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Hate came to my bookstore

Drag Queen Story Hour promoter encourages community

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Linda Sherman-Nurick owns and runs Cellar Door Books in Riverside. A lifelong Southern California resident, her previous work as an English professor at Riverside Community College showed her the deep importance of books in creating an educated, understanding and compassionate society.

In October, the ignorance and hatred boiling over in our country walked in and attempted to disrupt Drag Queen Story Hour at Cellar Door Bookstore in Riverside. Their ugliness interrupted a community event that promotes understanding among us all. Amid ever-growing violence and fear in our country, these kinds of events are critical opportunities to celebrate our common humanity, erasing fear and hatred – and we must continue them no matter who tries to shout us down.

I opened Cellar Door Bookstore six years ago because I felt the absence of an independent bookstore specializing in new books that could accurately reflect the diversity, intellectual curiosity and brilliance of Riverside’s community. We have more than 20 book clubs and welcome all thoughtful discussion. Cellar Door is a place to gather and wrestle with the most difficult issues of our times while enjoying the deep pleasure of discussing ideas, characters and the books we love or hate.

We had our first Drag Queen Story Hour in June, to celebrate LGBTQ+ Pride month, and it was by far the most attended story time we’ve ever had. Parents and kids loved the lively performance and kept asking when we would coordinate another.

So again last month, parents from our community made the choice to bring their kids to hear drag queens read Halloween stories. But two people came in to stop me and the parents from making that choice. When I noticed that the woman was filming, I told her that she couldn’t without the consent of the parents. She just started spewing hateful, uninformed rhetoric about everything from the LGBTQ community to politics and refused to leave. Security was called, but only when Riverside Police Department came did she leave the premises, shouting her ugliness as she left.

The drag queens were amazing: They kept reading books, engaging the kids in story time despite it all. But unfortunately they couldn’t completely drown out the hate, and parents had to have conversations about the woman’s despicable behavior with their shaken children after.  

I have listened to lots of people talk about the hate speech of “both sides,” but it is one side that sent bombs across the country, killed 11 people in a place of worship and yelled at children in a privately owned bookstore in just one week last month. 

Donald Trump, with his complete disregard for the laws and policies of this nation, is at the center of this. Bookstores are places where ideas and the hard work of figuring out the complexities of the world in which we live flourish. Trump not only proudly refuses to take part in any such conversations, he denigrates the people who do so and calls upon his followers to repudiate the hard work of scientists, philosophers, writers and any other “intellectuals.” The danger in which this president has placed our country surpasses any war, natural disaster or enemy that has come before. Bookstores, books and libraries promote learning, discussion, disagreement, engagement; we are therefore at odds with the very essence of this administration.  

Since that Saturday, my store has received phone calls, emails and Facebook posts filled with name-calling and threats. None of these people were actually willing to have a conversation. The alt-right champions the “free speech” of websites like Infowars (a sticker that was illegally plastered on my store window later that week), but when the time comes to talk to others, they follow their leader and shout insults. 

Drag Queen Story Hour is a way to bring people together so that hatred of the “other” disappears. All of us prosper from such inclusion, and giving our kids an opportunity to interact with these fun, warm people is a way bookstores and libraries across the country are helping to prevent the fear and ugliness. Our kids will grow up knowing that no matter how they identify, they will be loved and welcomed into our community – and will treat others the same. 

I don’t need to tell you all about the great strides we made in last week’s midterms for all Americans – and especially the LGBTQ community – but there is still more work to do. Bookstores like mine are committed to being part of the cultural shift away from the terrifying, anti-thought movement in our country, and we welcome your support and input because I’ve seen the impact events like Drag Queen Story Hour can have on the next generation.

At our first such event, one of the kids said, “My little brother likes to dress in my mom’s clothes.”

One of the drag queens lovingly responded, “And that’s OK.”

And perhaps, that was all that needed to be said.

 

 

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Bi immigrants need to have the hard conversations about visibility

“We have to find the courage to break generations of trauma and stigma and sometimes that takes the hard conversations”

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Dulce Vasquez speaking at an event at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City. (Photo Credit: Dulce Vasquez)

By Dulce Vasquez | LOS ANGELES – My husband of nine years sat at the table in what I imagine was stunned silence. 

“What’s going through your mind right now?” I asked, picking at the remains of my scrambled eggs and soyrizo breakfast. 

“Are you leaving me?” 

“What? Why would you think that?” 

“The only other friend whose wife came out to him, left him.” 

I had just come out to him as bisexual. My heart was beating so loudly I could feel the thumping in my sinuses. It had been weeks where I had tried to find the right time to tell him, coming up short every time. The only other person I had come out to at that point was my best friend and my therapist. This was different. This had real repercussions. 

I’ve been bisexual my whole life – as in, I’ve been attracted to men and women for as long as I can remember. In first grade I had crushes on my two best friends, a girl and a boy. But as the eldest daughter in a Mexican household where traditional gender roles were enforced, I had a role to fill. And as an immigrant, I simultaneously had to assimilate. I had to be perfect

After an entire day of cleaning other people’s houses, my mother would pick up my brother from daycare and have a home cooked meal ready to go by the time my stepfather got home. During family gatherings, women and men were separated. The women prepped and cooked food inside, while outside the men drank and grilled. The men always ate first, the women fixing their plates as if they were royalty. The budding feminist in me hated this unspoken arrangement. 

I’m not sure at what point I learned what gay or lesbian meant, but in my world the idea of homosexuality had always carried a negative connotation. In the late 90s, middle schoolers rampantly chastised each other with “that’s gay.” Our high school’s support group was the Gay-Straight Alliance. As far as I knew, there was no “both.” There was no middle. There was no LGBTQ+. 

In the fall of 2004, I started college with a tool that no other freshman class had ever had: thefacebook.com. This nascent website let me sleuth the incoming first-year class. On my Facebook profile, I decided I’d arrive on campus interested in “men” and “women” – but when early in the school year a guy down the hall said something along the lines of, “Dulce just wants to sleep with everyone, it’s on her Facebook profile,” I swiftly deleted my relationship preferences and went back into the closet.

Last year, as I was deep into a run for Los Angeles City Council, I was applying for endorsements from different organizations that shared my values. I was repeatedly asked if I identified as LGBTQ+. Every time I said no, a little piece of me crumbled. I was contributing to the bi erasure in our society. As I realized this, I looked around at my campaign team – most of them queer youth themselves – and felt so ashamed that I didn’t have it in me to live my life as authentically and pridefully as they do. 

So why now? Well, I’m 37 years old, and I will continue being bisexual whether in or out of the closet. I am choosing not only to live authentically, but to hopefully create space for others to do the same. I haven’t experienced the kind of discrimination that we are seeing run rampant throughout our country — especially directed at the trans community. And part of me feels I haven’t suffered enough to earn the label. At the same time, I want to spotlight that we exist and that I am proud of who I am. I want all of our voices and experiences to be heard, valued, and validated. 

For many first generation immigrants, deviating from the heteronormative is a big deal. At the same time — for any first gens reading this — we have to find the courage to break generations of trauma and stigma and sometimes that takes the hard conversations and the willingness to create boundaries in order to break those cycles. Adelante.

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Dulce Vasquez is a candidate for State Assembly District 57 to replace the retiring Assemblymember Reggie Jones-Sawyer. Dulce is an education advocate, community activist, and Neighborhood Councilmember.

As an openly bi Latina immigrant, Dulce knows first-hand that we need to achieve full, lived equality for women, immigrants, the LGBTQ+ community and communities of color.

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Anti-LGBTQ+ group ‘Science for Truth’ spreads hate globally

Russian website translates propaganda into more than 18 languages

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Science for Truth is an anti-LGBTQ+ group in Russia. (Logo screenshot courtesy of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism)

By HEIDI BEIRICH | A rather mysterious Russian website run by a group called Science for Truth (Наука за правду) is a major vector worldwide for lies about the LGBTQ+ community. Their site, pro-lgbt.ru (meaning “about-LGBT” in Russian), was previously identified by the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism (GPAHE) as an organization that repeatedly appeared in top search results for conversion therapy, the discredited practice of attempting to change LGBTQ+ people’s sexual orientation or gender identity that has been described as akin to torture by a U.N. special rapporteur. It showed up prominently on Bing and Google in places like Kenya, Colombia and even the U.S. (see the full GPAHE report here.)

