran.”

The Masterpiece Cakeshop decision was in favor of Phillips, but was based on the facts of his case and didn’t find a First Amendment right to refuse to make custom-made wedding cakes for same-sex couples as he was seeking. As a result, LGBT non-discrimination protections remain in effect in the aftermath of the decision regardless and any instructions to take the ruling into account when enforcing them shouldn’t be enough to change their outcome.

Dale Carpenter, a conservative law professor at the SMU Dedman School of Law who’s written about LGBT rights, echoed those views and said nothing in the guidance is cause for alarm.

“Indeed, on its face, that guidance purports only to require what is already mandated by the Constitution, federal statute, or executive branch policy,” Carpenter said. “I don’t foresee any significant erosion of EO 11246 protections.”

Embedded in the directive is a sign more is to come. The instructions conclude with a line saying they remain in force “in anticipation of an addition to the department’s regulatory agenda followed by rule-making informed by public comment,” suggesting future changes to the executive order — a religious exemption or a revocation — are forthcoming.

Asked the about those words and the nature of any new rule, the Labor Department spokesperson said, “The Department cannot comment on a future rule-making.”

David Stacy, government affairs director for the Human Rights Campaign, said the directive is the latest attempt by the Trump administration “to implement a license to discriminate against LGBTQ people by providing unsound guidance in implementing Obama-era regulations.”

“The erroneous application of the Supreme Court’s narrow ruling in Masterpiece and recent Trump executive orders is meant to aggressively marginalize hardworking Americans because of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity,” Stacy said. “The American people will not tolerate discrimination, and LGBTQ people will not be erased.”

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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell says he’s stepping down

Aides said that McConnell’s decision was unrelated to concerns about his health, which followed two instances last year in which he froze

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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) (Photo Credit: Office of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell)

WASHINGTON – Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the longest serving Senate leader in history, announced on Wednesday that he will step down from his position in November but will continue serving the remainder of his term, which ends in January 2027.

Aides said that McConnell’s decision was unrelated to concerns about his health, which followed two instances last year in which he froze when delivering public remarks after suffering a concussion from a fall.

The Senate leader is facing pressure to endorse former President Donald Trump’s run for a second term in the White House, which a GOP colleague told the Guardian is likely to come despite the rift between the men that deepened in 2020 when McConnell refused to co-sign the lie that President Joe Biden’s election was illegitimate.

“I am unconflicted about the good within our country and the irreplaceable role we play as the leader of the free world,” McConnell said in his announcement from the Senate floor, in what appeared to be an acknowledgment of his ideological differences with Republicans who support Trump’s brand of isolationist foreign policy.

Serving in the Senate since 1985, McConnell was first elected as the Republican leader in 2006 and has since won each of the consecutive nine elections, most recently staving off a challenge from U.S. Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) last November.

McConnell opposed LGBTQ rights throughout his career

Since the mid-2000s, McConnell has leveraged his power in the Senate to fight against marriage equality, as documented by the GLAAD Accountability Project. He also opposed the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, which established same-sex marriage as a constitutional right.

McConnell opposed the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and more recently blocked a vote on an amendment that would have stopped Trump’s ban on military service by transgender service members.

Also during Trump’s presidency, McConnell appointed anti-LGBTQ activist Tony Perkins to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

He voted against employment protections for LGBTQ+ federal workers and LGBTQ+ inclusive policies on hate crimes and, in the 1990s, joined the late U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms’s (R-N.C.) efforts to protect U.S. Department of Agriculture employees who were critical of the agency’s pro-LGBTQ policies and to prohibit the use of federal funds by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for collecting information about teenage sexual behavior.

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California Politics

MAGA Republicans trying to oust Newsom, again

Rescue California said 400 plus Californians are serving as proponents of the recall which needs valid signatures equal to 12% of the vote

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California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaking in Los Angeles, Oct. 2023. (Photo Credit: Office of the Governor)

SACRAMENTO – The Republican group that organized the 2021 effort to unsuccessfully recall California Governor Gavin Newsom announced Monday that it is once again targeting the Golden State’s Chief Executive.

“Gavin Newsom has abandoned the state to advance his Presidential ambitions, leaving behind a $73 Billion budget deficit and a public safety, immigration and education crisis,” said Rescue California’s campaign director Anne Dunsmore in a statement to Sacramento’s NBC News affiliate KCRA 3. “California needs a full-time governor who is fully focused on the serious problems the state and its citizens are facing. This may be our last opportunity to rescue and restore our state, while we highlight for the rest of the country the destruction Newsom has left in his wake.”

