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Will LGBTQ Americans ever be treated equally?

Supreme Court hearing 3 employment discrimination cases on Oct. 8

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anti-LGBTQ discrimination, gay news, Washington Blade

Jon Davidson (Photo courtesy of Davidson)

In the days before there were any laws barring businesses from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, business owners throughout the country had free rein to turn LGBTQ people away, without consequence. Now that 20 states, Washington D.C., and nearly 300 counties and cities expressly ban such discrimination by businesses open to the public, those whose anti-LGBTQ views were once mirrored in the law have been fighting hard to be able to continue to refuse equal treatment to LGBTQ people.

Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected one such effort in its much-misunderstood Masterpiece Cakeshop decision. It reaffirmed precedent that has stood for five decades that the Constitution’s rightly valued protections of freedom of religion cannot be twisted by business owners into a license to discriminate. At the same time, however, the Court ruled that the bakery in that case had been treated unfairly by the state administrative agency that ruled against it, whose members the Court felt had expressed unwarranted hostility toward religion, thereby depriving the bakery of a neutral decisionmaker.

Undeterred by that reaffirmance of the rule that all who enter the world of commerce must play by the same rules, anti-LGBTQ groups like the so-called “Alliance Defending Freedom” (ADF) have switched gears.  Instead of relying primarily on freedom of religion, they have sought refuge under freedom of speech, asserting that at least businesses that create customized goods and services should not have to do so for events celebrating the now-lawful marriages of same-sex couples to which they object.

On Sept. 16, a slim 4-to-3 majority of the conservative Arizona Supreme Court issued a narrow ruling in Brush & Nib v. City of Phoenix embracing this argument. It held that, under the Arizona Constitution’s free speech protections and an Arizona law known as the Free Exercise of Religion Act, a stationery and calligraphy business that designs and sells custom wedding invitations could refuse to do so for same-sex couples, notwithstanding a Phoenix ordinance prohibiting such discrimination. While the court confined its ruling to personalized wedding invitations, the humiliation and debasement of having a door slammed in your face as you seek to celebrate what for many people is the happiest day of their lives were ignored. So too, the majority seemed not to care how permitting businesses to say “we don’t serve your kind” in even this limited context would also shield discrimination based on persistent prejudices against members of racial and religious minorities and those in interracial or interfaith relationships as they plan their weddings. At least the ruling is cabined to Arizona.

The federal Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit reached a similar outcome last month, however, based on the U.S. Constitution’s protection of speech. In Telescope Media Group v. Lucero, it issued a divided ruling that a videography company that wanted to start making wedding videos only for different-sex couples could proceed with their challenge to a Minnesota law that bars sexual orientation discrimination by businesses. That case is ongoing.

While these rulings are distressing, they at least are limited to those who use words and pictures to create customized goods for sale. But anti-LGBTQ groups are determined to expand a “right” to discriminate far beyond that. On Sept. 11, ADF asked the Supreme Court to hear the further appeal of its Arlene’s Flowers v. Washington case, in which it claims that a florist was entitled to turn away same-sex couples planning their wedding based on a claim that flower arranging is speech protected under the First Amendment. If that were the case, what other vendors would be entitled to treat LGBTQ people unfairly? ADF’s arguments aren’t even limited to weddings but would apply to any events that businesses object to providing services to because of the identity of those participating in them.

In Arlene’s Flowers, ADF also is misreading the high court’s Masterpiece Cakeshop decision to argue that any decision by state authorities to enforce civil rights laws against those asserting religious justifications constitutes impermissible religious hostility. Such claims of selective prosecution, however, run squarely into Supreme Court authority upholding the broad discretion of government officials to decide when to enforce particular laws, which can be challenged only with proof of improper discriminatory intent.

These cases raise fundamental questions about whether LGBTQ people are entitled to equal treatment as we go about our daily lives or whether, in at least some contexts, those with religious objections can treat us as second-class citizens with impunity. Yet, in a majority of states and at the federal level, we still do not even have express and enduring statutory protections against such discrimination.

The U.S. Supreme Court will be hearing arguments on Oct. 8 in three cases about LGBTQ employment discrimination that will determine if federal law protects LGBTQ people.  These are the most important cases in LGBTQ history since we won marriage equality. But, even if we win them, we still will need Congress to finish the job by passing the Equality Act, which would ensure express and enduring nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ people. Only a federal law will make sure that businesses like Brush & Nib that can no longer be sued in Arizona courts. Learn more about these cases and what you can do to get such a federal law passed by visiting the Freedom for All Americans website. Nothing less than whether LGBTQ Americans will ever be treated equally is at stake.

 

Jon Davidson is chief counsel for Freedom for All Americans.

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New head of Public Justice, Sharon McGowan, celebrates Pride

As we wave our pride flags this month, we must hold onto the joy of how far we’ve  come, and how brave and beautiful our LGBTQ+ community is

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Courtesy of Sharon McGowan

By Sharon McGowan | TAKOMA PARK, MD. – June is LGBTQ+ Pride Month, a time dedicated to recognizing and celebrating and walking  in solidarity with our diverse community of loved ones and affirming the dignity, humanity, and rights of all people.

It is also a time to reflect on how far we have come and how much  work there is still to do in building a more accepting and inclusive world.  

This month brings to mind many of our community’s greatest legal victories in the Supreme  Court: the striking down of the sodomy laws that made our relationships criminal and the  discriminatory so-called “Defense of Marriage Act,” as well as the extension of federal  nondiscrimination protections and marriage equality to LGBTQ+ people across the  country.  

For me personally, June also happens to be the month that I celebrate my own wedding  anniversary. While the memories of my wedding continue to bring me joy, I also still  remember the day-long drive that my now-wife and I needed to make from our home state  of Maryland to Massachusetts, as it was one of only three states that would allow us to  marry at the time. 

Courtesy of Sharon McGowan

This year, in addition to the pride I feel in being a member of the LGBTQ+ community, I am  also tremendously proud to be celebrating Pride Month as the new CEO of Public Justice.  Founded in 1982, Public Justice is a nonprofit legal advocacy organization that takes on  purveyors of corporate corruption, sexual abusers and harassers, and polluters who  ravage the environment. At its core, each of our battles is inspired by a pledge to further  equity and equality, end systemic oppression, and protect and expand access to justice for  all. 

By way of example, Public Justice represented Camika Shelby, whose son Nigel died by suicide at age 15 after experiencing unchecked LGBTQ+ harassment and race  discrimination at school.

Along with our co-counsel from Wardenski P.C. and Conchin,  Cole, Jordan & Sherrod, Public Justice fought not only to demand justice for Camika but  also to bring change to the Huntsville, Alabama, school system that had shirked its  responsibility to protect LGBTQ+ students from sex-based harassment.

Because of  Camika’s bravery, Public Justice secured an important victory for students in the deep  south, where progress for both the LGBTQ+ and Black communities takes longer than it  should and always feels tenuous at best.  

Cases like Nigel’s demonstrate the urgency of holding institutions accountable for the  harms that they cause, either through their actions or their failures to act; and speaking  truth to power and demanding accountability from institutions large and small is what we do at Public Justice.

That’s why we, along with Lambda Legal, the National Women’s Law Center and a host of local and national LGBTQ+ partner organization, launched campaigns in all 50 states in 2017 to urge State Departments of Education to follow federal laws  protecting transgender students after then-U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said  she wanted the federal Department of Ed to be “less political,” by which she meant  undermining school policies protecting trans young people.

Public Justice is also proud to represent Steve Snyder–Hill and over one hundred  other survivors of sexual abuse by long-tenured Ohio State University physician Richard Strauss. First victimized by Dr. Strauss, some of our clients were then lied to by OSU officials determined to deny and cover up Strauss’ decades-long patterns of abuse.  

