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Trump dismissal of Hurricane Maria Puerto Rico death toll condemned

Trump’s response to Maria included throwing paper towels

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Damage and debris from Hurricane Maria on a beach in Yabucoa, Puerto Rico, on Feb. 1, 2018. President Trump’s dismissal of Maria’s official death toll of 2,975 in the U.S. commonwealth has sparked widespread condemnation. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

President Trump was widely condemned on Thursday when he dismissed Hurricane Maria’s official death toll in Puerto Rico without any credible evidence to support his claims.

“3,000 people did not die in the two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico,” said Trump in one of two tweets, referring to Maria, which made landfall in Puerto Rico’s southeast coast on Sept. 20, 2017, and Hurricane Irma, which brushed the U.S. commonwealth less than two weeks earlier. “When I left the island, after the storm had hit, they had anywhere from six to 18 deaths. As time went by it did not go up by much. Then a long time later, they started to report really large numbers, like 3,000.”

Trump in a second tweet accused Democrats of inflating the death toll “in order to make me look as bad as possible when I was successfully raising billions of dollars to help rebuild Puerto Rico.”

“If a person died for any reason, like old age, just add them onto the list,” he said. “Bad politics. I love Puerto Rico.”

Trump made his comments less than three weeks after Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló accepted the findings of a George Washington University study that attributed 2,975 deaths to Maria. Trump also took to Twitter as Hurricane Florence was beginning to batter the North Carolina coast.

“The president’s statements questioning the number of people who died as a result of Hurricanes Irma and Maria are deplorable,” said Omar Gonzalez-Pagan, a staff attorney for Lambda Legal who is from Puerto Rico, told the Washington Blade on Thursday from the Puerto Rican capital of San Juan. “They demonstrate that the president is not only divorced from reality, but also his utter disregard for people’s suffering and, frankly, his cruelty.”

“Nearly 3,000 Puerto Ricans died as a result of Hurricanes Maria and Irma,” he added. “Their lives matter.”

A utility pole rests precariously on a power line in Vieques, Puerto Rico, on Jan. 31, 2018. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Wilfred Labiosa, co-founder of Waves Ahead, a group that is helping LGBTI Puerto Ricans and other vulnerable groups recover from Maria, echoed Gonzalez-Pagan when he spoke to the Blade on Thursday from Puerto Rico. Labiosa added Trump’s tweets “reflect the lack of acceptance of Puerto Ricans as U.S. citizens.”

“It reflects that Puerto Rico is not a commonwealth but a colony of U.S. that we can be dispensable to the U.S.,” Labiosa told the Blade.

San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz is among those who remain vocal critics of Trump’s response to Maria, which included throwing paper towels into a crowd of people at a suburban San Juan church less than two weeks after the hurricane made landfall. Cruz on Thursday in a lengthy statement said Trump’s comments show “a lack of respect for our reality and our pain.”

“He simply is unable to grasp the human suffering that his neglect and lack of sensibility have caused us,” said Cruz. “3,000 people died on his watch and (it is) his inability to grasp that makes him dangerous.”

San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz speaks at the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center on Nov. 1, 2017. (Washington Blade photo by Tom Hausman)

Rosselló, who has been reluctant to criticize Trump, also pushed back against the tweets.

“Neither the people of Puerto Rico nor the victims deserve their pain to be questioned,” Rosselló told CBS News.

San Juan mayor: ‘Our lives matter’

Maria had winds of 155 mph when it made landfall.

Hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans did not have electricity or access to safe drinking water for months.

Labiosa and other activists in Puerto Rico with whom the Blade has spoken have said people with HIV/AIDS did not have access to antiretroviral drugs in the days and weeks after Maria’s landfall. They also said LGBTI Puerto Ricans faced discrimination at emergency shelters across the island.

Houses with blue tarps as temporary roofs were still commonplace throughout the San Juan metropolitan area and southeastern Puerto Rico in May when this reporter was on the island.

CBS News reporter David Begnaud on Thursday reported FEMA said it moved millions of bottles of water to an old runway in Ceiba, a town on Puerto Rico’s northeast coast, that were photographed this week with weathered tarps over them.

BuzzFeed on Tuesday reported FEMA approved only 75 of the 2,431 requests for funeral assistance it received from Puerto Ricans after Maria. Trump on the same day again defended his administration’s response to Maria as he spoke with reporters at the White House about Florence.