Newsom ally U.S. Rep. Pete Aguilar who represents the 33rd Congressional District of California centered in San Bernardino County noted: “Governor Newsom has always fought to safeguard our democracy and protect the freedoms of all Californians. California Republicans tried this charade before and it failed. Trust me, this latest effort will fail again.”

Other prominent Democrats also weighed in on this latest effort including Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass who posted on X (formerly Twitter): “Governor @GavinNewsom has delivered countless times for Los Angeles over just the past year helping us address homelessness, rebuild after the 10 freeway fire and recover from recent storms. Republican recalls do nothing more than waste taxpayer dollars and valuable time.”

Newsom, who was formally served notice of Rescue California’s filing on Monday, also took to X (formerly Twitter) and blasted this latest effort: “Trump Republicans are launching another wasteful recall campaign to distract us from the existential fight for democracy and reproductive freedom,” Newsom posted Monday. “We will defeat them.”

Rescue California’s Dunmore said more than 400 Californians are serving as proponents of the recall.

California’s senior U.S. Senator Alex Padilla said in his X post: “The same MAGA Republicans who tried to recall @GavinNewsom are at it again playing political games. With CA leading the fight on everything from climate action to abortion access, and even the future of our democracy, Governor Newsom won’t be distracted by partisan attacks.”

The governor will have ten days to formally respond to the effort. That response will end up on a petition that will begin circulating to gather signatures to land the issue on the ballot.

In order for it to qualify for the November ballot, proponents will need to gather enough valid signatures equal to 12% of the vote for Newsom in the last election (just under 1.4 million) by May. If the signature gathering lasts beyond May, the election could happen later.

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California Politics

Equality California announces 2024 state legislative package

Access to TGI inclusive health care, expand LGBTQ+ inclusive benefits, equitable coverage for IVF, support unhoused LGBTQ+ young people

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California Capitol Dome (Photo Credit: State of California government)

SACRAMENTO — Equality California, announced on Tuesday its initial 11 sponsored bills for the 2024 state legislative session. 

“In the face of rising anti-LGBTQ+ hate and extremism in California and across the country, Equality California has assembled a bold legislative package to defend the progress we’ve made and continue advancing our mission to create a world that is healthy, just, and fully equal for all LGBTQ+ people,” said Executive Director Tony Hoang. “From expanding access to TGI-inclusive healthcare to supporting unhoused LGBTQ+ youth to ensuring that fertility services like IVF remain accessible to all people, including LGBTQ+ people — we can make certain California remains at the forefront of advancing policies that uplift our entire community.”

Equality California is sponsoring the following bills:

Improve Access to Gender-Affirming Care

AB 2442 (Zbur) Expedite Licensure for Gender-Affirming Care Providers – Expands the network of gender-affirming care providers in the state to improve accessibility of care by expediting licensure applications for health care providers who intend to provide gender-affirming health care or gender-affirming mental health care in California.

SB 959 (Menjivar) Ensure Comprehensive Access to Information – Creates an online resource for transgender, gender non-conforming, and intersex (TGI) Californians and their families to combat misinformation and provide accurate information about access to trans-inclusive health care, existing legal protections for patients and providers, and other available support services. 

Support LGBTQ+ Families

AB 518 (Wicks) Extend Paid Family Leave to Chosen Family – Provides critical protections for LGBTQ+, immigrant, and other workers who need to take time off work to care for a loved one with a serious illness by allowing them to receive Paid Family Leave benefits when caring for their seriously ill chosen or extended family members.

SB 729 (Menjivar) Provide Equitable Fertility Coverage – Advances reproductive freedom in California by requiring large group health plans to provide coverage for fertility and infertility care, including IVF, and updating the definition of infertility to be inclusive of LGBTQ+ family planning experiences.

Strengthen Data Equity 

SB 957 (Wiener) Enhance SOGI Data Collection – Enacts recommendations from last year’s state audit to close loopholes in existing law and ensure that the California Department of Public Health is collecting, analyzing, and reporting data on sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) to improve LGBTQ+ health outcomes.

SB 1333 (Eggman) Improve HIV Data Sharing – Allows confidential data sharing for HIV and other communicable diseases to ensure that public health officials and health care providers can more effectively respond during public health emergencies and improve care coordination for people living with HIV.

Support Unhoused LGBTQ+ Youth

AB 2007 (Boerner) Establish Unicorn Homes Pilot Program – Establishes a 3-year pilot program – the Unicorn Homes Transitional Housing for Homeless LGBTQ+ Youth Program – to place unhoused LGBTQ+ youth with affirming volunteer host families and provide trauma-informed crisis intervention care, with the ultimate goal of reunification with the youth’s family when possible. 