Many in the LGBTQ+ community will recognize Steve’s name and recall him as someone  who — just like Public Justice — has never been afraid to speak truth to power. A veteran of  the U.S. Army and Army Reserve, Steve publicly came out as gay just after the repeal of  “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

He then found himself in the media spotlight after he was booed for asking a question on extending spousal benefits to LGBTQ+ military members during a Republican debate in 2011. Now, Steve is working with Public Justice and its co counsel, Scott Elliot Smith LPA and Emery Celli Brinckerhoff Abady Ward & Maazel LLP,  in this latest chapter of advocacy, designed not only to shed light on the horrific crimes perpetrated by Dr. Strauss but, also to press OSU to make the systemic changes needed to  ensure that students can obtain their education in a safe environment, free from sexual  harassment and abuse. 

Public Justice also fights to protect the ability of people to seek justice in the courts. I know  first-hand just how meaningful getting one’s day in court can be. In 2005, I was proud to  serve as lead counsel for Diane Schroer, a transgender woman who sued the Library of  Congress for withdrawing its job offer to her upon learning that she was transitioning and  planned to start work as the woman she is.

The result was a groundbreaking ruling that the federal law prohibiting sex discrimination in employment also protects individuals from  discrimination for being transgender, an interpretation of the law that was ultimately ratified by the U.S. Supreme Court, albeit over a decade later.  

I cannot help but shudder at the thought of where we would be had Diane not had her day in court: the law might not have continued to develop, and the public would likely not have learned about Diane’s story, which offered people an opportunity to learn more about who  trans people are, and how we all lose out when discrimination deprives us of the talents of people like her.

Courtesy of Sharon McGowan

That’s just one example of why Public Justice’s core mission of ensuring  access to justice – and particularly to the courts – for everyone, and not just a privileged  and powerful few, is so essential for us all. 

So, as we wave our pride flags this month, we must hold onto the joy of how far we’ve  come, and how brave and beautiful our LGBTQ+ community is. I’m proud that Public Justice has played a role in our progress and is an organization that will never be complacent in the face of injustice, whether against the LGBTQ+ community or any other  community targeted for abuse or vulnerable to exploitation.

Apropos of the season, I am  filled with pride at being the first openly LGBTQ+ leader of this storied organization and look forward to putting that pride into action 365 days a year. This Pride, I invite my LGBTQ+ family, as well as our invaluable friends and allies, to learn more about the critical  work that we here at Public Justice are doing to create a more just, fair, and equitable world, by visiting us at www.PublicJustice.net.

Just as pride is a year-round affair, so too is our quest for justice — we hope you’ll join us.

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Sharon McGowan is the Chief Executive Officer of Public Justice, leading its legal and foundation staff, and guiding the organization’s litigation and advocacy work. Prior to joining Public Justice, Sharon served as a partner with Katz Banks Kumin, and previously served as Chief Strategy Officer and Legal Director for Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, the nation’s oldest and largest LGBTQ+ legal organization.

McGowan also held several senior positions within the Obama Administration, including within the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, where she helped implement nationwide marriage equality across the federal government. 

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Editor's Letter

Be afraid: MAGA wants a Christian theocracy

Make no mistake that if Trump wins back the White House, the LGBTQ community will take the brunt of his attacks

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The growing threat of Christian nationalism. (Screenshot/YouTube Second Thought)

BALTIMORE, Md. – Eight years ago on June 8, 2016, I wrote the Blade’s Pride op-ed warning about the candidacy of Donald Trump for president.

Specifically, I worried about the Supreme Court and about the damage Trump could do via executive order to LGBTQ rights. Unfortunately, I was right on both counts. Here’s what I wrote then: “With one Supreme Court seat vacant and three more justices aged 77 or older, it is imperative that Trump not be allowed to make selections to the high court. The names he’s floated so far for the high court are a who’s who of anti-LGBT bigotry.”

We all know what happened next. Trump got three picks to the high court. If he’s re-elected, you can bet that Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas, who are already under fire, will retire, giving Trump two more picks and a majority five of nine MAGA justices.

The Blade cover that year warned that 2016 could be our last Pride celebration given Trump’s attacks on the LGBTQ community. Just four days later on June 12, our greatest fears were realized when a gunman opened fire in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, killing 49 mostly LGBTQ patrons. 

The more things change. Here we are eight long years later and Trump is back not only as a presidential candidate for the third time but as a newly minted felon following his conviction on 34 counts in the Stormy Daniels hush money case. After all the skilled politicians who’ve taken on Trump — everyone from Hillary Clinton to Jeb Bush — who could have predicted it would be a porn star who would take him down? 

Of course, he’s down but not out. And now it’s the American electorate that is on trial instead of Trump. Will we really entertain a convicted felon as our president? Or will common sense prevail as it did in 2020 and will the voters of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania send Trump into political oblivion? Time will tell.

In the meantime, equality voters — that is, all LGBTQ Americans and their supporters, families, and friends — must unite and vote to re-elect Joe Biden, no matter what’s happening in Gaza, Ukraine, or anywhere else. The stakes are far more grave than in 2016, when a neophyte Trump threatened us with mere executive orders and hostile Supreme Court picks. Fast forward eight years, and Trump and his toadies are experienced in operating the government and will use it to our detriment in myriad ways, as outlined in the ominous “Project 2025.”

The 2025 project is an 800+ page governing agenda for the next Republican administration that was created by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. Among other targets, the plan calls for the replacement of secular public education with teachings based on the Bible, outlawing all pornography, and eroding protections for LGBTQ Americans, as the Blade has reported. 

Contrary to what many believe, Trump isn’t seeking an authoritarian state, he and his Republican supporters want a Christian theocracy that would criminalize all abortions, overturn marriage equality, and more. A Biden campaign memo obtained exclusively by the Blade earlier this year states that, “Trump’s Project 2025 will be even worse for LGBTQ+ Americans, going beyond the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill. A second Trump presidency will make it a mission to erode LGBTQ+ Americans’ rights, and undermine their existence.” For instance, the document notes, Trump would:

• Remove nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ+ Americans;

• Overturn same-sex marriage and protections against anti-sodomy laws;

• Reverse Title IX to remove protections for transgender students;

• Ban and expel transgender military members;

• Ban LGBTQ books;

• Restrict IVF and surrogacy; 

• And appoint more extreme judges who will repeal LGBTQ+ rights.

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A Biden campaign official warned that these laws go further than targeting the rights of LGBTQ Americans but in many cases seek “to really undermine their existence in public” — and do not constitute “one-off” issues in states like Florida, Alabama, or Tennessee, but rather a blueprint for national policy that “Trump and Project 2025 would bring to Americans.”

Make no mistake that if Trump wins back the White House, the LGBTQ community will take the brunt of his attacks, especially the trans community. This year’s Pride celebrations must serve as a stark reminder of what’s at stake in November.

In 2016, my warnings about the end of Pride may have sounded like hyperbole, but in 2025, Trump’s political enemies will be in jail; his antagonists in the media will be tied up in lawsuits; and the United States as we know it will be gone. We will be a nation in steep decline headed for a Christian theocracy. Only we the voters can prevent that dark future.

Kevin Naff is editor of the Washington Blade. Reach him at [email protected].

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L.A. Pride and WeHo Pride: A Tale of Two Cities

Right now there is fragmentation, disunity, and political apathy in the LGBTQ community in L.A. and elsewhere

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Don Kilhefner/Los Angeles Blade graphic

By Don Kilhefner | Los Angeles is the only city in the world with two major LGBTQ Pride celebrations, largely within walking distance of each other.  The two adjacent events serve as a stark reminder of the class and race divides in the L.A. LGBTQ community and the struggle between the elite capture of Pride by West Hollywood and a semblance of grassroots and community-based organizing by Los Angeles Pride, recently clawed back from WeHo.   