“While he is busy trying to ‘save face,’ he will continue to turn his back on all those who suffer,” said Cruz on Thursday in her statement. “Simply put: He is fully unhinged from reality. One thing is for sure, our lives matter and we do not need a tweet from Trump to remind of us that.”

Labiosa agreed, noting his organization and others continue to help Puerto Ricans recover from Maria and Irma. Labiosa also told the Blade that Waves Ahead, SAGE Puerto Rico and other groups that continue to provide assistance to LGBTI Puerto Ricans are also working to respond to the island’s growing mental health crisis.

“The community, diaspora, and local non-government entities are making the difference by working hard to provide the necessary services to those devastated by the hurricanes,” he told the Blade.

Ricky Santiago, center, talks with two women who are visiting him at his new home in Humacao, Puerto Rico, on May 26, 2018. Hurricane Maria destroyed his hair salon and damaged his family’s home. (Photo courtesy of Waves Ahead)

 

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Louisiana lawmakers fail to overturn Edwards veto of Trans sports bill

Edwards further said that the bill was “mean” because it targets “the most emotionally fragile children in the state of Louisiana.”

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Louisiana Democratic Governor John Bel Edwards (Photo Credit: Official state portrait)

BATON ROUGE – Louisiana lawmakers failed to override Gov. John Bel Edwards’ (D) veto last month of a bill that would have barred trans girls and women from participating on athletic teams or in sporting events designated for girls or women at elementary, secondary and postsecondary schools.

The measure, Senate Bill 156 authored by Sen. Beth Mizell titled the ‘the Fairness in Women’s Sports Act,’ in the Governor’s eyes, “was a solution in search of a problem that simply does not exist in Louisiana,” Edwards said in his veto statement;

“As I have said repeatedly when asked about this bill, discrimination is not a Louisiana value, and this bill was a solution in search of a problem that simply does not exist in Louisiana. Even the author of the bill acknowledged throughout the legislative session that there wasn’t a single case where this was an issue. 

The Republican majority state House chamber failed to override the Governor’s veto after voting 68-30 to override it, according to the state legislature’s website.

The vote narrowly missed the 70-vote threshold needed in the lower chamber to override the veto.

Two-thirds of both the House and Senate must vote to override a governor’s veto, according to the local Baton Rouge newspaper The Advocate.

The Governor reacted to the news that his veto withstood Republican efforts to overturn it in a press conference Wednesday.

Edwards noted that in his view he had “rejected a play” that had no place in Louisiana. 

“I would rather the headlines going out from today be that Louisiana did what was right and best. We rejected a play out of a national playbook that just had no place in Louisiana. That bill wasn’t crafted for our state, I mean go read it and look at the arguments that were made. None of that applies here,” Edwards said.

He further said that the bill was “mean” because it targets “the most emotionally fragile children in the state of Louisiana.” 

“We have to be better than that,” Edwards said. “We have to be better than that.” 

 

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Federal court blocks West Virginia Law banning Trans youth sports

“It hurt that the State of West Virginia would try to block me from pursuing my dreams. I just want to play.”

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Becky Pepper-Jackson (Photo credit: ACLU/Raymond Thompson)


CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A judge of the United States District Court, Southern District of West Virginia ruled Wednesday that 11-year-old Becky Pepper-Jackson must be allowed to try out for the girls’ cross-country and track teams at her school, blocking West Virginia from enforcing a law that bans transgender girls and women from participating in school sports. 

The ruling came in the lawsuit challenging the ban filed by Lambda Legal, the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of West Virginia, and Cooley LLP.

“I am excited to know that I will be able to try out for the girls’ cross-country team and follow in the running shoes of my family,” said Becky Pepper-Jackson, the plaintiff in the lawsuit. “It hurt that the State of West Virginia would try to block me from pursuing my dreams. I just want to play.”

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice signed H.B. 3293 into law at the end of April. It was one of hundreds of anti-LGBTQ bills pushed in state legislatures across the country in 2021. During legislative debate, it was not endorsed by any mainstream sporting or health organizations. A similar law in Idaho was blocked by a federal court in 2020, and a federal court in Connecticut recently dismissed a challenge to policies that allow all girls, including girls who are transgender, to participate on girls’ sports teams. Legal challenges are underway against similar laws passed in other states.