Protect Access to Health Care

AB 2258 (Zbur) Increase Access to Preventive Care – Codifies longstanding federal guidance requiring health plans to cover services that are integral to recommended preventive care – including HIV and STI screenings for PrEP and cervical cancer screenings – without requiring patients to pay out-of-pocket.

Combat Systemic Discrimination

SB 1022 (Skinner) Strengthen Enforcement of Civil Rights – Enables the Civil Rights Department to more effectively investigate and prosecute long-running civil rights violations affecting groups or classes of people by making technical changes to the Fair Employment and Housing Act.

Improve Inclusive Emergency Preparedness and Response

SB 990 (Padilla) LGBTQ+ Disaster Preparedness – Requires California to update the State Emergency Plan to include LGBTQ+ inclusive policies and best practices to ensure that LGBTQ+ people can access affirming services and resources before, during, and after an emergency or natural disaster.

Launch California LGBTQ+ Commission

AB 3031 (Lee and Low) LGBTQ+ Commission – Establishes a statewide LGBTQ+ Commission representing California’s diverse LGBTQ+ community to shine a light on the unique challenges LGBTQ+ people face, assess and monitor programs and legislation to address systemic barriers, and make recommendations to improve the health, safety, and well-being of LGBTQ+ Californians.

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Virginia Lt. governor misgenders trans lawmaker in Senate session

Voters in the 30th Senate District last November elected her to the Senate. Roem is the first trans person seated in the chamber

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Virginia Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears speaks at CPAC in 2023. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

RICHMOND, Va. – Virginia Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears on Monday misgendered state Sen. Danica Roem (D-Manassas) on the Virginia Senate floor.

WVTF Richmond Bureau Chief Brad Kutner in an X post said Earle-Sears, who is a Republican, referred to Roem, who is a transgender woman, as “sir” during a debate on House Bill 964, which would allow attorneys to serve as the executive director of the Virginia Board of Medicine. 

Kutner said the Senate went “recess twice after reportedly ‘Sears refused to apologize.’”

“I’m not here to upset anyone, I’m here to do the job the people of Virginia have called me to do,” Earle-Sears later said, according to Kutner.

Roem in 2018 became the first trans person seated in a state legislature in the country when she assumed her seat in the Virginia House of Delegates.

Voters in the 30th Senate District last November elected her to the Senate. Roem is the first trans person seated in the chamber.

The Washington Blade on Monday reached out to Roem, but she declined comment.

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Trump’s CPAC speech did not target the trans community

The former president’s speech included scant mention of LGBTQ issues, apart, perhaps, from some oblique references to “woke” public education

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Former President Donald Trump speaks at CPAC on Feb. 24 2024 (Washington Blade photo by Christopher Kane)

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — When he took the stage before a packed ballroom at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Saturday, it seemed inevitable that former President Donald Trump would target the transgender community with insults, ridicule and hostile policy pronouncements.

After all, this kind of rhetoric had become a through-line at this year’s convening of Republican lawmakers, pundits, media personalities, electoral candidates, attorneys, activists and government officials — a feature of virtually every speech and panel discussion from Wednesday to Saturday.

And for his part, Trump kicked off his presidential campaign by pledging, in February 2023, to weaponize the federal government against the trans community if he returns to the White House. This came after he unveiled a “Plan to Protect Children from Left-Wing Gender Insanity” and was followed by similar pronouncements from Trump in the months since, as documented by GLAAD.

On Saturday, though, the former president’s speech included scant mention of LGBTQ issues, apart, perhaps, from some oblique references to “woke” public education and attacks on Christianity.

Trump instead addressed a variety of topics over an hour and a half, from attacks on President Joe Biden and the prosecutors who have targeted him with 91 felony counts to diatribes on overseas conflicts and immigration.

The Independent noted several instances in which Trump made untrue or misleading claims onstage, which concerned the number of American troops killed in Afghanistan during his presidency and a supposed electoral fraud scheme in which Californians are being sent multiple ballots.

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Politics

VP Harris, other leaders issue statements on Nex Benedict’s death

The 16-year-old’s death on Feb. 8 sparked outrage and questions about the high school’s response to the altercation

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Nex Benedict, a 16-year-old nonbinary student from Oklahoma, died on Feb. 8 after a fight at their high school. (Family photo)

WASHINGTON – Vice President Kamala Harris, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, House Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) and Republican Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt are among the political leaders who have issued statements in recent days about the death of nonbinary teenager Nex Benedict after they were assaulted in a school bathroom after enduring months of bullying.