On Sunday, June 2, the City of West Hollywood holds its Pride parade along with a week-long festival.  One week later, on Sunday, June 9, Los Angeles Pride, about a half mile away from where the WeHo Pride parade started the week before, LGBTQ people and their allies will march down Hollywood Blvd., site of the first Pride march in June 1970, then called Christopher Street West—Gay Freedom Day—named after the street in Greenwich Village in New York City where the Stonewall Inn was located.

In case you haven’t been paying attention, therein lies an important tale of two cities with vastly different community Pride narratives representing two different political/economic agendas.

I helped to organize the first two Pride celebrations in Hollywood and have closely observed and written about the evolution of those events during the past half century.  The foundational truth about Pride celebrations across the U.S. in the month of June is that those celebrations commemorate the June 28, 1969, Stonewall Rebellion, the spark that ignited the fire that became the Gay Liberation movement, commencing LGBTQ people’s long march toward freedom.  That foundational truth about Pride has been buried today under the superficial gloss of a gigantic, hedonistic party, tons of glitter, and relentlessly making money, and the roots of Pride have been danced over mindlessly and recklessly. 

Recently, as I was checking out at my neighborhood Trader Joe’s in Hollywood, I asked the 20-something gay man who was my cashier how he felt

about having two Pride celebrations in nearly identical locations.  He replied earnestly that it truly baffled him why there were two instead of one united event.  He was excited when I promised him a copy of this article the next time I saw him.

L.A. Pride: The Macro Historical View

Early in April 1970, Morty Manford reached out to the Los Angeles Gay Liberation Front by telephone as a representative of the New York City GLF requesting that nascent Gay Liberation groups across the country organize some kind of event to commemorate the first anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion on Sunday, June 28, 1970—a few months away.  New York GLF was planning a march.  Morris Kight proposed to the Sunday afternoon GLF meeting that such an event be planned, it was adopted unanimously, and Kight would take the leadership on that GLF involvement.

Rev. Troy Perry of the Metropolitan Community Church and Kight became central to making the first Pride event in L.A. a reality.  At first, a sidewalk protest along Hollywood Blvd. was envisioned and then grew in scope to an audacious march on Hollywood Blvd. itself.  The L.A. City Police Commission, after a furious anti-gay tirade by Police Chief Ed Davis, refused a permit to use the street for such a scurrilous event.  The ACLU went into court, forcing the LAPD to issue a permit, which ended up spitefully as permission for the use of only one lane on Hollywood Blvd.  On June 27, the Saturday before the Sunday event, the Los Angeles Times, then a publication with over 1 million subscribers, ran an article about the ACLU victory, providing all the publicity needed to make the march a success.  

That first L.A. Pride march started out from McCadden Place in one lane on Hollywood Blvd., and when spectators later seized the entire boulevard, LGBTQ people proudly and enthusiastically marched forward in an event that had never ever been seen before in L.A and into the history books.  Estimates of attendance ranged between 20,000 and 35,000, clearly on the high side; the LAPD officially reported 2,000, definitely on the low side. The rest is history.

A paper with text and a date

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Handwritten draft of 1972 L.A. Pride flyer found in FBI files on its surveillance of L.A. GLF.

Subsequently, the Stonewall commemorative event in L.A. was organized by the all-volunteer, not-for-profit, grassroots, community-based Christopher Street West Committee.  As such, the CSW committee had the usual periodic ego performers, episodic dramas, political correctness debates, and financial woes.  But woebegone, every year, somehow, the event occurred and grew in size and solidarity.  The Gay Liberation organizing was working.

For eight years (1970-1978), Pride occurred on Hollywood Blvd with not much distinction made between participants and spectators—people just spontaneously joined in off the sidewalks.  More conventional gay people were shocked in 1970 with GLF’s paper mache replica of a Vaseline jar, the most popular sexual lubricant at the time, with a big sign in front of it repeating a popular Kentucky Fried Chicken commercial at the time, “Ain’t nothing good without the grease,” and 1971’s Cockapillar, similar to a dancing Chinese New Year’s Dragon, with the dragon head replaced by the head of a penis with seductive lips and eye lashes, expanding and contracting, to the crowd’s delight.  Since the first two celebrations, the Respectability Police of CSW made sure nothing too radical (or too gay) ever entered again.

A group of people in a truck

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1970 First Pride: Vaseline jar with KFC and GLF saying, “Ain’t nothing good without the grease.”

In 1974, a festival was added to the Sunday march, making Pride a weekend affair.

Then, in 1979, CSW took the blue pill and moved the Stonewall celebration to Santa Monica Blvd. in West Hollywood. It was a controversial decision dividing the CSW committee, but a majority vote won out.  The winning argument was that WeHo was more gay friendly, even though Hollywood Blvd. had always been gay friendly as well.  The real reason was financial.  Then, WeHo was an unincorporated part of Los Angeles County, within Supervisor Ed Edelman’s district, and Edelman was extremely gay friendly, providing more County financial support for expensive ancillary services like police, traffic control, safety, and clean-up.  In 1984, the independent City of West Hollywood was incorporated and took over support when the County’s ended.

This transition from Hollywood to West Hollywood was critically important, particularly for the heart and soul of the Stonewall commemoration.  WeHo, with about 30,000 residents in the late 1970s and 1.9 square miles in size, was very affluent, with few buildings then taller than two stories, and having a small-town feel.  It was definitely a whites-only residential town with white supremacy proclivities, resulting in GLF and others demonstrating during the 1970s against the white racism and sexism of its gay clubs and bath houses.  WeHo has usually addressed race and class issues with tokenism and window dressing.  The white power structure remains intact.  

Today, the city of West Hollywood, its developers, corporate businesses, and caterers of luxury products are extremely wealthy with beautifully designed, seven-story hotels, spacious office buildings, and expensive residential towers everywhere, a largely white, wealthy, entitled enclave surrounded by the city of Los Angeles, which is majority people of color, affordable housing deprived, and a working poor, cheap labor pool for WeHo and Westside homes and businesses.

Since 1979, the character and development of CSW’s L.A. Pride in West Hollywood has largely paralleled the economic development of WeHo—follow the money.  Gradually, sometimes imperceptibly, the grassroots CSW L.A. Pride celebration occurring in WeHo evolved into a CSW and WeHo event, and then the designation “L.A.” slowly disappeared into the mists and it became WeHo Pride with the names “CSW” and “Los Angeles Pride” largely invisible.  The CSW Committee and L.A. Pride were no longer the shot callers.

1971: Poster for second L.A. Pride printed by Peace Press, a radical anti-Vietnam War printer, because other printers refused to print it.

Today, WeHo Pride is controlled by the City of West Hollywood and the West Hollywood Chamber of Commerce and is organized by a well-paid event planner with no community involvement whatsoever, not a single blade of grassroots to be found anywhere.  The City of West Hollywood advertises WeHo Pride worldwide as an LGBTQ destination of importance in order to fill its luxury hotels and high-end restaurants, clubs, dance halls, and bars.  In 2017, a research study indicated that Pride weekend in WeHo generated about $5 million for businesses and the city there. In 2024, it will probably be double that figure.

In June 2019, when Pride events across the U.S. were celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion and the beginning of the Gay Liberation movement, WeHo Pride made no mention of Stonewall, as if the event had never happened.  When I confronted the Executive Director of Pride about its advertising not mentioning a word about the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, she condescendingly replied that one of the revenue concessions at the Pride festival, a beer tent, would be called “Stonewall” and I could sit in it and talk about Stonewall if I wished.

