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Soaring hits and dramatic misses at the HRC/CNN LGBTQ Town Hall

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Living history. That’s what it felt like inside The Novo theatre at the HRC/CNN LGBTQ Town Hall last Thursday night as nine Democratic presidential candidates showcased their commitment to LGBTQ issues and their plans to advance full equality and end the scourge of AIDS and conversion therapy. Gay presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg and gay CNN moderator Anderson Cooper were well aware they were living history on stage, but, to borrow from The Shirelles, will they all still love LGBTQs tomorrow?

The CNN stage Tuesday night is crowded with 12 Democrats who aspire to topple Donald Trump and live in the White House. The moderators are asking about impeachment, the new Trump-caused war in Northern Syria, immigration, climate change and gun violence.

Sen. Bernie Sanders has returned to campaigning after a heart attack and former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren have readied their flak jackets for all the incoming grenades tossed by candidates hoping to breakout of single digit poll numbers. Out Mayor Pete Buttigieg is hoping to capitalize on all the thumbs-up, while Sen. Kamala Harris, once considered the female Barack Obama shoe-in, is struggling – she seems to know everything but her message.

Ratings for the Democratic Party’s fourth official debate in Westerville, Ohio are expected to be high, given the near certainty of Trump’s impeachment by the House – but there is also a nauseating feeling that Trump could still turn ashes into confetti and win re-election in 2020. Who on that stage can defeat him?

CNN’s production of the LGBTQ town hall, in partnership with the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, reached 1,430,000 viewers during Buttigieg’s third segment at the peak of the four-and a half-hour program. He was preceded by Biden, who brought in 1,336,000 viewers, and followed by Warren with 1,398,000 viewers. The audience started dipping after that with 1,174,000 viewers watching Harris.

“These are pretty good ratings for the town halls. They are not gangbusters like a debate, but they are better than some that CNN has had earlier in the cycle,” Ted Johnson, Washington correspondent for Deadline, tells the Los Angeles Blade. “The network also emphasizes that it has these not for the audiences but to show their commitment to covering the campaign.”

A ratings junkie, Trump offered a little counter programming on Fox TV with a 102-minute rambling, incoherent and racist campaign rally in Minneapolis, Minnesota – the heavily Somali district represented by Trump nemesis, Ilan Omar.  And while the Democrats appealed to LGBTQ voters and allies, Trump unleashed a bombastic sideshow that roused his supporters and left others questioning his mental stability, including acting out “a truly terrible imitation of [FBI employees] Peter Strzok and Lisa Page achieving orgasm,” as Esquire described it.

Saturday Night Live devoted their cold open spoof to the HRC/CNN Equality Town, with a cryptic Anderson Cooper should shrug acknowledging “we’ll never do this again.” But it was former HUD Sec. Julián Castro (Lin-Manuel Miranda) who best nailed the subliminal message of the event: “Well, first of all, gracias. As a Democrat, I want to apologize for not being gay, but I promise to do better in the future.”

What is not a joke is that 11,046,000 LGBTQ adults are still officially second class citizens – the result, the town hall helped underscore – of institutionalized and systematic homophobia, biphobia and transphobia. Additionally, since 2016, HRC has identified more than 57 million “Equality Voters” nationwide who “prioritize LGBTQ-inclusive policies, including marriage equality, equitable family law and laws that would prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity,” says HRC.

In 2018, LGBTQ voters counted for 6% of the entire electorate and cast more than 7 million ballots — a turnout of roughly 70%, compared to a turnout of 50% among the general population.

In 2020, the lives and livelihoods of LGBTQ people are at stake. The town hall occurred two days after the Supreme Court heard three job discrimination cases on whether the firing and harassment of an employee based on that worker’s sexual orientation or gender identity qualifies as sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act? According to an Associated Press analysis,“a ruling that says the federal law doesn’t protect workers targeted because they’re gay or transgender could leave millions vulnerable in more than half of U.S. states.”