A unique aspect of the site is that it translates its anti-LGBTQ+ propaganda into over 18 major languages, including all major European languages, as well as Arabic, Hebrew and Chinese. The site also publishes articles in languages that have fewer speakers, including Serbian, Georgian and Hungarian, which are less likely to be content moderated. Even though the site is filled with dehumanizing material about LGBTQ+ people, it still shows up as a top search result for information on LGBTQ+ issues in many countries. This allows the group to spread their bigoted messages far and wide globally, making it an influential actor in the broader anti-LGBTQ+ movement. According to the Semrush app, the pro-lgbt.ru site garnered around 15,000 unique visitors in July 2023 alone.

So what is Science for Truth?

Started around 2017, Science for Truth’s mission is to “disseminate facts that are deliberately kept silent by the leaders of the LGBT movement, which leads to the involvement of unsuspecting citizens in a destructive lifestyle, fraught with the most serious consequences for their health and well-being.” As indicated in its name, the group presents itself as disseminating materials based on science created “in collaboration with scientists, psychiatrists and sexologists.” This statement, though, is highly misleading; what Science for Truth disseminates is dehumanizing pseudoscience apparently designed to undermine the movement for LGBTQ+ rights in Russia and abroad.

Much more than a simple group of “scientists,” Science for Truth spreads lies and dehumanizes LGBTQ+ people on its website, Telegram channel, and VK account by describing LGBTQ+ people as “pedophiles,” “homofascists” and potential terrorists. For instance, the site has a post postulating that “anti-sperm bodies” that are “formed in sodomites and homosexuals” could lead to “autoimmune infertility, miscarriages, cancer in children and DNA destruction” resulting in a “genocide” if spread amongst society. They also post in support of aversion electroshock therapy, which involves electrical shocks, at times to a man’s genitals, while they look at gay pornography or related material, as a solution to “cure” one’s innate homosexuality.

The group is known for targeting the LGBTQ+ movement and attempting to bully activists and scientists living in Russia. In 2018, the group took aim at a scientific paper released by two academics at the once liberal-leaning Moscow university, Higher School of Economics (HSE), accusing them of “collaborationism” for having written that gay people “should be assumed to be born that way,” and elaborating that their efforts to destroy “traditional values” were “a psychological means of destroying Russian statehood and a way of destroying the collective identity of the peoples of Russia.” They also regularly cheer on the placing of Russian LGBTQ+ activists on the notorious list of “foreign agents,” and the arrest of activists for “treason,” and encourage supporters to report their materials to the Roskomnadzor (Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media) for them to be blocked.

One of the principal figures connected to Science for Truth is the mysterious figure who goes by Ivan Stepanovich Kurennoy (Иван Степанович Куренной), and refers to himself as the coordinator of Science for Truth. He uses the avatar of a white-bearded traveler from the 19th century in all of his online publications. In his works, he refers to himself as an “independent researcher” or a “Depopulation Technology Researcher,” and he engages in widespread conspiracy-mongering. The basis for many of his views regarding the LGBTQ+ movement comes from his belief in a secret plot to depopulate the earth by lowering the birth rate through the spread of LGBTQ+ values. He claims that the publication of the now widely discredited book “The Population Bomb,” which wrongly predicted a mid-20th century demographic catastrophe caused by insufficient agricultural production and overpopulation, set off a series of events in the West that led political leaders to introduce the LGBTQ+ agenda in order to limit population growth.

Another belief relates to the COVID pandemic, where Kurennoy argued that a “chipping” process taking place during the vaccination drive was  part of these same “depopulation” efforts. In another one of his odd rants, he wrote that Russian parliamentarians could do “what Hitler failed to do” and pass the 2019 draft law “On the Prevention of Domestic Violence,” which, though it never passed, sought to strengthen Russia’s comparatively weak laws against domestic violence.

Some of Kurrenoy’s past posts are tinged with antisemitism which may be an indication of where some of his stranger conspiracist beliefs originate from. Around 2016, before he turned to mainly demonizing LGBTQ+ people, Kurrenoy frequently posted about control of Ukraine by the Israeli lobbysecret plots by George Soros, and a “fifth column” in Russia that is descended from Jews. In one post, he explicitly points to “the globalists,” referring to them as a “parasites,” as the source of funding for LGBTQ+ people.

Of the articles that the members of Science for Truth have published in academic journals, many, if not most of them are clearly not up to scientific standards, but rather ideological. These include, among others, “The problem of anthropomorphic interpretation of animal behavior in the context of the discussion about the characteristics of human sexual behavior,” published in the “academic” journal “World of Science” (Мир Науки), in which the “independent researchers” of Science for Truth set out to disprove the argument that “homosexuality is a kind of norm for humans, since it is common in nature.” The journal has a history of publishing questionable materials from other authors as well with titles such as “Changes in the physical properties of baptismal water under the influence of electromagnetic radiation,” pointing to the overall lack of scientific rigor of the journal. Interestingly, in the piece criticizing the HSE professors’ paper, the Science for Truth authors claim that the authors had published in an English-language journal “apparently for better understanding in a country that has declared the fight for the rights of sexual minorities abroad a foreign policy priority,” making their agenda quite clear.

Another figure connected with the group is Viсtor Grigorievitsch Lysov (Виктор Григорьевич Лысов) whose participation with the group goes back at least to 2017. On his livejournal account, Lysov has written articles on such topics as “the sacralization of homosexuality,” and the “Pederastization of Russia,” where he argues that the “pederastic value system has long been firmly rooted” in Russian society. He makes regular appearances on the Science for Truth VKontakte (VK) page. Lysov’s main contribution to the Science for Truth project is his propagandistic texts “The rhetoric of the LGBT movement in the light of scientific facts” and “Dehumanization,” in which he takes on the “myths of gender ideology,” and claims that LGBTQ+ rights would lead to the “normalization of pedophilia.” On his ORCID site, used for tracking academic publications, Viktor Lysov is listed as being located in both Russia and Germany. The website links he shares are of the anti-LGBTQ+ American organizations Family Research Institute and the American College of Pediatricians, both listed as hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the German Institute for Youth and Society (Deutsches Institut für Jugend und Gesellschaft), an organization known for offering “conversion therapy” services. In a solo publication in the “World of Science,” “Homophobia’ is not latent homosexuality,” his affiliation is also listed as the German Institute for Youth and Society, in Reichelsheim, Germany, however, when a previous investigation reached out to the Institute, they denied having any affiliation with Lysov.

Garnik Surenovich Kocharyan (Кочаряна Гарника Суреновича) is one of the few “doctors” at Science for Truth with an actual medical career. As a part of his practice, Kocharyan provides treatments for “disorders of sexual preference” including “violations of sexual orientation” and “sexual perversions.” He is the honorary president of the Kyiv-based conversion therapy clinic Association of Sexologists and Sex Therapists of Ukraine (Асоціація сексологів та сексотерапевтів України, ASSTU), which claims to bring together “specialists from various fields of natural sciences and humanities” of sexology, and provide for “the application and development of therapeutic methods aimed at improving a person’s sexual life.” The organization has published announcements calling for the full “decommunization” of the country at the end of the war to deal with alleged left-wing plots to spread “gender ideology” in Ukraine. In some of the more polemical posts by the association, ASSTU have written:

“Total illiteracy in the field of sexology and mass propaganda of LGBT — leads to the fact that even psychologists and doctors begin to believe that homosexuality is exclusively innate. Believing in such a thing is a crime against Ukrainian children, teenagers and youth, a crime against all future generations … We will not allow Ukrainian science to be manipulated to meet the needs of organized groups of sexual deviants. We will not allow introducing LGBT ideology into the consciousness of our citizens.”

Aside from Kurrenoy, Kocharyan is one of the main propagandists associated with Science for Truth. He has published posts under the group’s name promoting “conversion therapy,” one referring to “forced homosexualization” as a “modern destructive trend in sex education,” and another concerning the alleged “fallacy of ideas about the innate nature of homosexuality.”

Beyond, this, Science for Truth also has a recognizable association with the ant-LGBTQ+ group CitizenGO. Several of their petitions have been published on the CitizenGo website, though they appear to have then been removed at a later date. It is interesting to note that while posts for other groups on the CitizenGo site have been given labels indicating that they were “created by a person or organization not affiliated with CitizenGO,” this was not the case with posts from Science for Truth, indicating an association with CitizenGO that may be closer than that of other organizations.