L.A. Pride: The Micro Historical View

As Pride in Los Angeles entered the 21st century more LGBTQ people criticized and were dissatisfied with WeHo Pride, feeling like it really didn’t represent them or look like the LGBTQ community in Los Angeles.  Attendance was slowly decreasing each year.  The event had become apolitical and turned into a largely commercial hospitality and entertainment event.  The city of West Hollywood, rolling in cash, paid little attention to community feedback and did exactly what it wanted to do because it could.  Then two seismic Pride revolts shook and shook up the celebration.

In 2017, after the election of Donald Trump, an LGBTQ community uprising took over Pride, with CSW’s cooperation—whites and people of color working together politically—and returned the event to its historic origins on Hollywood Blvd.  It was renamed an LGBTQ Resist March, not a Pride Parade.  One of its hashtags was #Own Your Pride.  The march ended with a political rally in West Hollywood whose speakers included Rep. Maxine Waters, Rep. Adam Schiff, and Rep. Nancy Pelosi.  The celebration looked like L.A. for a change.  In 2018, Pride  reverted to the same old same old.

The second seismic jolt with Pride resulted in the aftermath of the May 25, 2022, murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police when the U.S. erupted in outrage with Black Lives Matter as a catalyst.  When West Hollywood announced a march about Floyd’s murder co-sponsored with BLM without a consult or the consent of BLM—Whites telling Blacks what to do—then the shit hit the fan, as they say.  Outrage prevailed.  People of color and their allies exerted CSW control and quickly and radically separated Los Angeles Pride from WeHo Pride. 

In June 2022, Los Angeles Pride returned its original home on Hollywood Blvd. and has marched there ever since, adding an entertainment event called Pride in the Park located in the Los Angeles State Historic Park in downtown L.A., adjacent to Chinatown.  This year Ricky Martin, a gay man, will be the headliner.

A Proposal for LGBTQ Pride Unity in Los Angeles

The old radical call out is historically true: “A people united will never be defeated.”  No one talks about it publicly; however, right now there is fragmentation, disunity, and political apathy in the LGBTQ community in L.A. and elsewhere, with political performance art reduced to mere show biz entertainment. 

An LGBTQ movement has largely disappeared as assimilation rules. The extreme Right is skillfully organized and coordinated, even Supreme Court judges openly opining about it, toward rescinding every civil right LGBTQ people have struggled to achieve since Stonewall.  Disunity is something LGBTQ people simply cannot indulge right now, including the bifurcation of one of the central political and spiritual organizing ceremonies unifying the LGBTQ tribal (“tribal” used positively) community—Los Angeles Pride.

As a Gay Tribal Elder, I respectfully make the following constructive suggestions to the L.A. LGBTQ community.  My sole intention is the united forward movement of Pride and the welfare of LGBTQ people in Los Angeles.

    [1.]  That there will be one Sunday afternoon Pride celebration in Los Angeles            

            on Hollywood Blvd. that will be the centerpiece of Pride weekend, that     

            would integrate WeHo Pride into the event, that would be called a march,    

            and that a serious political message would be included.

    [2.]  That the Saturday before the Sunday Los Angeles Pride march be turned     

            over to West Hollywood to do what WeHo does best.

    [3.]  That the Los Angeles Pride march convene at 10 a.m., march at noon, and   

              end up in WeHo with a community Pride celebration with all the    

              multitudinous ways LGBTQ people know how to have a good time.

It’s all achievable if the best interests and wellbeing of LGBTQ people, united, becomes the central organizing principle of community Pride and homeless Stonewall is welcomed back into the circle of community.

Will the circle be unbroken?

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An old person sitting in front of a bookcase

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Don Kilhefner, Ph.D., is a pioneer Gay Liberationist and for 55 continuous years a gay community organizer in Los Angeles and nationally.

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Editor's Letter

For a Lost Soldier…

They’d grown up in Ohio & discovered after a few failed attempts at pursuing the fairer sex, their real romantic interests laid in each other

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Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day, Monday, May 27, 2013 (Photo by Brody Levesque)

Editor’s note: A good portion of my career had been spent working in Washington D.C. On Monday, May 27, 2013 after returning from the annual Memorial Day ceremonies across the Potomac River in Arlington National Cemetery, I filed the following story based on notes I had jotted down in my reporter’s notebook after an emotional impromptu interview.

ARLINGTON, VA — Every year that I have lived and worked in this city I have always gone to Arlington National Cemetery to observe the Memorial Day ceremonies. Afterwards, I wander down through the grounds, just to watch, maybe to listen, but mostly to contemplate on the sacrifices made by those brave souls whose final resting place has become hallowed ground, a literal garden of stones.

Arlington’s rolling hills are a place of extraordinary beauty, a fitting repository for the memory of the living history of the United States. Names from the history books leap off the pages as one strolls through the grounds. ‘Byrd, Taft, Lincoln, Kennedy, Rickover, Marshall, Pershing,’ followed by the names of the thousands of soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen, and coast-guardsman who gave their lives to secure the freedoms promised by the American Constitution. 

Today, President Obama in his speech, reminded Americans that they must honor the sacrifices of their military servicemembers particularly as U.S. combat roles change and the nation’s involvement in Afghanistan is winding down. Adding that Arlington “has always been home to men and women who are willing to give their all … to preserve and protect the land that we love.” The president went on to praise the selflessness that “beats in the hearts” of America’s military personnel.

Mr. Obama’s words stuck with me as I walked along through the ocean of gravestones, pausing every now and then to read the names, the inscriptions, and wonder what that person or this person was like. Scattered throughout the graves proudly marked with miniature American flags fluttering in the bright noontime sunlight, I observed families, loved ones, and friends who had come to honour their fallen. Then I happened upon one grey haired older gentleman standing quietly in front of headstone obviously lost in his thoughts. As I tried to unobtrusively move around him he look up at me and smiled.

I greeted him and he greeted me back then he saw my press credentials hanging from my neck and asked whom I worked for.

I told him for a national LGBT publication, momentarily wondering what type of reception I’d receive as let’s face it, the LGBTQ community still has its detractors, and to my shock, he looked back at me, with tears forming in his eyes.

“You’re gay?” 

“I am,” I answered.

“Lot of changes since I was a, a kid,” he trailed off.  I pointed at headstone and quietly asked if the person was a friend or a family member.

“He’s my, well was my best bud, yeah, I dunno…” The poor gentleman looked stricken and it was certainly not my intention to interview him, impromptu or not. But yet I sensed that something was left hanging so I took the plunge and asked him for a few details if he didn’t mind sharing them. Turns out, that’s exactly what he wanted, to share, to have a conversation about the person whose grave we were standing over.

They had grown up in eastern Ohio, in a small rural farming community. Played football, went fishing, did farm work, and discovered that after a few failed attempts at pursuing the fairer sex, that their real romantic interests laid in each other. By the time they had graduated from high school, the Vietnam conflict had escalated and rather than wait to get drafted, they decided to join the U. S. Marines together. They went to boot camp and not long after graduation found themselves on troop planes headed for Vietnam.

“We were lucky,” he said, “We both got assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 26th regiment.” 

But good luck turned sour as their battalion found itself in the middle of one of the nastiest battles of the 1968 Tet Offensive in the battle for Khe Sanh. “I lost him that morning,” he told me pointing at the inscribed date of death on the simple white marker- February 7, 1968- “He was just 19.”

The tears came freely and I waited, then we talked some more. He told me that after he lost his love, “I went straight and got married,” going on to lose his wife to cancer a few years back. He has grand kids that he says will never know the truth, he just can’t be open with them, but at the same time, never does a day go by that he doesn’t think about and mourn the loss of his friend, his partner, and the promise of what might have been. 