The 16-year-old’s death on Feb. 8 sparked outrage and questions about the high school’s response to the altercation, which had occurred the previous day. LGBTQ leaders who include Human Rights Campaign President Kelley Robinson have called for federal investigations by the Justice and Education Departments.

Advocates pointed to the anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and policies, particularly targeting transgender and gender-diverse communities, that have escalated in Oklahoma over the past few years, noting that they tend to increase the incidence of bias-motivated hate violence.

In their statements on X, which offered condolences to those mourning Benedict’s death, the vice president and White House press secretary also pledged solidarity with the LGBTQ community, while Pelosi took aim at “the anti-trans fervor fueled by extreme Republicans” and Pocan — who is gay and chairs the Congressional Equality Caucus — promised to keep fighting for “the dignity that nonbinary and trans Americans deserve. ”

Stitt, who in 2022 signed an anti-trans bill prohibiting students from using public school restrooms that do not match the sex listed on their birth certificates, wrote in his statement that “our hearts go out to Nex’s family, classmates, and the Owasso community. The death of any child in an Oklahoma school is a tragedy — and bullies must be held accountable.”

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Politics

Michael Knowles targets trans people & LGBTQ families at CPAC

Medically assisted family planning is a symptom of America’s moral decline that is akin to abortion, Knowles said

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Michael Knowles speaks at CPAC on Feb. 22. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. – Right-wing commentator Michael Knowles began his speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Thursday by briefly addressing the “kerfuffle” over his proclamation during last year’s event that “transgenderism must be eradicated from public life entirely.”

Widely interpreted as a call for violence against transgender people or the trans community, the remarks were denounced at the time by White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, who called them “shameful, hateful and dangerous.”

Looking back at the incident, Knowles told the crowd “I stand by the observation that men can’t become women.” The controversy, he said, is evidence that the country “is having an identity crisis” — primarily as a consequence of the “decline of religion in America.”

While “true freedom is a national policy based on what we know in our hearts as morally right,” as ordained by God, Knowles said a worldview that makes space for the recognition of LGBTQ people and their families is based on a “false” notion of freedom that privileges, instead, “liberation from all limits.”

He pointed to same-sex marriage as an example, arguing that marriage does not and cannot include unions between “a couple of men, or a couple of women, or three men and a billy goat, for that matter.”

Additionally, Knowles said, one may not claim the “right” to have a child, because “children are people and no one has a right to another person.” He then veered into criticizing the practice of purchasing “designer babies” on the “open market of the surrogacy industry.”

Medically assisted family planning is a symptom of America’s moral decline that is akin to abortion, Knowles said. “If we have the right to kill babies, surely we have the right to buy and sell them too.”

Knowles argued there are “trade-offs” to understanding freedom as a permission structure to identify oneself outside the cisgender male-female binary, or to build relationships and families that are not centered around heterosexual, procreative unions.

Allowing trans women to use women’s restrooms — or, as he put it, giving “men” the “freedom to use the women’s bathroom,” means that “women lose the freedom to have their own bathrooms.”

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Politics

Tuberville promotes anti-transgender sports ban at CPAC

The senator accused the Democrats, “the socialist party” of “dividing the family” by “trying to bring gender together”

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U.S. Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) speaks at CPAC 2024 (Washington Blade photo by Christopher Kane)

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. – During an interview with right-wing talk show host Ben Ferguson at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Thursday, U.S. Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) promoted a bill he introduced on Feb. 1, the Protection of Women in Olympic and Amateur Sports Act.

The legislation, which Tuberville acknowledged would not be brought to the Senate floor so long as Democrats have a majority in the chamber, would “prohibit any governing body recognized by the U.S. Olympic Committee” from allowing transgender women to participate “in any athletic event intended for females.”

The senator accused the Democrats, “the socialist party” of “dividing the family” by “trying to bring gender together, because they think men can have babies now.”

Tuberville expressed frustration with Republican Senate colleagues who did not agree with his sports bill, recounting how he had asked some of them, “don’t you have a daughter?”

“Now they want to tear down sports,” he said, warning that opening women’s and girls’ teams to trans women and girls will result in injury.

Tuberville and Ferguson criticized a new policy adopted by USA Boxing in January, which they found insufficiently restrictive.

The organization’s new rules stipulate that minors “must compete as their birth gender” and in weight classes specified in the rulebook — but allows trans women older than 18 to compete in the female category if they have undergone genital reassignment surgery and agree to quarterly hormone tests for four years.