Several individuals are not full members of the Science for Truth team, but collaborate with them or promote each other’s work. The doctors at the “Phoenix Clinic” (Клиника «Феникс»), based in the center of Rostov-na-Donu, are a regular fixture in Science for Truth posts. One associate is Olga Alexandrovna Bukhanovskaya (Бухановская Ольга Александровна) who was recently featured on a broadcast of Solovyov Live. Another is psychiatrist Anton Vasilyevich Dyachenko (Антон Васильевич Дьяченко), who has written that it is “incorrect to deny the presence of a biological norm.” Among some of the cases treated by the psychologists of the “Phoenix Clinic” are people who “insist on changing their biological sex and feel like a representative of the other sex,” “strive to dress in clothes of the opposite sex, but cannot overcome this need,” “accuse relatives or neighbors of theft, which does not correspond to reality,” and those who “feel possessed by spirits, genies, who force them to carry out their orders and commands.” Psychology PhD candidate Alexander Neveev (Александр Невеев) is another Science for Truth associate with a pseudo-scientific career who has published interviews on the topic of homosexuality on the Science for Truth YouTube page. Alex Shatner’s (Алекс Шатнер) partnership with Science for Truth goes back to November 2017, when he was a co-author of a text on the “myth of homosexuality among animals.” He, too, is listed as a co-author in the “World of Science” article “The problem of anthropomorphic interpretation of animal behavior in the context of a discussion about the characteristics of human sexual behavior.”

In order to break free of their small radical right-wing echo chamber in Russia, a member of their group in early 2018 has also attempted to influence Russian knowledge of LGBTQ+ issues by editing an enormous number of articles on the Russian Wikipedia page under the username “Путеец” (traveler) with content from the group’s website. The edits made were so outrageous, with “sweeping conclusions based on an inaccurate understanding of biological problems,” that the moderators of the Russian site gave the user a topic-ban on “biomedical information in LGBT articles.” After the account was further prevented from making these kinds of edits, the group released an article on their site criticizing the “bias” of the website moderators.

Science for Truth regularly lobbies the Russian government and pushes for ever-increasing restrictions on LGBTQ+ rights in Russia. Recently, Ivan Kurrenoy has even reached out to the famous pro-Kremlin propagandist Margarita Simonyan to ask her to support their group and its issues. In September 2018, they called on the minister of health to continue to regard homosexuality as a pathology. In January 2019, the group published an open letter to the Russian Duma on the topic of the “impending LGBT revolution in Russia” in which they spread more disinformation on the LGBTQ+ movement’s agenda to “convert” straight people, and LGBTQ+ values causing population decline in the West. As early as 2019, Ivan Kurrenoy has been petitioning government officials, such as Deputy Chairman of the Duma Pyotr Olegovich Tolstoy (Пётр Олегович Толстой), to call for the censoring of LGBTQ+ content online. In the publication “Zavtra” (Tomorrow), they published an open letter on October 16th, 2021, to the head of Rospotrebnadzor (Federal Service for Surveillance on Consumer Rights Protection and Human Wellbeing) Anna Yurievna Popova to investigate Vadim Valentinovich Pokrovsky, the head of the department of the research institute of epidemiology of Rospotrebnadzor, as a potential “foreign agent” for voicing the importance of sex education for Russian children. After this letter was ignored, Science for Truth published an appeal in which they questioned whether Rospotrebnadzor was a “foreign agent.” The letter read:

“In the face of Rospotrebnadzor, society would like to see an ally, and not compradors and collaborators, who are trying to introduce methods of molesting Russian children on the recommendations of the U.N. Committee (CEDAW), which requires Russia to destroy traditional values, including among religious figures, introduce ‘sex education,’ abolish prevention of abortion and legalization of prostitution, among other things with the help of foreign agents.”

In the letter, they claimed that the appeal was made “through Senator Margarita Nikolaevna Pavlova,” implying that the group has at least some institutional support among the Russian elite. In a more recent letter, the group lambasted the Minister of Health Mikhail Albertovich Murashko for not doing enough at the U.N. to promote “Russian science” (despite the fact that the group claims that Russian science is “so controlled by the West that it does not express a sovereign position”). They demanded, among other things, the promotion of “Russian science,” the restriction of trans-affirming care in clinics, and to check for “foreign agents” in the field of medicine. In May 2023, the group claimed that the ministry of education considered proposals of Science for Truth on “issues of mental norms and pathology in the field of psychosexual health and sexual perversions.” They have also written that the recent ban on gender-affirming care in Russia was originally a proposal that they submitted to the Russian government. In another post, the group claims to have been able to present their work at the 2022 Demographic Development of the Far East and Arctic conference (2022 демографическое развитие Дальнего Востока и Арктики) in which anti-LGBTQ+ senator Inga Iumasheva Albertovna, who once spoke out against “LGBT propaganda” being a “threat to national security,” was present. Science for Truth were also present at the IV Hippocratic Medical Forum the year prior, when Albertovna also gave a presentation.

Despite this apparent interaction with the Russian government, GPAHE could not find Science for Truth or any other affiliated names in the official database of Russian NGOs. This fact, as well as the curiously anonymous nature of many of their members, points to its likely role as a small, yet influential soft-power instrument of the international anti-LGBTQ+ movement, given their ability to spread their bigoted message both domestically and abroad. Either way, Science for Truth’s influence in Russia and abroad is only growing, and its bigoted message is reaching further, particularly online.

Heidi Beirich is co-founder of Global Project Against Hate and Extremism.

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Johnny Depp, Amber Heard and the deeply unsatisfying matter of re-litigating their trial

Netflix series was panned by critics

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Amber Heard (Screen capture/YouTube-Netflix)

WASHINGTON – On Aug. 16, Netflix released a three-part docuseries revisiting last summer’s televised civil litigation over allegations that Amber Heard had defamed ex-husband Johnny Depp by claiming to have survived sexual violence and domestic abuse during their four-year relationship.

Rather than offering anything new by way of insight or analysis from anyone with relevant qualifications or experience, each episode features clips from some of the online “creators” who turned their hot takes on the trial into a veritable cottage industry of amateur legal commentary and courtroom conspiracy theories, feeding the rapacious demand for anti-Heard and pro-Depp content. (As if to underscore the project’s unseriousness, these included a men’s rights YouTuber who wore a Deadpool mask and was surrounded by Spider-Man costumes.)

Worse still, “Depp v. Heard” director Emma Cooper fails not only to answer but also to even ask the obvious questions that have lingered since a verdict was returned more than 14 months ago by seven jurors in northern Virginia who were not sequestered as the case became, by far, the most popular topic on social media and online platforms.

At the same time, however, the episodes include footage of courtroom testimony that offer a glimpse, though incomplete, into some of the trial’s more salient and dispositive moments that I otherwise would never have seen (with neither the time nor the inclination, either last year or now, to follow 120+ hours of argument by the parties presented over the course of a seven-week trial.)

Do these scenes redeem the series? Hardly. But that does not mean they offer nothing of value, especially considering that while this was not the retelling of last summer’s events that we deserve, it remains the only one we’ve got. At least, for now.

Susan Sontag, in her 1977 collection of essays “On Photography,” proclaimed “The camera makes everyone a tourist in other people’s reality, and eventually in one’s own.”

In “Depp v. Heard,” the cameras facilitate a very specific kind of tourism that feels both exploitative and voyeuristic, because the reality in which we find ourselves trespassing is dark: the unraveling of a relationship between movie stars through patterns of dysfunction and abuse both familiar and alien, knowable and unknowable, like a city you have visited but never called home.

Especially when coupled with the more outrageous moments from trial that made headlines at the time – such as the debate over whether Heard defecated on Depp’s bed and blamed his teacup Yorkshire Terrier – there is a temptation to treat footage of testimony concerning the smashing of liquor bottles and hurling of wine glasses, the shoving and taunting and threats, even the physical and sexual violence, as though it were pure spectacle.

However, this would suggest, wrongly, that the painful realities of the actors’ relationship are so far removed from our lived experiences that we do not, cannot, or should not relate to them. As if a seven-week trial adjudicating the conflicts in our own intimate relationships or those involving the people we love would not turn up evidence of trouble and dysfunction, or worse.

Considering that we are primed to pick winners and losers and heroes and villains, perhaps it was unsurprising that incomplete and selectively edited footage from the case provided ample fodder for Instagram reels and TikTok videos that were created in the service of narratives that, most often, favored Depp and vilified Heard.

For me, witnessing these scenes in their proper context revealed a picture so much more complicated and, frankly, ugly that the prospect of framing the case in this manner seemed as preposterous as the idea that audiences leaving a production of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” should find themselves allied with either Martha or George.