“I was glad to see DADT end,” he told me referring to the policy of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t tell’ that barred military service by gay and lesbians. “At least some other couples won’t have to hide like we did.”

I thanked him for his service and his time talking with me and walked away reflecting on all of the unknown Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender military folk buried all around me who, like that lost soldier, suffered in silence and hid, yet still believed in a greater good that ultimately meant that they gave their lives for their country. 

As the American nation celebrates this solemn holiday, let us all not forget them.

A footnote:

In the Spring of 2020 I received an email from a grandson of the above gentleman to let me know that his grandfather had passed away. In the email he disclosed that his grandfather finally told his family about himself and that virtually the entire family had embraced their beloved patriarch. He then thanked me for telling his grandfather’s story.

I wrote back to thank him and asked that on the next Memorial Day, when they visited him, please tell his grandpa “Semper Fi” for me.

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Brody Levesque is a veteran career journalist and the editor of the Los Angeles Blade.

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Viewpoint

Journalists are not the enemy

Wednesday marks five years since Blade reporter detained in Cuba

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The Hungarian Parliament in Budapest, Hungary, on April 4, 2024. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his government over the last decade has cracked down on the country's independent media. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

HAVANA — Wednesday marked five years since the Cuban government detained me at Havana’s José Marti International Airport.

I had tried to enter the country in order to continue the Washington Blade’s coverage of LGBTQ+ and intersex Cubans. I found myself instead unable to leave the customs hall until an airport employee escorted me onto an American Airlines flight back to Miami.

This unfortunate encounter with the Cuban regime made national news. The State Department also noted it in its 2020 human rights report.

Press freedom and a journalist’s ability to do their job without persecution have always been important to me. They became even more personal to me on May 8, 2019, when the Cuban government for whatever reason decided not to allow me into the country.  

Washington Blade International News Editor Michael K. Lavers after the Cuban government detained him at Havana’s José Marti International Airport on May 8, 2019. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

‘A free press matters now more than ever’

Journalists in the U.S. and around the world on May 3 marked World Press Freedom Day.

Reporters without Borders in its 2024 World Press Freedom Index notes that in Cuba “arrests, arbitrary detentions, threats of imprisonment, persecution and harassment, illegal raids on homes, confiscation, and destruction of equipment — all this awaits journalists who do not toe the Cuban Communist Party line.” 

“The authorities also control foreign journalists’ coverage by granting accreditation selectively, and by expelling those considered ‘too negative’ about the government,” adds Reporters without Borders.

Cuba is certainly not the only country in which journalists face persecution or even death while doing their jobs.

• Reporters without Borders notes “more than 100 Palestinian reporters have been killed by the Israel Defense Forces, including at least 22 in the course of their work” in the Gaza Strip since Hamas launched its surprise attack against Israel on Oct. 7, 2023. Media groups have also criticized the Israeli government’s decision earlier this month to close Al Jazeera’s offices in the country.

• Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, Washington Post contributor and Russian opposition figure Vladimir Kara-Murza and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Alsu Kurmasheva remain in Russian custody. Austin Tice, a freelance journalist who contributes to the Post, was kidnapped in Syria in August 2012.

• Reporters without Borders indicates nearly 150 journalists have been murdered in Mexico since 2000, and 28 others have disappeared.

The Nahal Oz border crossing between Israel and the Gaza Strip on Nov. 21, 2016. Reporters without Borders notes the Israel Defense Forces have killed more than 100 Palestinian reporters in the enclave since Hamas launched its surprise attack against Israel on Oct. 7, 2023. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Secretary of State Antony Blinken in his World Press Freedom Day notes more journalists were killed in 2023 “than in any year in recent memory.”

“Authoritarian governments and non-state actors continue to use disinformation and propaganda to undermine social discourse and impede journalists’ efforts to inform the public, hold governments accountable, and bring the truth to light,” he said. “Governments that fear truthful reporting have proved willing to target individual journalists, including through the misuse of commercial spyware and other surveillance technologies.”

U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Samantha Power, who is a former journalist, in her World Press Freedom Day statement noted journalists “are more essential than ever to safeguarding democratic values.” 

“From those employed by international media organizations to those working for local newspapers, courageous journalists all over the world help shine a light on corruption, encourage civic engagement, and hold governments accountable,” she said.

President Joe Biden echoed these points when he spoke at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner here in D.C. on April. 27.

“There are some who call you the ‘enemy of the people,'” he said. “That’s wrong, and it’s dangerous. You literally risk your lives doing your job.”

I wrote in last year’s World Press Freedom Day op-ed that the “rhetoric — ‘fake news’ and journalists are the ‘enemy of the people’ — that the previous president and his followers continue to use in order to advance an agenda based on transphobia, homophobia, misogyny, islamophobia, and white supremacy has placed American journalists at increased risk.” I also wrote the “current reality in which we media professionals are working should not be the case in a country that has enshrined a free press in its constitution.”

“A free press matters now more than ever,” I concluded.

That sentiment is even more important today.

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Editor's Letter

The nation’s highest honor & rightly so to a ‘Mom,’ Judy Shepard

“I feel Matthew with me every day, or I would not be able to do this,” she says. “We just hope we’re doing what he would want us to do”

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Christopher Dyer a 20-year-old gay activist and Judy Shepard share a hug at the premiere of 'Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine' by award winning director Michele Josue at the Washington National Cathedral on October 6, 2013 in Washington D.C. (Photo by Brody Levesque)

WASHINGTON – In a ceremony Friday honoring a former U.S. Vice-President, a civil rights worker and martyr, two former cabinet secretaries- one a former U.S. Secretary of State, a speech writer for the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., an Olympian and gold medalist, and one of the most powerful woman political leaders and the Speaker Emeritus of the U.S. House of Representatives, among others, was a quiet unassuming American mother who became a driving force in the fight for full equality for LGBTQ+ Americans and stem the flow of hatred.

Alongside her husband of over fifty years Dennis, Judy Shepard has fought hard to pass federal hate crimes legislation, educate Americans on the need to stem the unyielding flow of anti-LGBTQ+ animus, and remind Americans that hate can kill, as it did in October of 1988, nearly 26 years ago when the Shepard’s received a phone call in the middle of the night that no parent should ever have to receive.

Dennis Shepard was working for an oil company in Saudi Arabia, Judy was with him, their youngest Logan was in boarding school and their oldest, Matthew, was a freshman at the University of Wyoming in Laramie.

On the night of October 6, 1998, two men lured Matthew from the Fireside bar in downtown Laramie. He was kidnapped and driven to a field where he was tortured and tethered to a fence and left to die.

Dennis and Judy were awakened and learned that Matthew had been sent to the UCHealth Poudre Valley Hospital ICU facility in neighboring Fort Collins, Colorado and they were asked to get back to the States as soon as possible as their oldest son’s prognosis was extremely grave.

Never regaining consciousness, Matthew succumbed to the severe injuries from the horrific beating and died on October 12, 1998. At his funeral his grieving parents were confronted with the anti-gay hatred that Matthew and other LGBTQ+ people dealt with in their lives in the form of an ugly protest by Fred Phelps, the founder of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church and its members from Topeka, Kansas.

The ugliness of that protest, the avalanche of hate, and the national outcry over the death of Matthew propelled the Shepard’s into being unlikely LGBTQ+ activists, founding a non-profit foundation bearing their son’s name with a simple mission and message: “Erase Hate.”

The incident galvanized millions of Americans, and focused attention on the rising epidemic of hate crimes. Vigils were held across the nation as Dennis and Judy received tens of thousands of letters and e-mails of support.

This reporter has covered the incredible journey of the Shepard’s since the very beginning commencing with that dreary cold night outside of the hospital in Fort Collins when Matthew died then later the funeral at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Casper where I observed first hand the plain old just evil hatred on display from Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church clan.