More transphobia from GOP’s leading candidate for N.C. governor

Taking the stage after Tuberville and Ferguson was North Carolina Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, the Republican frontrunner in the state’s gubernatorial primary, who also spoke out against allowing trans women and girls to compete in athletics and proclaimed “men oughta go in their own bathroom, not the women’s bathroom.”

Robinson objected to press coverage of his anti-trans remarks during a campaign speech this month in which he said, “we’re going to defend women in this state,” which means “if you’re a man on Friday night and all of the sudden on Saturday, you feel like a woman and you want to go in the women’s bathroom in the mall, you will be arrested — or whatever we got to do to you.”

At a different rally, Robinson said those who “are confused” about their gender should “find a corner outside somewhere to go” to the bathroom.

Robinson accused “the leftist news media” of cherry-picking these statements in their coverage rather than his remarks about other subjects. “Whenever they mention my name, they mention it in connection with social issues,” he said. “According to them, I hate everybody.”

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Political commentary & analysis

Republicans issue new shutdown threat over trans people

On Wednesday, the House Freedom Caucus issued a letter indicating that the government may shut down if anti-trans polices are not included

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U.S. Capitol Dome
U.S. Capitol Dome (Photo by Michael Key)

By Erin Reed | WASHINGTON – On Wednesday, the House Freedom Caucus published a letter threatening a government shutdown in which it outlines a number of policies that are needed to supposedly avert such a result.

Listed among these policies are restrictions on gender affirming care, transgender participation in sports, DEI programs, and defunding Planned Parenthood. This comes after nearly a dozen riders targeting transgender people have been inserted into numerous government spending bills that could result in large scale government shutdowns if not handled by March 8th.

In an exclusive released by Axios, Republican sources state that “people are predicting a shutdown.” The report states that one of the primary drivers of the shutdown frustrations are policy riders on gender-affirming care and abortion.

Currently, Speaker Mike Johnson’s negotiations reportedly do not include gender affirming care policies, which is upsetting Republicans who have pushed for the inclusion of those policies in the final bill. Biden has stated opposition to any bill that contains them, and the riders did not make the final cut for the previous stopgap budget bill.

Now, in a letter from the House Freedom Caucus, Republicans state that unless these policies are included, the “probability that the appropriations bills will be supported by even a majority of Republicans” is low.

See the full letter here:

Increasingly, Democrats and LGBTQ+ organizations have applied pressure on the Biden administration and Democratic leadership not to accept any deal that includes anti-LGBTQ+ riders. In a letter signed by 163 Democratic members of congress, they state that bans on gender affirming care, pride flags, DEI initiatives, and discrimination should not be on the table for negotiation. Human Rights Campaign has likewise released an advertisement echoing that message:

These policies encompass bans on pride flags, prohibitions on insurance coverage, restrictions on DEI programs, and even the defunding of children’s hospitals that offer gender-affirming care.

Such measures could lead to nationwide bans on care if “federal funding” is broadly interpreted. These provisions are found in funding bills for the Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Health and Human Services, the military, and the Department of Veterans Affairs, among other sectors.

Some factions within the Republican Party have increasingly indicated that targeting transgender individuals is a top priority and may view a shutdown as worth the political risk over transgender issues. Representative Dan Crenshaw stated in June that such bans are the “hill we will die on.”

It would not be the first time government operations have ground to a halt over transgender issues; in 2023, Republicans refused to move forward with any other bills unless they could pass a ban on gender-affirming care, allowing a filibuster to last for three months. Should this occur at the national level, however, it would represent the most significant impact of anti-trans policies on multiple sectors of government.

Democrats have not shown a willingness to compromise over national anti-transgender riders so far. However, if a new bill is not passed by March 1st, a partial government shutdown will trigger; March 8th is the deadline for a full government shutdown.

Should Republican leadership proceed without any of the anti-trans policy riders, many Republican voters will likely vote against the bill, and Speaker Johnson could see his own speakership threatened. Until the 2024 general elections, the riders represent the largest risk for transgender people and their care nationwide.

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Erin Reed is a transgender woman 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.

The preceding post was previously published at Erin in the Morning and is republished with permission.

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Politics

Houston candidate tests if Democrats tolerate anti-LGBTQ votes

Rep. Shawn Thierry voted for three anti-LGBTQ bills last year, which could make her more vulnerable as she fights for reelection

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Texas state Rep. Shawn Thierry (D-Harris County) reelection yard sign. (Screenshot/YouTube Campaign advert)

By Zach Despart | HOUSTON, Texas – That Senate Bill 14 would pass was not in doubt.

The legislation, which would bar gender-transitioning care for children and teens, had universal Republican support and merely awaited final sign-off by the GOP-led House.