To take just one example: From the witness stand, Heard recounted how she would often return home to their shared Los Angeles penthouse to find Depp nodding off in a chair because he had washed Roxicodone down with whiskey, or lying supine on the sofa fully unconscious with melted ice cream pooled in his lap. Worried about her husband’s apparent substance use disorder and unsure how best to help, the actress admitted she would sometimes take photos of him and share the pictures with a trusted friend.

Or, Depp’s attorney asked, was she just trying to humiliate him? Or, online commentators asked (often rhetorically), was this a calculated and premeditated move to collect evidence she would use against Depp in litigation or for purposes of extorting him?

As if these motives are mutually exclusive.  

Having experienced the pain of watching loved ones spiraling in the throes of drug and alcohol addiction, I can tell you why I suspect Heard took the photos, but of course the reality is neither I nor anyone else – perhaps not even she – has any clue.  

Last year, so much of the online noise about the trial came from content creators who made specious arguments to poke holes in the credibility of Heard’s testimony or alleged ulterior, sinister hidden motives based on the actress’s countenance, demeanor, speech, and other behavior.

For example, in clips that were often selectively edited or presented outside of their proper context, Heard might have seemed to cry more hysterically upon realizing the cameras were trained on her, which were used as supposed proof that her claims of suffering abuse at the hands of her ex-husband must therefore be fabricated.

Watching the footage in the manner presented on screen in “Depp v. Heard,” it becomes even more obvious how silly these interpretations were. In reality, of course, no one – not even police officers, trial court judges, F.B.I. and C.I.A. agents, trial lawyers or forensic psychiatrists – can reliably spot when someone is lying to them.

However convincing some YouTuber may have been, and however comforting the idea that we are able to see through the lies of others, I’m sorry to tell you the research on this is overwhelming and uncontested.

As Malcolm Gladwell observes in “Talking to Strangers,” Amanda Knox was falsely convicted for a murder she did not commit because “much of the prosecution’s case…rested on the allegedly strange, guilty behavior she exhibited,” which “the public deemed not in line with typical responses to grief and trauma.”

The cameras did not tell the complete story.

Well before 2022, private details about Depp and Heard’s troubled relationship had spilled onto the pages of tabloids like The Sun, which called Depp a “wife beater” in a 2018 story alleging that “overwhelming evidence was filed to show Johnny Depp engaged in domestic violence against his wife.” After he sued the paper for defamation, London’s High Court of Justice ruled against the actor in 2020, concluding the claims at issue were “substantially true.”

Still, last summer’s litigation between the actors earned far more public attention and unearthed far more (and far more titillating) private information, causing, therefore, far more damage than the supermarket rags and gossip blogs – as well as, ironically, the financial and reputational damage resulting from the very defamation claims that were adjudicated at trial.

As a reminder, Depp sued his ex-wife for a 2018 opinion article in the Washington Post in which she had written, “two years ago, I became a public figure representing domestic abuse, and I felt the full force of our culture’s wrath for women who speak out.” Heard was referencing the backlash against, essentially, identical claims she made in a statement after securing a restraining order against Depp following their divorce in 2016. (“During the entirety of our relationship, Johnny has been verbally and physically abusive to me,” she wrote.)

In so many cases including this one, intimate partner abuse is messy. An audio recording of one of the couple’s arguments shows Heard acknowledging she had struck her ex-husband but denying that she punched him. Her testimony, meanwhile, detailed serious violent crimes, including that Depp had thrown her into a ping pong table and repeatedly hit her in the face before sexually assaulting her with a liquor bottle that may have been broken.

Of course, assuming their sworn testimony to be true, it must also be said, domestic violence is a gendered crime. And the imbalanced power dynamics within their relationship put Heard at a disadvantage, including in this respect. While both are famous actors, the wealth, power, and fame wielded by Depp was then (and remains, now) much greater.

The disparity was evident from the outset. In the Netflix series, throngs of fans are shown cheering the Pirates of the Caribbean star and booing Heard on the first day they were sighted arriving separately to the Fairfax County Circuit Court. Meanwhile, online, evidence of a sustained and coordinated character assassination of Heard had just begun to emerge.

The smear campaign would persist through the trial and beyond. The actress was called a manipulative liar, a gold digger, an abuser, a violent psychopath, a drug addict, and worse. Some of the most outrageous claims were among the most widely circulated: She snorted cocaine on the witness stand, killed her own mother to conceal testimony that would have exonerated Depp, plagiarized lines from the film The Talented Mr. Ripley.

Creators mocked Heard by lip-synching over audio of her testimony about suffering violent abuse in videos that went viral on TikTok along with hashtags like #JusticeForJohnnyDepp, which was seen nearly 3 billion times on the platform. (#justiceforamberheard earned just 25 million views.) One-sided articles and videos, many containing false and misleading claims, were promoted by Ben Shapiro’s conservative media outlet The Daily Wire through its estimated $35,000 and $47,000 purchase of Facebook and Instagram ads.

“Depp v. Heard” was panned by critics.

“If ever a true-crime documentary needed the usual collection of talking-head interviews with esteemed journalists, law enforcement veterans and legal experts to put things in perspective,” Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun Times wrote, “this is it — but that never happens.”

Others, like CNN’s Brian Lowry, agreed: “How much is gained from listening to a guy in a Deadpool mask offering extensive trial takes is a question ‘Depp v. Heard’ should have contemplated and apparently didn’t,” he wrote.

Several reviews added that part of the problem was that not nearly enough time had elapsed between the events and their retelling. Bustle’s Scaachi Koul pointed to other recent projects involving the private lives of public figures (especially women) that, with sufficient space and distance, found new and interesting things to say about their subjects and opportunities to tell their stories anew.

Ryan White’s excellent documentary “Pamela: A Love Story,” which was released by Netflix in January, manages to find plenty of worthwhile material about actress and model Pamela Anderson along with the broader sociocultural forces of the 90s and early aughts that helped shape – and were shaped by – the era’s most enduring sex symbol.  

The film would have been nothing, however, without Anderson. Listening to her tell her own story, one realizes how poorly suited everyone else was to the task – particularly the leering talk show hosts and journalists who treated her as nothing more than a sex object.

And maybe that, above all else, is the lesson to be gleaned from “Depp v. Heard”: Let’s come back to this story when we’re ready to cut through the bullshit, reframe the conversation away from the “him vs. her” framing, stop relying on provably unreliable evidence, consider the broader context of their relationship and the impact of the trial that happened on TikTok and YouTube, and listen to Heard if and when she’s ready to talk about this again.

Until we get that docuseries (or documentary, scripted series, film, book, whatever), I fear everything else will be deeply unsatisfactory and unsatisfying.

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Christopher Kane is the White House correspondent and chief political reporter for the Washington and Los Angeles Blade newspapers.

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Editor's Letter

22 years after that bright September morning, the impact lingers on

The religious zealotry that led to the acts of terrorism that day can be seen again manifesting in far right politics

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The Pentagon in Arlington just across the Potomac River from Washington D.C. on the morning of September 11, 2001, approximately 10 minutes after terrorists flew American Airlines flight 77, which had taken off from Dulles International Airport, into the southwest side of the building killing 184 people. (Screenshot/YouTube Archival news footage)

LOS ANGELES – Tuesday, September 11, 2001, a point in time that forever altered the world in a series of events, terrorist attacks, that would linger on politically, spiritually, culturally, and leave an indelible mark on those alive at the time who experienced that day.

A human being born that day celebrates their twenty-second birthday today, having grown up in a world where security measures- some draconian dominate and where a certain sense of collective innocence has been lost.

Perhaps the ultimate irony is that lessons of peaceful diplomacy that could have possibly been gained from that day were instead lost to the sense of paranoia and nationalistic ideology and messaging as governments reacted, and in the case of the United States, commencement of a war that became the longest in American history.

The number of American servicemembers who died fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had passed 7,000 at the end of 2021. The ‘War on Terror’ as it was known spanned 20 years, saw the expenditure of $6 trillion dollars, 900,000 lives lost around the globe and at least 38 million people who have been displaced. 

The point of impact of American Airlines Flight 77 into the southwest side of the Pentagon on September 11, 2001.
(Photo Credit: Corporal Jason Ingersoll, USMC/U.S. Department of Defense

9:37:46 AM, The Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia just across the Potomac River from Washington D.C.: American Airlines Flight 77, which had taken off from Dulles International Airport, struck the southwest side of the building killing 184 people.