The Supreme Court recently refused to disturb Gavin Grimm’s victory at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, where he prevailed in challenging his school’s anti-transgender discrimination against him. This decision — which is binding precedent in West Virginia federal court — said that federal law protects transgender students from discrimination in schools.

“This is great news for Becky, and while our work is not done yet, today’s ruling jibes with similar rulings in other courts across the country,” said Avatara Smith-Carrington, Tyron Garner Memorial Law Fellow, Lambda Legal. “It is our hope that courts recognize and address discrimination when they see it, and nowhere is it more visible than in these stark attacks against trans youth.”

“Becky — like all students — should have the opportunity to try out for a sports team and play with her peers,” said Josh Block, senior staff attorney with the ACLU LGBTQ & HIV Project. “We hope this also sends a message to other states to stop demonizing trans kids to score political points and to let these kids live their lives in peace.” 

“We’ve said all along this cruel legislation would not survive a legal challenge, and we’re encouraged by the court’s decision today,” said ACLU-WV Legal Director Loree Stark. “We hope trans kids throughout West Virginia who felt attacked and wronged by the passage of this legislation are feeling empowered by today’s news.”

“We are extremely gratified — for Becky, and for all trans youth — at the court’s recognition that the law and the facts clearly support treating people who are transgender fairly and equally. Discrimination has no place in schools or anywhere else,” said Kathleen Hartnett of Cooley LLP.

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Conservative groups attack proposed Alabama capital city’s LGBTQ law

The groups allege that the law would require Christians to violate their religious beliefs or face fines under certain circumstances

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Approach to the Alabama State Capitol (Blade file photo)

MONTGOMERY – The Alabama capital’s City Council is being urged to reject a proposed ordinance that would make sexual orientation and gender identity protected classes under the law.  Matthew Clark, the Executive Director of the conservative Alabama Center for Law and Liberty sent a letter on behalf of his group and six allied organizations asking the Council to abandon a vote implementing the ordnance.

According to the letter, the groups allege that the law would require Christians to violate their religious beliefs or face fines under certain circumstances. Prominent among the other signatures is Mathew D. Staver, Chairman of Liberty Counsel which the Southern Poverty Law Center lists as an extremist anti-LGBTQ hate group.

The SPLC, which has its headquarters in Montgomery, writes; “The Liberty Counsel has also been active in the battle against same-sex marriage and hate crimes legislation, which it claimed in a 2007 news release to be “’thought crimes’ laws that violate the right to freedom of speech and of conscience” and will “have a chilling effect on people who have moral or religious objections to homosexual behavior.” In that same release, the Liberty Counsel falsely claimed that the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyo., had nothing to do with homosexuality, but instead was “a bungled robbery.”

In the letter Clark noted; ““As we read the ordinance, churches could be fined if they refuse to allow transgender people to use the bathroom of their choice, and they might be fined if they refused to let same-sex couples use their facilities for weddings,” Clark said. “They could also be fined if they declined to hire non-ministerial personnel, such as facility managers or secretaries, whose sexual orientation or gender identity contradicts the tenants of the church’s faith.”

“Christian schools, small business owners, and homeowners are also in the crosshairs. Schools could face liability if they decline to let transgender students use the locker rooms of their choice,” Clark said. “Small business owners like Jack Phillips [referring to Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission] could face liability. And homeowners who list their homes on Airbnb could be fined if they declined to let a same-sex couple engage in sexual activities in their home that violate the tenants of their faith.”

Clark then warned the City Council that if it passes the ordinance, litigation could result and the City would likely lose.

The Montgomery Advertiser reported last month that City Mayor Steven Reed said a council vote in favor of the LGTBQ nondiscrimination ordinance that’s now being drafted in Montgomery would send a message. 

“There are signals that communities can send, and this is an important signal not only to those residents that live here right now but people all over the country that have maybe one idea of Alabama and Montgomery, and we want to show them that there’s a different reality here,” he said. 

Reed and his team have been working with the Human Rights Campaign and other advocacy groups to draft an ordinance that would expand protections for LGBTQ residents in the state’s capital city. The proposed measure, which would specifically target discrimination in government, employment and housing based on sexual orientation or gender identity the Advertiser reported.

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