An analysis released Oct. 9 by the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law based on a poll conducted with Reuters/Ipsos of candidate preferences found that nearly 9 million LGBT adults are registered to vote, with half registered as Democrats, 15% registered as Republicans and 22% Independents and the remaining respondents picking another party or demurring on identifying one.

And yet, as Marketwatch extrapolated from the Williams Institute report, around 21% of LGBTQ adults are not registered to vote. That means there are roughly two million more LGBTQ adults still to be registered to vote in the 2020 election.

Two million. And that’s not counting those who want to vote but are shut out or dissuaded or uninspired.

“Voter suppression has primarily targeted voters of color, who also happen to include LGBTQ Americans, who far too often face disproportionate barriers in accessing their right to vote,” HRC President Alphonso David told the Washington Post after HRC backed a voting-rights effort organized by former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams. Some states, for instance, have voter-ID laws where the person is required to show documentation that matches their birth-assigned gender, which could impede a transgender person from voting. The National Center for Transgender Equality Action Fund has a project to help with that – Transform the Vote that explains #VotingWhileTrans.

One hope was that the HRC/CNN town hall would engage voters, as well as get the candidates on the record about specific LGBTQ issues and introduce non-LGBTQ Americans to the human beings behind those issues. Buttigieg and Warren put out detailed, comprehensive LGBTQ plans and Harris pledge to create a White House advocate for LGBT affairs. Beto O’Rourke put out his LGBT plan last June.

Numerous intersectional issues were addressed such as trans military service, HIV/AIDS, suicide and mental health, youth homelessness, gun violence and education and school safety, as well as civil rights and full equality under the Constitution.

Some new details emerged about some of the candidates. For instance, when CenterLink’s Tanya Tassi asked Harris about the three Title IX employment discrimination cases before the Supreme Court, the California Senator noted that she had joined in a friend of the court brief to “stand in solidarity with all of the folks who are fighting for equality in those three cases.”

And when LA-based HIV-positive dancer and choreographer Thomas Davis asked Harris how she would combat high HIV rates in minority communities, she not only talked about high rates for Black gay men and access to PrEP but shared a personal story about sitting at the bedsides of men who died from AIDS, including Jim Rivaldo, her campaign manager when she ran for San Francisco DA – he was also Harvey Milk’s campaign manager.

“He would always talk about the need to recognize that within the community there are real hierarchies based on race and income and we need to recognize and deal with that,” Harris said. “And since those days to today, we know that in terms of HIV-AIDS rates among black men in particular, it is still much higher because the hierarchy still exists within the community around access to health care, housing, employment, and things of that nature.” She then committed to end HIV/AIDS “within a generation.”  (JavonTae Wilson, an HIV counselor and tester for In the Meantime Men, asked a similar question of Sen. Klobuchar).

Contrast that with billionaire Tom Steyer who was asked by Nia-Malika Henderson about living in San Francisco in the 1980s during the height of the AIDS crisis. He noted that no one knew how broad the epidemic would become but research and the response from the community was strong.

“So I look at this as a place where there was something very scary and out of control, that Americans — and don’t forget, President Reagan would never admit to the AIDS crisis or do anything about it,” Steyer said. “But the country responded itself.  Researchers responded.  People in the community responded. People in churches responded.  Actually, there was a great deal of caring that went out.  And as devastating as it was in San Francisco, it wasn’t nearly as bad as people were worried about, Nia, and that was really as a result of the work and caring that people put in.”

Henderson didn’t follow up to ask him to clarify what he meant by “it wasn’t nearly as bad as people were worried about.”

In another instance, Anderson Cooper asked Joe Biden what he would do if the Supreme Court ruled that the Civil Rights Act does not protect LGBTQ workers. Biden said he’d pass the Equality Act “right off the bat.” He thinks such protections are constitutional because “I taught constitutional law for 21 years in law school as a constitutional professor, I believe it clearly is covered, clearly is covered.”