This reporter was in the Pentagon that fateful morning, having agreed to substitute for a sick colleague. I witnessed the utter disbelief on the faces of every one of my colleagues as we were clustered around a television set watching the events unfolding in New York City at the World Trade Center and then suddenly it was our turn as the entire building shook as Flight 77 crashed into the southwestern face of the Pentagon.

The next 16 hours are still a vignette of sounds, smells, and sights from that day that have never left me. The events of that day would later define my career and set me on a path of being far more cynical than I was previously as I viewed a changed world.

Here, two decades years later, I reflect still on what could have been and yet still remain optimistic even in the face of greater turmoil, wide-spread authoritarianism, a global climate crisis exacerbated by war, and then too of war itself as evidenced by the illegal incursion into the sovereignty of the Ukraine.

The rise of nationalism- especially of the white supremacist variety tied to religious fundamentalism is the primary danger and the direct linear descendent of the terrorism that was seen on that Tuesday morning twenty-two years ago. It is not just an American issue, it is a global issue, one that needs to be exposed and then dealt with.

The religious zealotry that fed the extremist ideology that led to the acts of terrorism that bright September morning can be seen again manifesting in the extremist actions of the far right beyond politics. Book bans, the war on trans and queer people, stifling of free speech and ideas, promotion of anti-immigrant, anti-LGBTQ+ and racist ideas all contribute to a society that is rapidly becoming very unsafe and a petri dish for the next 9-11.

This is the lingering impact of that long ago day and must be mitigated, before history repeats itself.

From the live stream of the services at the 9-11 memorial at Ground Zero in New York City, on September 11, 2022 (Screenshot/YouTube)

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Brody Levesque is a veteran journalist and the Editor-In-Chief of the Los Angeles Blade

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The (Revised) Kids Online Safety Act protects LGBTQ+ Youth

You search for “Gay Pride” and “Pride Parade,” then get videos over days, weeks, even months telling you gay is bad, and you are going to hell

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Image courtesy of Children's Hospital of The King's Daughters, Norfolk, Virginia,

By Laura Marquez-Garrett | SEATTLE, WA. – You’re fourteen years old, in a small, conservative midwest town, and queer.  Where do you go?  Afraid to approach anyone in person, you go online.  You search on YouTube for “Gay Pride” and “Pride Parade,” then get videos over days, weeks, even months telling you that gay is bad, and you are going to hell.  Now where do you go?  

This is what LGBTQ+ youth deal with everyday.  Not because there isn’t enough gay-positive content on the Internet, but because certain online platforms choose to prioritize engagement over safety.  They push kids into excessive use through things like engagement with strangers, endless scroll, push notifications, and extreme content.  

Which brings me to the Kids’ Online Safety Act (KOSA). KOSA was introduced in late 2021.   As a parent, a member of the LGBTQ+ community, and an attorney who walked away from a successful, business litigation practice in early 2022 to work with children and families harmed by certain online platforms, I admired its intent but could not unequivocally support it. Understanding, as I do, both the life-saving importance of resources for LGBTQ+ youth and the devastating harms these products cause millions of kids every day, KOSA’s original wording fell just short of striking a necessary balance between the two. 

But that KOSA is gone.  

In response to feedback and concerns, KOSA’s co-authors met with LGBTQ+ organizations and communities and listened – as reflected in the changes they made – and a new KOSA was born. The new bill will protect young people from harmful design and programming decisions, while explicitly safeguarding youth autonomy to explore online.  

Because, yes, online platforms do provide much needed communities for LGBTQ+ youth.  In 1995, my first year of college, we searched for and found local resources, as well as entire communities via virtual bulletin boards and chatrooms, on this new thing called the Internet.  For most of us, me included, it was the first time we felt seen and heard.  Only those platforms helped us without also manipulating and exploiting us; while the platforms at which KOSA takes aim – in fact, the only platforms at which KOSA takes aim – are exploiting and abusing the youth who need them the most. Don’t forget the Facebook documents exposed in late 2021 showing images of teenage brains, discussing vulnerabilities of youth and related design and programming “Opportunities.”

I see it every day.  Transgender teens targeted with violent, suicide-themed, and transphobic content, no matter what they search; children so locked-in to extended use designs and social metric tools that they stop sleeping and self-destruct; young women – almost every one of them – flooded with connection recommendations to predatory, adult users; middle and high school kids targeted with drug dealer “Quick Adds” and advertisements for vaping, alcohol, and other harms.  What about the 16-year-old who goes through a break-up and searches for “positive affirmations” and “inspirational quotes,” and gets hundreds of videos advocating self-harm and suicide instead?

If you think these are hypotheticals, think again. I have investigated accounts and associated data for multiple 16-year-olds who asked platforms that would have been covered under KOSA to send them uplifting content only to receive overwhelming amounts of self-harm and suicide.  Those children are gone.  I have seen accounts used by 10- and 11-year-old girls where adult strangers reached out via direct message, saying how happy they were to find them, that the platforms’ technologies recommended them, then abused and exploited them.  Some of those children are gone as well.

This is the status quo for millions of American children and these are the types of harms KOSA tackles, while also now making clear that content is not at issue.  To accomplish this, it defines harms via existing statutes, definitions, and other objective metrics; and also now includes a “Limitation” carving out any circumstance where a child deliberately and independently searches for or specifically requests content. The new and improved KOSA explicitly recognizes that it is the province of youth to search for LGBTQ+ content (or any content).

To say it plainly: If a child is seeking out LGBTQ+ content, under KOSA, they would still be able to search for it. KOSA prevents Big Tech algorithms from pushing dangerous content onto that child’s feed without their consent.

For the record, KOSA does not require identity verification.   It also does not cover every type of online platform or service. Non-profits, for example, are exempt, meaning that any non-profit providing LGBTQ+ resources will fall outside of KOSA’s reach entirely.  These are just a few examples of how KOSA was changed to ensure the protection of LGBTQ+ youth on every side of this debate.

When did we become okay with companies treating people like this, much less children? And now that we know, are we actually thinking about waiting another year or two to see what happens? 

For adults, if you remain unsure, ask LGBTQ+ youth (or any teen) about their experience.  Not open-ended questions like “Do you enjoy social media?” but things like “Do these platforms ever give out your information to or try to connect you with predators or drug dealers?” and “Do you ever want something positive but get self-harm, disordered eating, or suicide content instead?”  

For American youth, if you have yet to read KOSA, please do.  Please ask questions and share your own experiences with your representatives – good or bad.  It’s easy to get caught up in panic and what-ifs.  But I promise you, the biggest danger right now is not KOSA, it is relying on anyone but yourself to decide your future and the future of the kids who come after you.  

This is your moment.  Speak up so we can hear you.

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Laura Marquez-Garrett is a 2002 Harvard Law School graduate and spent the first twenty-years of her career in Big Law, where she oversaw complex litigation matters and business disputes and specialized in electronic evidence and forensic investigation.

In January of 2022, Laura met Social Media Victims Law Center founder, Matthew Bergman, and watched the Netflix documentary, Social Dilemma.  The following month, Laura left her predominantly defense-oriented practice to join the Social Media Victims Law Center. 

She now contributes to the center’s mission of holding social media companies legally accountable when they fail to protect young users from foreseeable harm.

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Social Media Victims Law Center founder Laura Marquez-Garrett, Lance Preston, Founder and Executive Director of the Rainbow Youth Project USA, and Washington Blade White House correspondent Chris Kane joined host Rob Watson on Rated LGBT Radio to discuss The Kids Online Safety Act as it is making its way through Congress as a means to protect kids, including LGBTQ kids from harm that can come from social media.

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Editor's Letter

Does South Carolina have TWO gay U.S. senators?

If he’s gay, that’s great! A gay Republican credibly running for president is surely a sign of better times & a historic moment

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Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) during a campaign appearance in North Charleston, May 2023. (Photo Credit: Tim Scott/Facebook)

WASHINGTON – Are South Carolina voters among the most progressive in the country? Did they elect not one – but TWO – gay U.S. senators?

That’s a fair conclusion after reading today’s story from Axios, “GOP donors fret over Scott’s single status.”

Per the story, “Top GOP donors and their allies privately are pushing Sen. Tim Scott’s team for more detail about his bachelor status before deciding how much to support him in the presidential campaign, according to two people familiar with the conversations.”

It continues, “some donors have questions.”

Of course, Axios doesn’t dare go there and address what “questions” his single status might raise. So let me do it: Tim Scott is rumored to be gay, just like the senior senator from South Carolina, as the Blade has reported many times. Male escorts in D.C. have openly claimed that Sen. Lindsey Graham has been a client. (If you have an iron stomach, Google “Lindsey Graham ladybugs” for the details.)