Their “Fags plus AIDS equals Death” signs and garish, neon-colored posters of stick figures engaged in anal sex on display at the funeral of a kid so brutally murdered was a definite “Who the fuck are they” moment not only for this reporter but numerous others in the massive press contingent covering the funeral.

Many years later I asked Judy how she felt about Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church clan which had picketed the funeral of her son in what was to become the seminal event that put Westboro into the national spotlight.

Her answer surprised me. “Oh we love Freddy,” she replied. “If it wasn’t for him there would be no Matthew Shepard.” Which was a typical response from the quiet unassuming Judy I had come to know.

In fact when Fred Phelps died, I had a conversation with Jim Osborn, a friend who attended the University of Wyoming with Matthew. He participated in the Rainbow Resource Center meetings at UW with Matt, and was the co-creator of Angel Action — the counter-protest against the Phelps clan who picketed Matt’s funeral and the trial of the the two men responsible for his murder.

“Matt saw everyone as a human being — some with flaws, but none that needed to be condemned,” Jim told me. “The LGBTQ community needs to be better than that, we need to let him [Fred] go and quietly.”

Like Judy, Jim, and others at the end of the day, I am reminded that Fred illustrated the worst, not the best, of the very essence of what it truly means to be human.

For Judy and Dennis the Matthew Shepard Foundation became the vehicle for change and hope as they crisscrossed the country advocating, among other things, support of a Hate Crimes prevention law which ultimately became The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act which in October 2009, Judy and Dennis Shepard joined then President Barack Obama as he signed it into law.

For the first time, a federal hate crime statute expanded the protected classes to include a victim’s sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability. Prior to 2009, federal hate crimes law only included a victim’s race, color, gender, religion, or national origin.

In her travels Judy speaks to audiences nationwide, stressing the importance what Americans can do to make their schools and communities safer for everyone, regardless of their race, sex, religion, or sexual orientation.

“I feel Matthew with me every day, or I would not be able to do this,” she says. “We just hope we’re doing what he would want us to do. We realize that we must use the voice his death has given us. I realize that what I can try and accomplish is to make people aware. We get so complacent in our lives that we forget not everyone is safe, and frequently, it is our children who aren’t safe.”

Our paths have crossed often over the years and I’ll admit that I have come to regard Judy as a second mom, right down to a couple of instances where I got “the look” for a trespass or two.

Yet, I always was treated like another of her seriously large extended family, in fact so much that in October of 2013 when Matthew’s dear friend from high school, an award winning filmmaker Michele Josue, premiered her intimate documentary that painted a picture of Matt as a person- not just the gay icon: ‘Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine,’ I had brought a young gay activist and another young Black lesbian friend to the premiere at Washington’s National Cathedral.

After I got my ‘mom hug’ I turned around to introduce Christopher and Niki only to see Chris already holding on to Judy in a hug, both smiling.

There are several generations of the LGBTQ+ community that have benefited from her and her husband’s tireless work and advocacy so today’s honor, the Nation’s highest civilian honor, presented to individuals who have made especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors is richly deserved. 

Judy Shepard with President Biden Friday, May 3, 2024 at the White House.

Today in a simple ceremony in the East Room of the White House, President Joe Biden awarded Judy the Presidential Medal of Freedom on behalf of grateful nation for her tireless efforts to continue Matthew’s legacy of kindness, erase hate of LGBTQ+ people, and make America a better place for all of its citizens.

Thanks Mom.

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Brody Levesque is a veteran journalist and the editor-in-chief of the Los Angeles Blade.

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Editor's Letter

Remembering Columbine 25 years later, a reporter’s tale

“I wasn’t calling it the start of the mass-shooter era then, but we knew we were into something new and horrible”

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Los Angeles Blade graphic

LITTLETON, Colo. – Cell phones starting ringing, people were yelling “are you seeing this?” The television monitors that ran CNN’s Headline News 24/7 suddenly were showing scenes of children running out of a school building with their hands on their heads almost as if they were enemy combatant prisoners escorted by heavily armed police officers in riot gear.

Then my personal mobile attached to my belt started to vibrate- whatever had just happened was a major news event.

Answering I found myself speaking with one of my wire services’ senior editors ordering me to head to Washington’s Reagan National Airport to catch a flight to Denver, Colorado. Grabbing my reporter’s notebook out of my suit coat I jotted down notes cradling the phone with my head to my shoulder as I ran for the door.

Jumping from the taxi at the terminal I got to the United airlines counter grabbed up my ticket and boarding pass and sprinted to the concourse as the flight was scheduled to leave in an hour. By this time inside the gate area, nearly everyone was glued to a TV monitor and oddly for an incredibly busy airport the quiet conversations, actually nearly background murmuring was surreal as my fellow travelers watched the horror of what was happening unfold in real time live.

After the four hour flight and being picked up at Denver International headed to the scene of what was clearly now a mass-shooting, the driver grimly handed me a print out of wire copy he had brought from our Denver bureau:

LITTLETON, Colorado — At least two heavily armed young men opened fire and tossed explosives Tuesday at an affluent suburban Denver high school, killing students and possibly faculty members, authorities said. Jefferson County Sheriff John Stone said as many as 25 people were killed, including two suspects found dead in the library.

It was after nightfall that Tuesday and as we pulled up at Columbine high school in Littleton, it was surrounded by law enforcement and a massive media presence. The one memory that to this day stands out were the grim stonefaces of first responders, especially law enforcement, on scene coupled with a palpable feeling of abject misery from the bystanders all grappling to understand what had occurred hours earlier during the school’s lunch period.

Wandering through the crowd, being mindful of not violating the crime scene perimeter making sure that my press credentials were visible, I engaged several people in brief interviews and then ended up at the broadcast van from the local ABC affiliate KMGH-TV channel 7 Denver television station.

Inside the van an engineer/cameraman showed me the raw footage taken earlier in the day as the chaos enveloped the school and its surrounding neighborhoods. I remember vignettes of the footage even now as it was gripping yet sickening in its uncensored, unyielding documentation of the carnage.

Children covered in blood on ambulance gurneys or lying on the ground being triaged by medics or even just civilians. The boy being dragged out of a smashed out second story window by heavily armed police officers onto the roof of what appeared to be an ambulance commandeered for that extraction, the boy bleeding profusely as large red blood stains were clearly visible on his pants and shirt.

I was nauseous actually had to quit watching- thanked him for showing me and got out of the van. As I walked by the CNN crew the on-air reporter noted:

CNN has accounted for at least 20 students being treated at hospitals for gunshot and shrapnel wounds; at least seven were listed in critical condition.

He then grimly added: “A department spokesman said the number of fatalities is still unconfirmed.” Behind him in the school parking lot were multiple vehicles from the Jefferson County Coroner/Medical Examiner’s Office and based on the footage I just watched I had an awful feeling that there were a significant number of causalities.

President Clinton delivers remarks regarding the Columbine High School mass-shooting on April 20, 1999.
(Courtesy of the Clinton Presidential Library)

Later myself and a group of reporters clustered around a monitor to watch President Bill Clinton address the tragedy in a press conference from the press briefing room at the White House.

The President expressed that he and the first lady were profoundly saddened and shocked by the shooting.

Clinton noted that the tragedy could be a wake-up call for the nation.

“We do know that we must do more to reach out to our children and teach them to express their anger and to resolve their conflicts with words, not weapons,” the president said.

“You know there are a lot of kids out there who have access to weapons — and apparently more than guns, here — and who build up these grievances in their own mind and who are not being reached,” Clinton said.