The only surprise that May evening in the Capitol was when Rep. Shawn Thierry, a Democrat from Houston, strode to the front of the chamber and announced she was breaking with her party to support the bill.

Children must be protected from transgender care because of its risk of harm, she said, citing precedent in Texas for allowing only adults to get tattoos, use tanning salons and purchase tobacco products. She said teenagers’ brains are not developed enough to make potentially irreversible medical decisions.

“This debate… was never about erasing trans children,” Thierry said in a tearful 12-minute speech. “For me, this discussion is about how to best protect and care for these children as they navigate through the challenging journey of finding the best version of themselves.”

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MAY 23, 2023

Thierry’s remarks ignored that treatment decisions for minors can only be made by parents or legal guardians, as well as the consensus of major medical groups that gender-transitioning care should be available to children and teens in the care of doctors.

Republicans were quick to praise Thierry as a brave politician willing to buck her radical party. To Democrats, who watched the speech in stunned silence, she had betrayed their party’s commitment to protect LGBTQ+ rights and vulnerable Texans.

“It feels defeating, when you’re a Democrat in the Texas Legislature,” said Dallas Rep. Jessica González, one of several gay members of the caucus. “The last two legislative sessions had the most conservative bills. That’s why it’s even more important for us to stick together.”

The political fallout is spilling into the Democratic primary, where in her bid for reelection Thierry faces two challengers. One of them, labor organizer Lauren Ashley Simmons, is well funded and has secured the support of several Democratic officials — including sitting House members — and progressive groups like the influential Houston LGBTQ+ Political Caucus. A Democratic club in Houston censured her, accusing Thierry of turning her back on the gay and transgender community.

Thierry, whose small-dollar donations have largely dried up, now relies heavily on wealthy Republican donors to fund her campaign.

More than a third of Thierry’s donations over the past year came from individuals or groups who typically support Republican candidates, a curiosity in a predominantly Democratic district. They include $10,000 from Doug Deason, a conservative activist, and $15,000 from his pro-school voucher Family Empowerment Coalition PAC.

While she’s not the only Democrat in the House to have voted with Republicans on those bills, Thierry’s race has become a referendum on whether elected officials who do not fully support LGBTQ+ causes can remain in good standing with the Democratic Party. Thierry is insistent she can, and said her votes last year reflected the will of her constituents.

Thierry, who declined to sit for an interview but spoke briefly to The Texas Tribune by phone, said most of the criticism of her on LGBTQ+ issues comes from white progressives outside her district, who do not represent her base of more socially conservative, religious Black voters.

“I didn’t just jump out against … my constituents,” Thierry said. “Clearly, I have a good pulse of how the majority of the people in my district feel. I really do. I’ve lived here forever.”

But it’s a knife in the back for gay and transgender residents in District 146, who previously viewed her as an ally. The LGBTQ+ advocacy group Equality Texas endorsed Thierry as recently as 2022.

Ashton Woods, a gay man and founder of Houston’s Black Lives Matter chapter, accused Thierry of lying about her constituents’ support for her LGBTQ+ positions. He said the representative previously presented herself as an ally of the gay and transgender community, but in reality is solely interested in the views of a small group of mostly elderly supporters that agree with her.

“I don’t know who she’s talking to in my age group,” said Woods, 39. “She’s seeking a safe space where people share the same ideology as her.”

Woods, who unsuccessfully challenged Thierry in the 2020 Democratic primary, said her votes on LGBTQ+ issues last year were a reason why he has decided to run again.

Joëlle Espeut, a Black transgender woman in Thierry’s district, said she had doubts about the sincerity of Thierry’s commitment even before the votes.

“I think people think that showing support is merely just saying you support the LGBT community,” Espeut said. “Outside of these bills, her support, at best, was nominal.”

Thierry gives an emotional speech, on the House floor,  on her personal experience during childbirth, on July 31, 2017.
Thierry speaks on her personal experience during childbirth, on the House floor, on July 31, 2017. 
(Photo Credit: Marjorie Kamys Cotera for The Texas Tribune)

House District 146 covers a swath of south Houston, bounded by Brays Bayou, that includes the world-class Texas Medical Center and world-famous Astrodome. Three-quarters nonwhite and heavily Democratic — President Joe Biden won some precincts by more than 90 points — the district stretches west through middle-class Meyerland and Westbury, heart of the city’s Jewish community. But it is anchored in Sunnyside, a low-income, majority-Black neighborhood that once was a thriving economic hub that is trying to revitalize.