Back to Scott. If he’s gay, that’s great! A gay Republican credibly running for president is surely a sign of better times and a historic moment for the country. If he’s not gay, then certain Scott GOP rivals are using homophobic tactics to undermine his candidacy by pushing narratives that Scott is gay in hopes it will turn off the bigoted GOP base.

The Axios story compares Scott’s situation to that of Democratic Sen. Cory Booker, who also ran for president as a bachelor. “When Booker ran for president, he was dating actress Rosario Dawson,” the story notes. Of course they later broke up and Dawson clumsily came out of the closet herself. The Axios story doesn’t mention this, because the mainstream media, for whatever reason, still can’t quite reckon with queer sexuality in 2023.

Perhaps Booker, Scott, and Graham are all gay. So what? Say it out loud and stop playing these 20th century coy games about the truth of our public officials’ lives.

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Kevin Naff is the Editor-In-Chief of The Washington Blade

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Commentary

Queer parenthood: A transparent dive into surrogacy and hope

While it’s been around for a while, surrogacy is still riddled with mystery, inaccessibility, and unpredictability

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Husbands Michael Lindsay and Matthew Schueller have embarked on a surrogacy journey. (Photo courtesy of Matthew Schueller)

By Matthew Schueller | PORTLAND, Ore. – I feel extraordinarily lucky. As a kid, I never imagined my life could look like this. Growing up in the closet in the mid-Willamette Valley of Oregon, an area many consider to be the conservative Bible Belt of the Pacific Northwest, I didn’t think it was possible for me to find love, let alone get married.

It’s humbling to see now that I’ve proved myself wrong. It is truly contrary to what I thought my life would be like 10 years ago, so to be here now in the process of starting a family is absolutely ridiculous to me. It already feels like a miracle, so the fact that we can even attempt to bring life into this world as a gay couple blows my mind.

I’ve always wanted to have kids, but I didn’t start seriously considering the possibility of surrogacy until I met Michael and our relationship became more serious. As I learned more about it and started looking into it more, I realized that it was the best path for us at the time. We started looking for an egg donor and surrogate mother at the beginning of 2021 when we officially made the decision to start the process.

That being said, we know it’s still not that easy. While it’s been around for a while, surrogacy is still riddled with mystery, inaccessibility, and unpredictability. What we quickly realized when we started to look at our options was that we didn’t know the first thing about starting a family as a queer couple, and neither did most of our friends and family!

When we started researching online, we found a ton of different information (often conflicting) from a variety of sources. We didn’t even know where to start, so we began calling up IVF clinics and surrogacy agencies.

We spent months researching the process and figuring out what exactly this might look like for us, how much it would cost, and how we should mentally prepare. I think that’s what inspired us to start sharing. We saw a lot of couples online sharing their stories after the fact — after the babies had arrived and everything looked fantastic — but we didn’t see many couples sharing their stories as it was happening. To us, the process of surrogacy looked like a mysterious black curtain where most of the details were not quite clear.

Our goal is to share the process of having kids as a gay couple as it’s happening, the good and the difficult. We believe alternative paths to parenthood should be accessible to all queer couples, and we think that starts with shedding light on how these processes actually work. With knowledge, there’s power. And since many of us in the LGBTQ+ community don’t know the options available for family planning, we don’t know where to start to enact change.

Many paths to parenthood are largely considered to only be attainable by the extremely privileged and wealthy — but we know that gender, sexuality, and income level should not determine whether or not someone can have a family, so why is that not considered true for queer couples?

There are a lot of big questions that have come up, so my husband, Michael, actually encouraged me to start a podcast with him to interview individuals who’ve experienced alternative paths to parenthood and experts who can provide insight and education. Thus, the birth of the “Who’s Your Daddy?” podcast.

The hosts of “Who’s Your Daddy?” podcast, Matthew Schueller and Michael Lindsay.
(Photo courtesy of Maria Orlatov)

Over the last 19 months, we’ve found our egg donor, created embryos and actively sought our gestational carrier. While there have been many ups and downs, we are really excited for the next steps in hopefully finding our surrogate soon. The first difficult decision was trying to figure out where we would undergo the process. We interviewed quite a few surrogacy agencies and IVF clinics, and we connected well with a doctor in Texas. We just had a good feeling about it, so we went with our gut.

At the time, we didn’t think much of where our egg donor or surrogate could be located: We thought it didn’t really matter if they were far away from us. We were under the impression that pursuing surrogacy in Texas might be significantly cheaper than on the West Coast, and perhaps lead to a quicker matching time since there are just way more people in the Dallas area than in the entire state of Oregon.

Our minds changed. As the clinic progressed through egg donation and embryo creation, we started to feel the distance weighing on us. Not only did the importance of being physically close to where our surrogate would be located but also we began reflecting on how the state laws could impact us.

Just over the last year, Texas has taken sweeping action against access to abortion. So what does that mean for all those in the state considering being a surrogate? If pregnancy complications were to occur, how difficult would it be for a surrogate to access the needed medical care? It’s unclear. It’s understandable that the change in state law could cause concern for many considering becoming a gestational carrier and therefore limit the pool of people willing to carry in the state. 

Legal implications aside, we want to be there for the ultrasounds, doctor’s appointments and of course the childbirth. Being far away from where our surrogate lives makes that difficult. Now, we recommend those considering surrogacy to look into your local laws, determine how those might impact you and then consider the closest reputable IVF clinics in your area before searching far away.

Michael, a dentist, and Matthew, a nurse, have become popular on social media for their relatable content, travel adventures and candid conversations about wanting to become parents.
(Photo courtesy of Maria Orlatov)

Our embryos were created last December. While 30 eggs were harvested, only five embryos made it to viability. I’m the genetic half of four of the embryos, while Michael is the genetic half to one.

It was a difficult experience. On one hand, we were incredibly happy that we were able to produce five viable embryos. On the other hand, we’re extremely nervous.

Our goal starting out was to have twins, each of us the genetic father of one. With only having one embryo on Michael’s side, that means there’s just one chance at a transfer. If it were to fail, we’re just not sure it’s financially feasible to repeat the IVF process and try for more embryos.

So, we’re hopeful. Optimism can be powerful here, so we look at this as having five embryos–five wonderful chances to have a baby. We might not end up with twins like we first sought to do, but if we’ve learned one thing from this entire journey, it’s that we cannot control what we cannot control. Surrogacy and IVF are seriously unpredictable processes, and we’re just hopeful to see what miracle biology will bring.

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The preceding commentary was previously published by News Out and is republished with permission.

Matthew Schueller is a content creator and registered nurse. He hosts the “Who’s Your Daddy” podcast along with his husband, Dr. Michael Lindsay. You can follow @MichaelandMatt on InstagramTikTok and YouTube

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Legal registration of NGOs is vital for advancing human rights of LGBTQ+, intersex rights in Africa

Kenya and Eswatini groups have won legal victories this year

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Africa (Photo by NASA)

By MULESA LUMINA, KAAJAL RAMJATHAN-KEOGH AND TANYA LALLMON | Upholding the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, nonbinary, other gender diverse and intersex (LGBTQI+) people remains a pivotal human rights concern across Africa. In recent years, despite significant but sporadic victories in several African courts affirming the human rights of individual members of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working to uphold LGBTQI+ rights, including their members’ right to freedom of association, many obstacles hinder such organizations’ ability to register with appropriate authorities in order to operate legally. 

As unpacked in a webinar organized by the International Commission of Jurists, such obstacles include bureaucratic red tape, a dearth of domestic laws explicitly prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression or sex characteristics (SOGIESC) and the existence of criminal laws targeting and perpetuating discrimination against LGBTQI+ individuals. The severe anti-LGBTQI+ backlash from community and religious groups exacerbates the situation and compounds these obstacles, further undermining advocacy efforts. 

The Kenyan Supreme Court in February 2023 ordered that the National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission be allowed to register because the authorities’ initial decision to refuse registration was discriminatory and unconstitutional, violating the right to freedom of association solely because of the sexual orientation of the organization’s members. In June this year, the Supreme Court of Eswatini became the latest African apex court to rule in favor of registering a LGBTQI+ human rights NGO, directing the minister responsible for registering companies to reconsider his initial refusal because, procedurally, it violated the Constitution. While the Swazi Supreme Court’s ruling in the case did not necessarily rely on a clear statement upholding the human rights of LGBTQI+ people in Eswatini, this remains a welcome decision. Seven years prior, the Botswana Court of Appeal ordered the Registrar of Societies to register Lesbians, Gays and Bisexuals of Botswana (LEGABIBO) on the grounds that the refusal to register LEGABIBO as an organization was unlawful and a violation of the right to freely associate. 