Over the course of the next few days new terms entered into the lexicon of the American culture and nation: Trench coat mafia, mass-shooting, gun-show loopholes and then the single word that would forever be seared into the American conscious that defined that event, those horrible moments and the aftermath: Columbine.

The Columbine Memorial is located in Clement Park, which is behind Columbine High School, the site of the massacre and was dedicated on September 21, 2007.

“Columbine” has since become a euphemism for a school shooting and in the intervening 25 years there have been 404 school shootings. The Washington Post for years has tracked the number of students affected by school shootings. Since 1999, over 300,000 children have experienced gun violence in incidents like Columbine which has turned into common-knowledge collective single word references; Virginia Tech, Parkland, Uvalde, Sandy Hook and others.

A journalistic colleague Dave Cullen, who wrote “Columbine,” an authoritative book on the shooting reflected in a recent interview with the USA Today:

“It was seared into us,” said Cullen. “I wasn’t calling it the start of the mass-shooter era then, but we knew we were into something new and horrible.” He then added: “There’s no healing, it’s an open wound.”

I still grapple with the emotions of that day long ago and still cringe when I hear of another wanton act of gun violence- a mass shooting and I have covered all of them including on the ground in Orlando, Florida on June 12, 2016 when my own LGBTQ+ community suffered the horrific loss of 49 lives at the Pulse nightclub. This never, ever, leaves you- this feeling of utter despair over the destruction of innocence, life itself caused by a society that apparently values guns over the lives of its children.

Today though, I mourn and remember Cassie Bernall, 17; Steven Curnow, 14; Corey DePooter, 17; Kelly Fleming, 16; Matthew Kechter, 16; Daniel Mauser, 15; Daniel Rohrbough, 15; William “Dave” Sanders, 47; Rachel Scott, 17; Isaiah Shoels, 18; John Tomlin, 16; Lauren Townsend, 18, and Kyle Velasquez, 16.  

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Brody Levesque is a veteran journalist and the editor-in-chief of the Los Angeles Blade.

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Editor's Letter

Dear anti-LGBTQ+ haters & queer hating trolls, ENOUGH already!

The toxicity of this nation and its culture of hate was clearly defined in the reactions from the hate mongering trolls

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Longtime friends Justin Bieber and Jaden Smith backstage at Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, California this past weekend. (Photo Credit: @daydayred_/Instagram)

INDIO, Calif. – It was a perfectly innocent expression of love and friendship displayed by the two musical celebrity male performers who have been friends for over 14 years.

A dance, a hug, and a kiss shared in a moment backstage by Justin Bieber and Jaden Smith at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival this past weekend went viral on social media as to be expected, however, the tsunami of hate that followed was disgusting yet seemingly all too familiar in the times we live in currently.

I’m not going to bother listing or reposting the hateful rubbish here. Suffice it to say that the overarching theme was: “men don’t hug men like that and kiss ’cause it’s gay” oh and please note that is the cleaned up version.

Honestly Justin and Jaden absolutely have no need, none, nada- zip to justify themselves or how they express their feeling towards each other. Yet, the toxicity of this nation and its culture of hate was clearly defined in the reactions from the hate mongering trolls as it seems the only time we feel men are ‘real men’ is when they’re shooting at each other and violent. Seriously.

This isn’t really about my running interference for Justin or Jaden, honestly I’m just so over the hatred, the stupidity, the blatant homophobic garbage and the attacks on the trans community especially aimed at the youth.

Folks? I am fatigued, exhausted and drained because so many Americans embrace hate in fact they sustain themselves it seems by constant consumption of hate fed by far right media, each other on social media and who knows where else- and the direct result are the deaths of LGBTQ+ youth and others murdered by this pathetic and peculiar American obsession.

These so-called Christians, these so called American patriots, these allegedly “good people” are anything but, rather no- they are sick, evil, despicable, and it is past time to have them shut the fuck up and go away.

Brody Levesque is a veteran journalist and the editor-in-chief of the Los Angeles Blade.

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Commentary

Ryan Walters, Libs of TikTok, gay blogger redefine Nex Benedict

Raichik spreads false info including anti-trans pseudoscience about trans identity & experiences that stoke fear, distrust & hatred

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Ryan Walters, Libs of TikTok's Chaya Raichik, gay blogger Chad Felix Greene and Nex Benedict (Los Angeles Blade file photos)

By TJ Payne | LOS ANGELES – A newly amplified twist in Nex Benedict’s narrative only continues to do him and other trans youth harm.  This latest iteration is being driven by Chaya Raichik, the notorious anti-LGBTQ+ creator of Libs of TikTok, her ally Oklahoma’s state Superintendent of its education system Ryan Walters, and Chad Felix Greene a gay blogger who contributes to the far right extremist website Red State.

Raichik’s social media posts and public appearances often focus on demonizing LGBTQ+ people. Raichik spreads false information including anti-trans pseudoscience about transgender identity and experiences that stoke fear, distrust and hatred of trans people.

In a post on X (formerly Twitter), without any consideration to Nex or his family, Raichik shared intimate details regarding the sexual abuse he endured at the hands of his father. Details of which that were known to multiple media outlets, but not considered germane to the suicide of the 16-year-old outside of being one of several contributing factors to his death with the primary areas of focus on the environment in the high school which included ongoing instances of severe transphobic bullying.

Editor’s note: Caution, the following contains transphobic rhetoric and misgendering:

“It’s the suicide lie again. Nex didn’t commit suicide because she was bullied for being LGBTQ. she committed suicide because she suffered from mental health issues and was a victim of sexual abuse by her father. She wrote suicide notes in the weeks before her death and her father was arrested again 2 weeks before she overdosed. Her issues weren’t addressed, she wasn’t helped, and she was suffering” Raichik posted two days ago.

On March 28 Raichik then posted this:

Followed by this post which embedded an article published by the anti-trans gay blogger Chad Felix Greene at the far-right website Red State:

Raichik’s attempt to redefine the circumstances regarding Benedict’s death and the causes was drawn from Greene’s published article wherein he misgendered and dead named Benedict and blamed his death on a “failed legal system, trauma struggles with mental health, and a young girl far too overwhelmed to handle it all on her own.”

This statement fails to leave out one crucial component of Benedict’s life – the harassment and bullying they experienced literally up until the day they died. Let us not forget that this all began with a fight at school, where Benedict was not allowed to use the bathroom that aligned with his gender identity. This is due to the passing of yet another anti-trans bathroom bill. The school (district) chose funding access over the safety of their students. They failed to do their one basic job and that is to protect all of the students, not just some. 

As we continue to learn more about who Nex Benedict was, and what he experienced as a young trans person, it does not surprise me that people like Greene would hop at the opportunity to blame the victim.

Benedict experienced abuse at the hands of his father at a very young age. This is a mitigating factor in his tragic death, but it is in no way the whole story. Anyone attempting to push that narrative is sorely incorrect and is failing to see the intricacies of a trans person’s life and the impact that a volatile and hateful school superintendent (Ryan Walters) can have on young people’s well-being.

Beyond Ryan Walters and his archaic ideology, an entire state that is hostile towards transgender people, with over 60 anti-trans laws introduced in 2024 alone, you cannot deny the overarching themes here. Benedict was not safe. He should have been safe at school, at the very least, and yet the Owasso High School administration failed at this. Benedict was failed more than once in his life and while his past traumas may have played a part in his decision-making, the travesty here is a system that would rather see children die, than change their ways. 

As there are escalating tensions and controversies surrounding not only the death of Benedict, but the treatment of LGBTQ+ students, especially trans and non-binary in Oklahoma schools, Superintendent Ryan Walters’s comments at a State Board of Education meeting on Thursday has further sparked anger among LGBTQ+ advocates.