Some eyebrows went up. Biden – a constitutional law professor? Actually yes, Jamal Brown, Biden’s National Press Secretary, tells the Los Angeles Blade, except for 17, not 21 years, at Widener University. He points to an Aug. 27, 2008 article reporting that “Biden has been an adjunct law professor at the school for 17 years, co-teaching a class, ‘Special Studies in Constitutional Law.’” One of the proud students watching then-Democratic vice presidential contender Biden speak said: “”I thought it was amazing…,I thought it was very true. He’s a straight guy.”

There were some other confusing moments. In off the record conversations during and after the event, many thought Warren “won” the night, especially after her hysterical take on same sex marriage that caused such an uproar, it distracted from a Buttigieg press availability backstage.

When asked how she would respond to someone saying they believe marriage is between one man and one woman, Warren said: “Well, I’m going to assume it’s a guy who said that. And I’m going to say, ‘just marry one woman.’ I’m cool with that.” She turned, took a comic beat, then added: “Assuming you can find one.”

It was one of the biggest hits of the evening, one that continues to be cited by news outlets reporting on Warren. But there were some dramatic missed opportunities to display cultural competence, too.

For instance, when CNN anchor Chris Cuomo asked Warren about her 2012 comment regarding a judge’s ruling that granted transition-related surgery to a transgender inmate. During her Senate campaign, she said: “I don’t think it’s a good use of taxpayer dollars.”

“Do you regret that?” Cuomo asked.

“Yep.  No, it was a bad answer.  And I think it was a bad answer.  And I believe that everyone is entitled to medical care and medical care that they need, and that includes people who are transgender, who — it is the time for them to have gender-affirming surgery.  I just think that’s important and the appropriate medical care,” Warren said.

Though not an explicit apology for her Senate campaign remark, many took it as the equivalent of Harris “taking full responsibility” for her office’s refusal to grant transition healthcare to a trans prisoner when she was DA. But it was the next response that threw people.

“So if you help people get to where they want to be, you also have to protect them as what they are,” Cuomo said. “Do you think that a crime against somebody who is transgender should be charged as a hate crime in statute?”

“You know, I think we could if we think that’s going to be the most effective way to make change.  So I’m certainly — I’m open to this,” she said. “But I’ll tell you what I really want.  I want a Justice Department that takes this seriously.  I want to create a Justice Department that says these crimes matter.

“And when they’re not federal crimes,” Warren continued, “when they are state crimes, in the same way that our Justice Department is empowered to step in if a state is failing to enforce laws and as a result it’s leaving women unprotected, it’s leaving people of color unprotected, the same should happen for LGBTQ people.  We need a Justice Department that is on the side of the people, all of the people.”

Did Warren just say she didn’t back a federal hate crime law that included transgender people—with Judy Shepard in the audience? The Los Angeles Blade reached out to her campaign for clarification.

“Gender identity is currently covered by federal hate crime laws and a Warren Administration will use this statute to prosecute,” spokesperson Saloni Sharma told the Los Angeles Blade. “Elizabeth was making the point that hate crimes prosecutions are not a sufficient answer – we need to go further to make addressing this issue a priority for the Department of Justice, attack the roots of the crisis, and prevent violence. She has also co-sponsored the NO HATE Act to strengthen hate crime reporting as one of the ways to do that.”

What viewers did not know was the backstage drama that happened before the event. Roughly a half hour before showtime, CNN pulled a scheduled question from LA-based trans personality Ashlee Marie Preston. Though Preston described the withdrawn invitation to Out Magazine as being “an act of erasure,” a reliable source with knowledge of the incident told the Los Angeles Blade that the question was pulled because Preston was supposed to ask it of Warren but had not disclosed to CNN that she was a paid campaign surrogate, which made her a “plant” questioner and therefore, an ethical conflict of interest to the news production.