Still, across Africa, civil society organizations continue to oppose the denial of registration and seek redress for violations of the right to freedom of association of their members. Nyasa Rainbow Alliance (NRA), for instance, is one such organization with a pending decision in their legal quest for registration. NRA’s case is still awaiting hearing and determination by three judges of the Malawian Constitutional Court.   

The right to freedom of association is a fundamental foundation of any democratic society. Exercising this right by forming and legally registering NGOs is essential for enhanced advocacy since it allows organizations to apply for funding, operate bank accounts that hold these funds, employ staff, work with international partners, and access global and regional human rights mechanisms and fora. 

As noted by the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights (African Commission) in its Guidelines on Freedom of Association and Assembly in Africa, the rights to freedom of association and assembly under the African Charter “are inextricably intertwined with other rights”. Further, in the matter mentioned above the Supreme Court of Kenya also emphatically stated, “[g]iven that the right to freedom of association is a human right, vital to the functioning of any democratic society as well as an essential prerequisite [for the] enjoyment of other fundamental rights and freedoms, we hold that this is inherent in everyone irrespective of whether the views they are seeking to promote are popular or not.” 

It goes without saying that human rights NGOs play a critical role in upholding democratic principles and safeguarding human rights by mobilizing collective action, holding governments accountable, offering direct assistance to victims of human rights violations, challenging discriminatory laws and policies and more. The Triangle Project, for example, is a South African NGO that has been instrumental in amplifying awareness of anti-LGTBQI+ hate crimes, influencing policy change and supporting victims. 

NGOs advocating for the human rights of LGBTQI+ persons, in particular, empower and protect these oft-marginalized individuals by offering awareness-raising platforms, connecting them with key stakeholders, and providing access to resources and services that might otherwise be denied to them. During the COVID-19 lockdowns, many LGBTQI+ Africans were abruptly cut off from the NGOs that were their safe havens and sources of social and economic support. Additionally, amid increasing hostility towards LGBTQI+ persons in many African countries, including Ghana, Nigeria and Uganda, NGOs like the Initiative for Equal Rights (TIERs) and LGBT+ Rights Ghana provide crucial protective spaces. 

Having legal status is also a prerequisite for holding observer status and participation in the sessions of bodies like the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. However, the withdrawal of the Coalition of African Lesbians’ observer status by the African Commission and recent denials of such status to Alternative Côte d’Ivoire, Human Rights First Rwanda, and Synergía – Initiatives for Human Rights undermine the right to freedom of association and represent missed opportunities to ensure that the human rights of marginalized groups, including LGBTQI+ persons, are placed on the African human rights agenda.

Registration of LGBTQI+ human rights organizations in Africa is more than a matter of legal formality. It can be a significant step towards bolstering advocacy and promoting human rights for all. It is truly unconscionable that, in 2023, LGBTQI+ people continue to endure violence, persecution, discrimination and bigotry amid the reignited backlash against their human rights in multiple African countries. It is essential for governments to protect the right to freedom of association by dismantling barriers to registration and working closely with these groups to realize the human rights of all people. Only through collective efforts can we build an inclusive society that is able to guarantee the right to dignity of all persons and offer protection and non-discrimination to all.

Mulesa Lumina is the Legal and Communications Associate Officer for the International Commission of Jurists’ (ICJ’s) Africa Regional Program, Kaajal Ramjathan-Keogh is ICJ Africa’s Director and Tanya Lallmon is a former ICJ Africa intern. 

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School boards are the battlefield for LGBTQ+ Rights

The battlefield for LGBTQ+ rights is closer to home than you may have thought says a progressive university student activist

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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis spoke at the Moms For Liberty national summit in Philadelphia, Penn. on June 30, 2023. (Screenshot/NBC News)

By Cameron Driggers | GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Queer people are under attack across the United States, whether it be through legislation which strips the LGBTQ+ community of hard fought protections and rights, attempts to censor queer literature and media, or outright violence against the community.

Many have rightly laid the blame for this spike in anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment on demagoguery spewed from leading conservative figures such as Governor Ron DeSantis. However, decidedly less attention has been paid to the role local school boards have played in facilitating grotesque bigotry within the public school system.

School boards and the school districts they oversee, like most municipal authorities, have generally been regarded as an afterthought by larger allied electoral organizations, which is reflected by the measly resources they have put into controlling them. This oversight has proven to be an immensely costly one, and to the detriment of queer and trans young people everywhere. 

Although some state governments are headed by rabid homophobes such as Texas Republican Governor Greg Abbott, South Dakota Republican Governor Kristi Noem, and Florida’s Republican governor, all indeed responsible for enacting pieces of highly-publicized anti-queer legislation- it lies largely in the purview of school boards to both interpret and implement them.

The former of which is a particularly important power, given that the most harmful of the laws in question, such as DeSantis’ signature “Don’t Say Gay” legislation, were intentionally written vaguely as to empower conservative school districts to impose the most extreme application of the law possible. 

Over the past few years, far-right forces have successfully captured school districts across the country. Perhaps the most notorious of these forces is Moms For Liberty, which has distinguished itself not only as a dangerous hate group according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, but also as the foremost vehicle for the propulsion of bigots into positions of power within educational institutions.

M4L channels large sums of unaccountable dark money to blanket cities with mailers and other advertisements rife with frantic misinformation, which is able to drown out any rebuttal from under-resourced opponents. After employing this dubious strategy during the 2023 election cycle, candidates backed by MFL or other like minded groups won a score of school board seats. Not only in places where you’d expect, but also in deep-blue communities in states as New Jersey, Maryland and even California.

In Florida, the hysterical culture war spun up by Republicans manifested into Moms For Liberty’s most decisive victory in the nation. Ron DeSantis himself joined MFL in bankrolling dozens of their handpicked goons. Out of sixty-seven endorsed candidates, forty-one were elected. As a result, DeSantis’ administration has worked in-tandem with nominally independent school districts to impose fervent anti-LGBTQ+ bigotry within the state’s public schools.

The battlefield for LGBTQ+ rights is closer to home than you may have thought

These victories represented a terrifying new reality in which systemic homophobia could perniciously expand to new extents. Many of the increasingly outrageous headlines surrounding new anti-LGBTQ+ regulations in schools can be attributed to far-right school board members that were swept into office upon a platform of explicitly anti-queer sentiment.

These rogue school boards, despite an outcry from the students they are charged with serving, have pushed onward with a radical agenda. Teachers who support LGBTQ+ students have found themselves doomed to non-renewal of their teaching contracts. Superintendents face pressure to throw marginalized students under the bus lest they too find themselves abruptly fired.

Furthermore, school boards have embraced transphobia by taking aim at transgender student athletes and their ability to use facilities which correspond to their gender. Perhaps most abhorrently, many school boards have considered mandating the Outing of vulnerable LGBTQ+ students to unaccepting parents, opening the door for abuse and abandonment. Beyond just LGBTQ+ issues, far right board members have pushed for arming teachers, disbanding student identity clubs, and other regressive measures that also pose an existential threat to public education in the United States.

Defeating the far right campaign to hijack our education is imperative, and it is possible. I should know, because I have done it. Flagler County, Florida where I grew up, is one of the epicenters of the culture war in the state.

For instance, our small town made headlines after a sitting school board member, supported by another, (both of which being M4L cheerleaders, natch) filed a police report against district library staff for offering literature which served queer students and students of color. In the Summer of 2022, some friends and I organized a campaign to replace these two members of our school board with true champions for issues students care about.

We spent our hot Summer days knocking on thousands of doors, registering our peers to vote, and sign-waving along busy intersections. We were outspent massively, by both Moms For Liberty and Ron DeSantis’ personal super PAC. We faced long political headwinds in a county which voted for DeSantis by over thirty-five points in the last general election. Despite all of those challenges, we successfully unseated both incumbents on election night, representing one of only a handful of school boards that did not shift to the right. 

Courtney Vandebunte, Alysa Vidal, Cameron Driggers & Jack Petocz on election night, August 2022 after successfully unseating both anti-LGBTQ+ incumbents of the school board in deep red Flagler County. (Photo Credit: ‘Recall Flagler County School Board’)

The kind of grassroots movement I experienced in my hometown is exactly what is needed across not only Florida, but the entire country. The likes of Moms for Liberty are well-funded by far-right dark money donors. But while they might have the money, young people have something far more important: energetic passion. That is to say, the fuel which empowers a scrappy band of high schoolers to spend their Summer changing hearts and minds to defy the odds.