Referring to the death of Benedict, Walters accused of LGBTQ advocacy groups of exploiting the tragedy for political gain.

“A woke mob formed around the death of a child. They lied. They attacked. Truth has come to light and we will not back down,” Walters said.

“At the time, we had radical left-wing activists who were aided by the fake news media who made outrageous and unfounded claims on the situation from the beginning. These radical groups lied, intentionally so, to push a political narrative,” he added.

“They wanted to use the death of a child to support a political agenda, and I think it’s absolutely disgusting, and you are going to hear these groups, this woke mob, continue to push an agenda and lie to further the most radical agenda this country has ever seen,” Walters alleged.

He then said “I will never back down to a woke mob. I will never lie to our kids or allow a radical agenda to be forced on our kids.” Walters publicly has declared that there are “not multiple genders” and that state’s schools “would not perpetuate what he considers a lie that transgender and nonbinary people exist.”

Since Benedict’s passing, the Indiana-based nonprofit the Rainbow Youth Project which provides LGBTQ+ mental health crisis counseling, has had a 500% increase in calls. Between February 16th and 20th they received 349 calls from Oklahoma, during a time they normally would average 87 calls per week. 69% of those callers mentioned Benedict’s death. 85% said they were experiencing bullying at school, 79% were in fear of their physical safety, and more than 10% were students at Owasso High School, where Benedict attended. 

According to the 2022 U.S Transgender Survey, 60% of 16 and 17-year-old respondents experienced one or more forms of “mistreatment or negative experience, including verbal harassment, physical attacks, online bullying, being denied the ability to dress according to their gender identity/expression, teachers or staff refusing to use chosen name or pronouns, or being denied the use of restrooms or locker rooms matching their gender identity”.

In Oklahoma (U.S Trans Survey, 2015) 46% of those students were verbally harassed, 19% attacked, and 10% sexually assaulted. 17% faced such severe mistreatment that they left school all together. 56% of trans people in Oklahoma avoided using a public restroom because they were afraid of confrontations or other problems they might experience. 

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TJ Payne is an investigative journalist and forensic analyst based in Los Angeles. He is a doctoral candidate at the California School of Forensic Studies, where he is researching the Trans Panic Defense. TJ enjoys exploring abandoned places, napping with his dog Brody, and road trips. 

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Commentary

What happens now? Autopsy confirms what we already knew

But if we keep pushing, keep organizing, and keep shining our lights on the real villains in America, maybe we can save some of our kids

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Nex Benedict's gravesite in Collinsville, Oklahoma. (Photo By TJ Payne)

By TJ Payne | LOS ANGELES – As my day is coming to an end, in my sweet protective bubble State of California, I am still sitting with Nex Benedict’s autopsy report. Since first reading it while I sipped my black coffee this morning, from the comfort of my couch, I’ve printed it out and shuffled through it several times throughout the day.

Each time I’m left feeling as if I am sinking further into the ground where I’ll eventually shrivel away and be forgotten. As if this were a place where all trans people go to be forgotten, the void if you will. I never want Nex to be forgotten. I never want to forget Nex. Maybe that is why I subject myself to the discomfort of reading his full autopsy report that was released to the public this morning.

It doesn’t come close to what I imagine Nex was feeling for quite some time. It is hard to articulate what it feels like as a transgender person to read through this report though, of a young trans teen. The language used to describe our insides, as we lay on a freezing cold metal table; intact, not unusual, and normal. Why is it that we can’t be described like this in other spaces, instead of being called filth? Instead of being villains, pedophiles, or perverts, why are we not granted this dignity in life, as we are in death? 

Earlier this month, I decided to take it upon myself and visit Owasso, Oklahoma in hopes of meeting those closest to Nex. To get a better sense of the culture, the vibe, even, that pulsed through this small town in the south.

I met with local and national organization leaders who expressed their disgust with the current trend in anti-trans legislation that continues to flood the entirety of the state. Several of them informed me that since Nex’s death, crisis call centers have had a 300%+ increase, with data analysts learning that callers directly referenced Nex’s death. anti-trans legislation, Christian rhetoric, and Ryan Walters as reasons for their calls and suicidal ideation.

A close friend and ex of Nex who met with me shared that “The biggest issue, for trans youth, for LGBTQ youth, for the youth in the state, the biggest issue is Ryan Walters. And the state government. We should not have a state senator calling children, filth. Point blank.”

He was fired up, passionate, and perhaps terrified as he expressed this to me. I understood all of these feelings too well as someone who was adamantly afraid of Trump coming into more power in the 2016 election. 

I also met with three mothers. Mothers of children who have experienced bullying and harassment because of their trans-identities, or their parents being out and queer. These protective mama bears shed tears for their kids having to deal with added stress at school. As if junior high and high school weren’t stressful enough, a transgender student with queer parents is going to be compounded even more than the rest.

I was in awe of such dedicated parents, and such protectiveness. That wasn’t my own experience with my mother- who misgenders me even now, as a nearly 36-year-old man with a beard and exposed chest hair. I wished I could tell these mothers’ kids just how lucky they are, and that they are in good hands, no matter what. I listened to their stories, many full of fear for their kids, but also fear of retaliation from the school, or other community members.

Their emails have gone unanswered for months by the Owasso School District administration, leaving these mothers to make the hard decisions of pulling their kids from school, some transferring to a nearby school, and some trying out homeschooling. Both outcomes blame the child, instead of the adults in positions of power taking even an ounce of accountability. Turning a blind eye to these incidents risks another child slipping through a very small crack in an already badly damaged system. 

I continued talking to residents of Owasso since I returned to Los Angeles. I’ve learned more and more about Nex, and about the injustices he experienced throughout his life before even arriving at Owasso High School.

In all my conversations with friends and family, the fact that Nex experienced trauma was not ignored, but it was not his defining characteristic, as it isn’t for so many of us. It would be ignorant to say that abuse does not impact a person, but it cannot be said how exactly that looked for Nex.

I wanted to learn who this person was, the whole person, and this is part of his story, but I can assure you there is much more to him than all of the darkness that may have clouded him. He loved to cook. Nex’s aunt but legally sister (after he was adopted by Sue Benedict) shared a story with me about Nex coming to Texas to visit her when he was 14.

The family took him to a grocery store and told him to pick out his ingredients of choice and to cook whatever he wanted. He made a magical octopus dish that stunned them all while bonding with his aunt’s partner. While out shopping, Sue picked out an animal skull of some sort, knowing instinctively that he would love it.

He was a defender of his friends and enjoyed play-fighting. Nex was thoughtful and romantic. His favorite band was Ghost, a theatrical metal band that I have come to love now too. He had layers, and intricacies to his being – that includes his gender identity, and the fluidity that comes with that as a young trans person. As a trans person, I can vouch for this process. It is all such a process, a sometimes painful one, and he was barely getting started. He barely had a chance to be Nex. 

We must do better, now. There is no time to dilly-dally or to assume the next generation will take care of our shortcomings. We have to hold people and systems accountable. We have to hold each other accountable. We have to protect one another, hold one another. Because if we don’t, we will continue to lose our youth.

We will have more and more Nex’s, more frequently, more tragically. Nex’s story has placed a microscope on a school district with a rich history of failures, bullying, and now, a child’s death. This is not an isolated incident, however, and there are more trans youth suicides than any other demographic in the United States. Who will be next? Because the reality is, there will be another one.

But if we keep pushing, keep organizing, and keep shining our lights on the real villains in America, maybe we can save some of our kids.

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TJ Payne is an investigative journalist and forensic analyst based in Los Angeles. He is a doctoral candidate at the California School of Forensic Studies, where he is researching the Trans Panic Defense. TJ enjoys exploring abandoned places, napping with his dog Brody, and road trips. 

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