CNN only learned about Preston’s financial association with the campaign after a video in which she appeared was posted by Team Warren on Twitter. CNN later learned of the racist and homophobic tweets Preston posted over the years, for which she has somewhat apologized.

Warren’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment about Preston’s tweets.

But Preston’s absence was part of a felt vacuum for trans representation, especially the need to elevate Black trans women of color who, with 19 or 20 murders in 2019, are experiencing an epidemic of violence and hatred, about which HRC is well aware.

There were a number of trans people who were able to briefly share their stories through the questions they asked.

 

The very first question of the night was for Sen. Cory Booker from Rachel Gonzalez, mother of a 9-year old trans daughter from Dallas and a member of the Human Rights Campaign Parents for Transgender Equality Council. Jacob Lemay, an elementary school student from Massachusetts who identified as “a 9-year-old transgender American, asked Warren a question about school safety.  And Gavin Grimm, now 20, told Booker how he sued his high school in 2015 to use the boy’s restroom – a case that went on a legal roller coaster for four years until he finally won on Aug. 9, 2019.

Also representing the trans community were U.S. Air Force combat vet Shannon Scott; Khloe Perez-Rios, a community organizer from Rancho Cucamonga who works at Bienestar; Mariana Marroquin, program manager for the LA-based Trans Wellness Center; and fabulous Black trans singer/songwriter Shea Diamond (who made sure Nia-Malika Henderson pronounced her name correctly); and Black trans activist Carter Brown who was fired from his job in Texas. Andrea Jenkins, the first trans member of the Minneapolis City Council, was Klobuchar’s guest and HRC National Press Sec. Sarah McBride, a candidate for Delaware State Senate, got a shout out from Biden.

But despite the diversity among the questioners and the respectful understanding that one of these Democrats could become the next President of the United States, there was a painful sense of the lack of urgency to the ongoing crisis of the murder and violence toward Black and Brown trans women.

TransLatin@ Coalition founder Bamby Salcedo, along with Maria Roman-Taylorson, and and Michaé Pulido decided to do something about it, chanting and waving a trans flag with the message about trans murders, disrupting Buttigieg’s segment of the HRC/CNN Equality Town Hall.

“The reason we decided to do it when Pete Buttigieg was onstage is because he is a member of the LGBT community and we wanted for him to see first-hand the violence where at least 20 trans women have been killed,” Salcedo told the Los Angeles Blade.

“We needed to show him the importance of addressing the violence against trans women as a priority and to really make sure he understands what needs to happen in order for us to have better life within our broader LGBT community and the broader society,” she said. “We wanted the national mainstream audience to get the broader message.”

Salcedo also noted how roughly they were treated by security. “The way security handled us was inappropriate, even violent, simply because we were trans women,” Salcedo said. “Honestly, I think law enforcement has the mentality to be rough toward trans women, period. That has to change.”

Anderson Cooper was a little thrown but remained calm.

“People are dying,” the TransLatin@ Coalition protesters yelled.

“It’s OK.  It’s OK.  Be cool.  It’s OK.  It’s OK.  Hey, hey, hey, hey, guys, guys, guys,” Cooper said to the trans women.  “Yo, guys, chill out.  Guys, relax, relax.”

Cooper then tried to explain the disruption to the million-plus viewers.

“Let me just point out there is a long and proud tradition and history in the gay, lesbian, and transgender community of protest, and we applaud them for their protest,” he said to applause. “And they are absolutely right to be angry and upset at the lack of attention, particularly in the media, on the lives of transgendered….”

After the protesters were led away, Buttigieg got his question.

“And before turning to it, I do want to acknowledge what these demonstrators were speaking about, which is the epidemic of violence against black trans women in this country right now.

 

(APPLAUSE)

 

“And I believe or would like to believe that everybody here is committed to ending that epidemic, and that does include lifting up its visibility and speaking to it.