The district has always been represented by a Black Houstonian. Thierry, now 54, in 2016 was selected by Democratic precinct chairs as the party’s nominee for the seat after then-Rep. Borris Miles resigned to run for the state Senate. She was elected unopposed.

Thierry made an impression in her first session by fighting for bipartisan legislation to address the state’s high maternal mortality rate for Black mothers, drawing on the experience of her own difficult pregnancy with her daughter.

In the following sessions, Thierry voted reliably with her party. She joined most of the Democratic caucus in their 2021 protest of a GOP voter restrictions bill, where they absconded to Washington, D.C., for several weeks to shut down the House. It was an opportunity to follow in the footsteps of her mother, a civil rights activist who integrated Sharpstown High School in Houston.

In the 2023 regular legislative session, Republicans made sexuality and children their new top social issue. By the time lawmakers adjourned in May, much of the camaraderie Thierry had built with fellow Democrats unraveled.

Three major pieces of legislation proposed by Republicans became law last year: a bill aimed at removing sexually explicit books from school libraries, a designation critics feared would be used to target LGBTQ+ literature; a requirement that transgender college athletes play on teams that align their sex assigned at birth; and the ban on trans minors from receiving gender-transitioning care.

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Thierry supported all three. She was not the only Democrat to break ranks — 11 others supported the book-banning bill. But she was by far the most outspoken in her support for the legislation. She said in another floor speech that the book bill would set up guardrails against explicit materials that have “infiltrated” schools, noting one that she said teaches children how to access dating websites.

Fellow Democrats told the Tribune they were especially frustrated that Thierry did not support their efforts to offer compromises on the transgender bill.

Rep. Ann Johnson, whose district borders Thierry’s, offered an unsuccessful amendment that would have permitted trans teens from receiving such care if two doctors and two mental health professionals approved — a high bar intended to assuage concerns that treatment such as hormones could be carelessly prescribed. Johnson declined to comment.

Thierry skipped the vote on the item, as well as all 18 other Democratic amendments. Thierry said that her positions reflected the views of her constituents.

State representatives gather to listen to discussion of a Point of Order brought against SB 14 on the House floor at the state Capitol in Austin on May 12, 2023.
State representatives listen to a Point of Order discussion brought against SB 14 on the House floor at the state Capitol in Austin on May 12, 2023. 
(Photo Credit: Evan L’Roy/The Texas Tribune)
Ricardo Martinez, CEO of Equality Texas, prepares for a press conference in front of people who have gathered on the stairs across from the House floor to protest against SB 14, before it is heard for debate on May 12, 2023.
Ricardo Martinez, CEO of Equality Texas, prepares for a press conference in front of people who have gathered on the stairs across from the House floor to protest against SB 14, before it is heard for debate on May 12, 2023.  (Photo Credit: Evan L’Roy/The Texas Tribune)

Community leaders in Sunnyside said LGBTQ+ issues are not the ones they think most about. Sunnyside Civic Club President Tracy Stephens, 66, recalls when the neighborhood was a bustling center of Black life in Houston, with its own movie theaters, bowling alleys and grocery stores.

After decades of neglect and underinvestment, he said Sunnyside needs a representative that will secure funding for street repairs and strengthen penalties for pollution. He commended Thierry for being accessible and attentive to these needs.

Stephens also said he supported Thierry’s stances on the book rating and gender-transitioning care bills. These weren’t issues when he was a kid, he said, adding that he understood Thierry’s desire to protect children.

“You’ve got to think about what’s going to happen to that kid in the long run,” Stephens said about gender-transitioning care.

Sandra Massie Hines, who earned the nickname “the mayor of Sunnyside” for her civil rights work in the community, said her focus lately has been helping elderly residents at risk of homelessness because of rising rents.

When it comes to gay and trans issues, Hines said she supported Thierry’s votes. She said exposing children to LGBTQ+ materials is confusing for them.

“I think kids shouldn’t be coached into being told they need to grow extremities, or cut off extremities,” said Hines, 75. “I just think a lot of that is fostered by adults.”

Gender transition surgery is extremely rare under the age of 18, according to doctors, and in most cases gender-transition medical care for minors means hormone therapy or puberty blockers.

But younger residents, and those with gay or trans family members, said Thierry’s stances are hurtful and don’t represent the largely progressive district.

Gender-transitioning care, including doctor-prescribed hormones, makes life bearable for a 16-year-old trans teenager in District 146, their mother said.

The Tribune granted her anonymity, after verifying her identity and address, because Gov. Greg Abbott has authorized state officials to open child abuse investigations into parents who provide gender-affirming care to their trans children. Those investigations are on pause due to a lawsuit filed by Texas families against the state.