With that said, providing resources to young people eager to take on far-right school boards in their own communities must be an urgent priority, because the battlefield for LGBTQ+ rights is closer to home than you may have thought.

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Cameron Driggers is progressive student activist attending the University of Florida. As a highschooler, Cameron led state-wide campaigns to resist anti-queer measures, such as the Don’t Say Gay School Walkouts of 2022.

Presently, Cameron continues to advocate for empowerment of young people to make change as an Organizing Fellow for People Power For Florida.

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This is what transgender eradication looks like

Teachers fired, inmates detransitioned, adult care banned, allies killed. A new phase of anti-trans politics- eradication is the goal

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Erin In The Morning/Los Angeles Blade montage

By Erin Reed | WASHINGTON – On Monday morning, we learned of a tragic incident: a woman was fatally attacked outside her store by an individual who had torn down the pride flag displayed there.

The following day, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals delivered another blow, determining that transgender youth and adults aren’t entitled to their medication, arguing such treatment is not “deeply rooted in this nation’s history and traditions,” a rationale echoing the Dobbs anti-abortion decision.

Concurrently, new laws are coming into effect, mandating the forced detransition of any incarcerated transgender individual. The once muted alarm signaling potential dangers for the transgender community has escalated into a raging firestorm. Reactionary figures from the right are fueling this blaze, advocating for eradication.

How did we reach this juncture, and what’s our path forward? How can we shield ourselves amid one of the most intense reactionary movements ever aimed at the LGBTQ+ community? These questions have weighed heavily on my mind lately. They frequently surface as the final questions posed to me when I discuss these issues with organizations and fellow journalists striving to understand the times we’re in.

Just four years ago, our discourse was focused on the role of transgender athletes in top-tier competitive sports. Now, that debate feels like an ember compared to the blazing wildfire we currently face.

Movement Advancement Project. “Equality Maps: Bans on Best Practice Medical Care for Transgender Youth.” 
https://www.mapresearch.org/equality-maps/healthcare/youth_medical_care_bans.

To comprehend our path forward and strategize for safety, we must first recognize where we stand. Presently, care for transgender youth is prohibited in nearly 20 states, and for adults in Florida. Several more states restrict healthcare coverage, making it very hard for trans people to obtain care. In some of these states, penalties loom for those who “aid and abet” these youths in accessing their essential medical care.

Concurrently, a surge of laws target us in restrooms, classrooms, and public spaces. In Florida, violations of bathroom bans lead to arrest, with the incarcerated trans person spending up to a year in prison. In states like Missouri and West Virginia, any arrest can subject an individual to state-mandated detransition.

It’s not just our care that’s under attack, but our expression too. Contrary to the arguments made by far-right opponents of transgender rights, the freedom of speech and expression for LGBTQ+ individuals is facing unprecedented threats. This year witnessed the introduction of drag bans in multiple states, so broad in scope that they affected anyone wearing clothing not traditionally associated with their assigned gender.

While most of these bans were halted on constitutional grounds, Texas is soon to enforce its drag prohibition. Similarly, book bans are on the rise, leading to theatrical hearings in front of Republican-led school boards that label any LGBTQ-themed book as “unsuitable for children.” Case in point: in Georgia, a committee deemed the Scholastic Kids book “My Shadow Is Purple” so inappropriate that a teacher faced termination merely for reading it aloud.

It’s patently evident that we’re witnessing a determined effort to eradicate a marginalized group from the public sphere. Although these laws and policies have largely been limited to Republican-dominated red states, 2024 looms large.

The upcoming major election year bears the threat of nationwide prohibitions. We’re already observing laws that target the transgender community being tactically inserted into must-pass legislation, such as the NDAA military spending bill, the national budget, and funding bills for children’s hospitals. Predictions of government shutdowns are increasingly frequent, possibly due to these very issues, as Republicans designate transgender matters as their non-negotiable “red line.”

We cannot fully rely on the judiciary for protection. While the Supreme Court’s 6-3 decision in Bostock v. Clayton County did strengthen the basis for transgender rights within the constitution – a ruling that many in the trans community have clung to with hope – the subsequent Dobbs decision concerning abortion rights paints an uncertain horizon.

The 14th Amendment is intended to guarantee everyone equal protection and due process under the law. However, post-Dobbs, the Supreme Court stated that the rights shielded are only those “deeply rooted in this nation’s history and traditions.” The long-standing presence of transgender individuals in America, including amongst indigenous populations before the nation’s inception, appears insufficient for such consideration.

The 6th and 11th Circuit Courts, predominantly composed of Trump-appointed judges, have both overturned lower court decisions, allowing bans on transgender rights. Their rationale is authored in such a way to convince the Supreme Court that, in light of the Dobbs verdict, these prohibitions should take precedence over Bostock.

If the Supreme Court, which might consider these cases within the next couple of years, concurs, they’ve already provided the justification for nationwide bans on adult gender-affirming care.

See this excerpt explicitly calling for it:

Excerpt from the 11th Circuit Decision

At a recent Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), Michael Knowles brazenly advocated for transgender “eradication.” Since that declaration, the tide of anti-trans legislation, detransition bills, and vilification of the trans community has risen alarmingly. In Kirbyville, Texas, a teacher’s simple act of transitioning has sparked vehement demands for his dismissal. As I pen this article, Florida is unveiling policy proposals designed to penalize those who defy the state’s anti-trans bathroom mandate. This is what eradication looks like.

Transgender individuals are acutely aware of this. Many in our community have been cautioning for years about the direction we’re headed. Consequently, recent surveys reveal that approximately 260,000 transgender individuals have already relocated to different states — a significant 8% of the entire trans population (estimated to number between 1.5-3 million, or 0.5-1% of the US population). Moreover, an additional 40% are contemplating such a move. When factoring in that these individuals often relocate with their families, this shift becomes comparable to some of the most significant migrations in American history.

Meanwhile, an organized push is being made to “compromise” on transgender people. I reported last month that some Democrats were considering compromising over anti-trans provisions in must-pass legislation. At the same time, the New York Times is filled with “both sides” arguments attempting to make this palatable to the American left.

There is no sign that the left has fallen for the bait yet – polls still show extremely high support for transgender people among Democrats and independents. Every day, though, it seems like a new “radical centrist” pushes this tactic – just yesterday, Matt Yglesias became the latest to offer such a “compromise.”

What’s the path forward? In my numerous conversations and private discussions with transgender individuals, each person contemplates varied next steps. While it remains essential for us to actively participate in the political process, many have confided in me their decisions to, or already actions of, stockpiling hormone therapy to endure extended periods of disrupted care.

Similarly, many are leaning into local support networks — a testament to the LGBTQ+ community’s history of resilience and solidarity, especially when confronted with overwhelming societal pressures. As a result, medication sharing, underground community networks, and acts of civil disobedience are witnessing a resurgence.

Yet, amid these challenges, glimmers of hope persist in the political realm. Several states have distinguished themselves as sanctuary states, vowing not to extradite transgender individuals across state boundaries over criminal anti-trans laws. Some cities nestled within these more conservative states have also staked their ground as protective havens, although the extent of their impact remains to be seen.

Encouragingly, the 4th8th, and 9th Circuit Courts have rendered decisions favorable to transgender rights. Bostock remains the prevailing legal standard, and the majority of the justices instrumental in that verdict still hold their seats. There’s is some hope that medical discrimination against transgender individuals might be declared unconstitutional at the Supreme Court level. If otherwise, vast swathes of the nation could continue to stand as a sanctuary, offering solace to trans individuals from systematic attempts at marginalization.

While hope is invaluable, it alone won’t repel attempts at eradication. Action is imperative. Beyond just legal protections, we must actively support trans individuals who cross state boundaries, aiding them in regaining their financial stability.

Furthermore, we can’t abandon those without the resources, ability, or will to relocate from their homes. Many of us hope for a quicker resolution, but this battle might become the kind of generational struggle we’ll recount to our children. Though these may be efforts to erase us, one truth stands firm: we are part of what it means to be human, and eradication is a futile pursuit. Even if every last one of us was removed from this Earth, we would still be here, born anew to every generation.

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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.

Follow her on Twitter (Link)

Website here: https://www.erininthemorning.com/

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

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