 

(APPLAUSE)

 

It’s also a reminder of something at stake in your question, which is just how much diversity there is within the LGBTQ+ community.  And I’m very mindful of the fact that my experience as a gay man, but as a white, cisgender gay man, means that there are dimensions, for example, of what it’s like to be a black trans woman that I do not personally understand.

 

But I also think the diversity within the LGBTQ+ community is part of what we have to offer right now.  Our community, our country is so torn apart, we’re so fragmented, and here we have the LGBTQ+ world that is everywhere.  We are in every state, every community.  Whether folks realize it or not, we’re in every family.  And that means we can also have the power to build bridges.

 

And when somebody’s weighing whether to come out or just coming to terms with who they are, it’s really important for them to know that they’re going to be accepted.  There is no right or wrong way to be gay, to be queer, to be trans.  And I hope that our own community, even as we struggle to define what our identity means, defines it in a way that lets everybody know that they belong among us.”

After Salcedo was taken away and the televised questioning resumed, it was up to Blossom C. Brown to raise the stakes again.

Lizette Trujillo, from Tucson, Arizona, was about to ask about her transgender son when she suddenly stopped. “I just want to take a moment before I ask my question to validate the pain of our transgender siblings that demonstrated earlier and that have spoken up today, especially black trans women, she said.

Then came Blossom C. Brown, who swiped Trujillo’s microphone. Here’s how the exchange unfolded:

“I don’t want to take this away from you but let me tell you something – Black trans women are being killed in this country.  And CNN, you have erased black trans women for the last time.  Let me tell you something.  Black trans women are dying.  Our lives matter.

 

I am an extraordinary Black trans woman, and I deserve to be here.  My Black trans sisters that are here.  I am tired.  I am so tired of just sitting there.  And it’s not just my Black trans women…

 

LEMON:  Ma’am.  Ma’am.

 

BROWN: It’s my Black trans brothers, too.  And I will say what I’m going to say.  I’m going to say what I’m going to say.

 

LEMON:  No, no, no, just come here.  No, I just want to ask you something.  Come here.  Tell me.  I want you to talk — what’s your name?

 

BROWN:  Blossom C. Brown.

 

LEMON:  Blossom, let me ask…

 

BROWN:  Google me.  Please Google me.

 

LEMON:  Blossom, thank you.  Let me tell you something.  No, don’t come on the stage.  And can I — may I have the mic?

 

BROWN:  OK.

 

LEMON:  May I have the mic?  Blossom, let me tell you something.  The reason that we’re here is to validate people like you.  That is why we’re giving — but that is why we’re here.

 

BROWN:  (OFF-MIKE) your actions do not say that.

 

LEMON:  OK, but…

 

BROWN:  Not one black trans woman has taken the mic tonight.  Not one black trans man has taken the mic tonight.

 

LEMON:  Yeah.  Yeah.  Hang on.  We can’t hear you.  Blossom, we can’t hear you.  Here.  Blossom, we can’t hear you.

 

BROWN:  Baby, your actions have to speak louder than words.  Because guess what?  Not one Black trans woman has taken the mic tonight.  Not one Black trans man has taken the mic tonight.  Show me.

 

LEMON:  Blossom, Blossom…

 

BROWN:  (OFF-MIKE)

 

LEMON:  OK, thank you, I appreciate it.  Blossom, you’re a Black trans woman.  You have the mic in your hand.  I’ve given — I’ve taken it and given it back to you.  We want to hear from you. We have had trans people of color.  We have all people here.  And you’re welcome — but we — but we are proud and happy that you’re here.  We’re proud and happy that you’re here.  Yes, but, remember, we’re under a time constraint.  All right.  Thank you, Blossom, and I appreciate it.

 

BROWN:  Yeah, that’s how anti-Blackness works, amongst people of color.  That’s what anti-Blackness looks like, the erasure of Black trans people.

 

LEMON:  All right.

 

BROWN:  I’m here.  We are here in this room.  Please give us that opportunity.