The child came out as trans at age 7. They had a mental health crisis at 10, a common occurrence for children suffering from gender dysphoria, a type of psychological distress that results from a mismatch between a person’s sex assigned at birth and their gender identity. Their mother said at the time she did not understand the kind of support they needed. Gender-transitioning treatments have significantly improved the teen’s mental and physical health, she said.

“They can just go to school, do the SATs, get their driver’s license and think about who they’re going to take to the spring dance,” she said. “It freed them up to have a developmentally normal life, as opposed to where they were at prior to this care, which was a dark place.”

The mother said she wished to share her experience with Thierry as lawmakers considered SB 14 but said her Capitol staff declined to schedule an appointment. She said aides said constituents could visit the office at any time to see if Thierry was available. The mother said it was impractical to make the three-hour drive from Houston without a guarantee (Thierry’s chief of staff said she makes time to meet with visitors, even if it requires stepping away from legislative business).

Now that gender-transitioning care is banned, the mother said she has made a plan to move to a different state if necessary, a step other Texas families with trans children have already taken.

Lauren Ashley Simmons speaks with volunteers before block walking on Jan. 28, 2024, in the Meyerland neighborhood of Houston.
Lauren Ashley Simmons speaks with volunteers before block walking on Jan. 28, 2024, in the Meyerland neighborhood of Houston. (Photo Credit: Annie Mulligan for The Texas Tribune)

Anger with Thierry over her votes last year has created an opening for labor organizer Lauren Ashley Simmons, with a faction of Democrats coalescing around her.

Simmons, who has never before sought elected office, said residents encouraged her to run after a video of her criticizing the state takeover of Houston ISD exploded in popularity online. With two children in the district, Simmons was worried about Republican attacks on public education and felt Thierry was unresponsive to constituents about the issue.

She was shocked to see Thierry’s remarks on SB 14, which she felt were “ripped from the Republican national agenda.” Why not make a 12-minute speech on the most pressing issues in District 146, she wondered, like gun violence and the lack of grocery stores?

Simmons, 36, likened the plight of the parents of trans children to her own daughter’s treatment for sickle-cell anemia, which includes an experimental chemotherapy drug and opioids.

“Those are decisions that are hard for me and her dad to make with her medical team,” Simmons said. “I get really nervous when we start passing legislation about what decisions parents can make about their children’s health care.”

Simmons has captured some of the marquee Democratic endorsements, including labor unions and Planned Parenthood, as well as Equality Texas, which had previously endorsed Thierry. Democratic leaders including Houston City Controller Chris Hollins, former Harris County Democratic Party Chairman Odus Evbagharu and three House Democrats have also backed her.

Lauren Ashley Simmons checks addresses of voters as she block walks on in Houston.
Lauren Ashley Simmons checks addresses of voters as she block walks on in Houston. 
(Photo Credit: Annie Mulligan for The Texas Tribune)

Two Black Democratic House members — Reps. Barbara Gervin-Hawkins of San Antonio and Nicole Collier of Fort Worth — have endorsed Thierry, as have local groups including the Houston Black American Democrats and the Harris County chapter of the Texas Coalition of Black Democrats.

Collier disagrees with Thierry’s vote on SB 14. But she said Thierry has been a devoted Democrat on other issues and does not deserve to be purged from the party. Collier praised Thierry as a skilled and hardworking legislator who has done much for her district.

“It takes a lot of courage to take a stand on a provision that isn’t popular or safe,” Collier said. “I respect that as a leader, she is able to do that, in a time where everyone expected her to go along.”

Other Democrats view it differently. There is room for the party’s elected officials to offer lukewarm support to the LGBTQ+ community in moderate districts, they believe, but not in one that has one of the highest shares of Democrat voters of any in the state.

“It is increasingly hard for us to not only pass meaningful legislation, but also defeat harmful policies,” said González, who has endorsed Simmons. “I firmly believe it’s important for us to stand up and fight for our Democratic values and also elect other Democrats who share those values.”

William Melhado contributed reporting.

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Zach Despart’s staff photo

Zach Despart is a politics reporter for The Texas Tribune. He investigates power — who wields it, how and to what ends — through the lens of Texas government. He has extensively covered the Uvalde school shooting, including a groundbreaking investigation on the role the gunman’s rifle played in the disastrous police response.

He previously covered Harris County for the Houston Chronicle, where he reported on corruption, elections, disaster preparedness and the region’s recovery from Hurricane Harvey. An upstate New York native, he received his bachelor’s degree in political science and film from the University of Vermont.

The preceding article was previously published by The Texas Tribune and is republished by permission.

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