 

LEMON:  Blossom, thank you so much.  And we appreciate it.  Thank you very much.  Yes, no, I got it.  There we go.

 

(APPLAUSE)

 

Congressman, please address that.  Do you want to address that?

 

O’ROURKE:  I’d be happy to.  Yeah.

 

LEMON:  Thank you, Blossom.

 

BROWN:  I just want to remind everyone that Stonewall was led by transgender women of color, and it’s 15 years later, and we’re still failing you as a community.  But there are mothers like me and other community members that are committed to change.  And so thank you for allowing that.

 

LEMON:  Thank you.

 

(APPLAUSE)

O’Rourke commended Don Lemon:  “And then I want to commend you, because after Blossom took the microphone from you, and then returned it after what she said, you acknowledged that she did not grab the mic to speak out against anybody, or to put down anybody.  She grabbed the mic to stand up for herself and other trans women of color and trans men of color that she talked about, as well.  That’s what democracy looks like in America.”


Brown later told the Los Angeles Blade that she is hoping to organize a forum specifically tackling the issues of significance to Black trans women. (Go to her Facebook page to watch for developments)

HRC President Alphonso David later tweeted an apology:

What has not been addressed is the lack of attention to lesbian, bisexual and non-binary people.

Lesbian pioneer Karla Jay, PhD, Professor Emerita of English and Women’s & Gender Studies at Pace University in New York, wrote an op-ed for the Los Angeles Blade in which she laments the missing lesbians.

“When the CNN/HRC (Human Rights Campaign) televised LGBT Town Hall ended at midnight on the East Coast, I felt more like I had survived an entire Jerry Lewis Telethon for Muscular Dystrophy (OK, this dates me) rather than an informative interchange between Democratic candidates and a lively audience.  When I unscientifically polled “Friends” on Facebook afterwards, not one of perhaps 700 lesbians admitted to having watched the event. My bluest of the blue lesbian friends visiting from Florida confessed that they had fallen asleep not far in,” she wrote.  “But it wasn’t Lesbian Nation’s fault for conking out at the remote when HRC’s questions totally ignored us.”

Yes, towards the ends, in one question “asking about medical coverage for her spouse, one woman referred to herself and her wife, and there was one bisexual and one nonbinary person,” she wrote. “For some reason, the general public and even many gay men seem to think that lesbians have no specific issues except to worry about which half of a couple will get custody of the cat after a divorce, who will win the lesbian softball tournament, and what should be brought to the vegan potluck. However, not being seen is not the same as being well off or content.”

Like straight women lesbians tend to live into old age and become victims of elder abuse, denial of services, forced to separate from a partner when seeking assisted living or at a homeless shelter. And what about reproductive health and creating a family by having “access to alternative insemination in every state, and justice for both biological and nonbiological parents in the event of a separation or divorce.

According to The Washington Post, “there are 5.5 million lesbians in the United States—most of them presumably of voting age. The robust lesbian communities in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania could turn those states blue,” Jay writes. “Reaching out to lesbians is an uncomplicated strategy that could pay big dividends.  But suggesting by omission that our lives don’t matter is a strategic error.”

Non-binary people got really short-changed. Oscar Buckland, an LA-based community college student who identifies as non-binary asked Amy Klobuchar: “In California, I am able to change my gender to X.  However, on the federal level, there is no such option.  Will you recognize third gender markers on a federal level?

“Yes.  Thank you.  I will,” she said. “And I think there’s also — you know, I think that there is a lot of work we need to do, all over the country, with driver’s licenses, as you know.  Not every state has some of the provisions that California have in place and just work on a state-by-state basis to make those changes.  So, thanks for asking the question.”

Bisexuals also received scant notice. Julian Castro said bisexuals would be included in his administration’s LGBTQ policies.

Actor/activist Sara Ramirez fumed on Twitter.

But the LGBTQ civil rights movement, which claims to seek social and economic justice, barely notices that there are more bisexuals than gay men, lesbians and trans people, according to the Williams Institute, and bisexuals are also at huge risk for poverty.

It is incumbent upon the LGBTQ community itself to raise and help solve these issues – including finding those 2 million LGBTQ unregistered voters and educating them about the historical significance of the 2020 elections.

See HRC highlights here. See CNN Live blog highlights here. Find CNN transcripts of all the town halls here.

All photos, except screen grabs, are by Daniel Sliwa for the Los Angeles Blade.

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U.S. Federal Courts

Appeals court lifts Indiana’s ban on gender care for Trans youth

“This ruling is beyond disappointing and a heartbreaking development for thousands of transgender youth, their doctors, & their families”

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Main courtroom, for the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, Indianapolis, Ind. (Photo Credit: U.S. Courts/GSA)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – The U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals today issued a stay that will lift a lower court’s injunction blocking Indiana’s gender-affirming care ban. The law, originally set to take effect on July 1, 2023, will now take effect immediately.

In June 2023, Judge Patrick Hanlon, a Trump-appointed federal judge, issued a temporary restraining order halting Indiana’s ban on gender-affirming care for transgender youth. The request for a preliminary injunction against SB 480 came in a lawsuit brought by four transgender youth and their families, as well as a doctor and health care clinic,

The law prohibits medical providers from providing gender-affirming health care to transgender youth, effective immediately.

“This ruling is beyond disappointing and a heartbreaking development for thousands of transgender youth, their doctors, and their families. As we and our clients consider our next steps, we want all the transgender youth of Indiana to know this fight is far from over and we will continue to challenge this law until it is permanently defeated and Indiana is made a safer place to raise every family,” said Ariella Sult, a spokesperson for the ACLU of Indiana in a joint statement issued with the American Civil Liberties Union on Tuesday.

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Arizona

Senator breaks with GOP: Arizona anti-trans ballot measure dies

In a stunning defeat for anti-trans activists in Arizona, SCR1013 will not appear on the November ballot in the state

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Arizona Republican state Sen. Ken Bennett (LD-1 Prescott) (Screenshot/YouTube)

By Erin Reed | PHOENIX, Ariz. – In a stunning defeat for anti-trans activists in Arizona, a major bill targeting transgender people in schools has failed. The bill, Senate Concurrent Resolution 1013, would have banned transgender students from using bathrooms matching their gender identity. It also would have forced teachers to misgender their transgender students unless parental permission was received.

Most importantly, the bill would have placed the issues on the November election ballot, bypassing Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs’ veto, which has been used against similar legislation. This represents the first major ballot referendum on transgender people that has been defeated in 2024 and could signal Republican hesitancy around the electoral impacts of such referendums.

The bill was brought forward by Sen. John Kavanaugh, who has previously sponsored other legislation targeting transgender people in schools. Sen. Kavanaugh’s district includes portions of Scottsdale, Arizona, which is notably the same city where the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) is headquartered.

The ADF has been intricately involved in the drafting and defending of anti-trans laws across the United States this year and has backed Chloe Cole, who is leading a similar referendum effort in California.

In the Senate Education Committee earlier this month, over 500 people registered opposition to the bill, and only 32 registered in favor, one of the most lopsided testimony ratios in any bill this year nationwide. Speaking against the bill in the hearing, Democratic Sen. Marsh pointed out the negative consequences that hearing such a bill would have, stating, “This will become a debate on a statewide level harming god knows how many kids and forcing them into further isolation, harassment, bullying, victimization, and vulnerability that comes. I think the effect of that will be incalculable.”

When it came time for a committee decision, Republican Sen. Ken Bennett voted in favor of the bill but stated he had concerns with the way the bill was written and that he would have trouble supporting it for final passage in the Senate.

Then, on Monday, the bill was brought forward for a final vote on the full Senate floor. Democratic senators read statements from parents and trans youth who would be impacted by the bill as the votes rolled in. Then, Republican Sen. Bennett voted “no,” explaining his vote: “I am very concerned about putting this bill to a vote of the people. These bills combined are roughly a third of the entire US Constitution. When we put things on the ballot for people to vote on them, if something goes awry, if there are unintended consequences, we have to go back to the people to fix it.”

The defeat means that in Arizona, the question will not advance to the November ballot. However, in other states, ballot measures are currently being pursued. In California, the group “Protect Kids California” has enlisted high-profile anti-trans activists such as Chloe Cole and Chris Elston to collect signatures. Measures there would out transgender students to their parents, ban them from participating in sports and using bathrooms that match their gender identity, and would ban gender-affirming care for trans youth. Similar ballot measures are also being pursued in Colorado. Nevertheless, with the defeat of SCR1013, there may be hesitancy to push for this as a major ballot issue in 2024 in a swing state like Arizona.

Anti-LGBTQ legislation is not highly popular, especially in general election contests. In the most recent school board elections in 2023, Moms for Liberty lost 70% of their school board elections, having run primarily on anti-trans issues in schools. Meanwhile, Democrats took the House and Senate in Virginia after Gov. Glenn Youngkin pushed a party platform at rallies that targeted trans youth throughout the state. Anti-trans politics have also previously failed to help Republicans in Arizona. In the 2022 governor’s race, Republicans attempted to target Gov. Katie Hobbs’ husband for providing counseling for trans youth in the closing weeks of the campaign—a gambit that failed to swing results in their favor.

That is certainly what Gaelle Esposito, a partner at Creosote Partners who has worked with major organizations supporting transgender people in the state, believes. When asked about what the bill’s defeat says in an election year, she responded, “we are also starting to see that Republicans recognize that anti-trans hatred and pure bigotry is not a big winner for them. It’s not like they have seen time and again, including here in Arizona, that this just doesn’t play well with voters. It doesn’t sit well with people.”

Esposito added a hopeful message: “The fact that we didn’t see the full force of their network trying to squeeze them to get this on the ballot shows they know it too. That they, in an election year here in Arizona, where so much is critical for them, this went down in flames… I think shows how the tide is turning in our favor.”

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

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

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Florida

Seminole artist brings queer indigenous lives into focus

“Sometimes that visual existence as a queer person in our community is enough,” Battiest said. “Sometimes it just starts with you”

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NBC journalist Jay Valle with his partner of seven years, Spencer Battiest. (Photo Credit: Spencer Battiest/Facebook)

By John McDonald | FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – There was no big announcement or meeting called in Spencer Battiest’s coming out story. 

“They all just kind of knew,” said Battiest, who at the age of 21, came out to his immediate family. “I did it on my own time. I’m not one to make anyone feel uncomfortable, I don’t like to say: ‘Come sit down family, I have something to say to you.’ That’s not how we as Native people are. We don’t have those moments.” 

Instead, the award-winning singer/songwriter/actor sensed acceptance as he brought his boyfriend to tribal functions on the Seminole reservation. There, he gradually introduced family members to his truth.

“Sometimes that visual existence as a queer person in our community is enough,” Battiest said. “Sometimes it just starts with you.”

On March 9, Battiest will receive the Harvey Milk Medal at the eighth annual Diversity Honors at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino. Initially, Battiest said he felt unworthy of such recognition, but his partner of seven years, NBC journalist Jay Valle, pointed to the impact their relationship was having among Native Americans. 

“He had some really good words for me,” Battiest said. “He reminded me that I’ve taken him to every tribal function since we’ve been together. Fully and authentically being myself and sharing with my community and family the person that I love and share my life with — sometimes just being that can be inspiring to others.” 

Battiest started performing publicly as a 4-year-old in Broken Bow, Okla., singing at his grandfather’s church. By age 11 he was belting out the National Anthem before large crowds, an honor that continues today. 

In 2011, Battiest collaborated with his brother Doc to produce The Storm, a passion project that was critically acclaimed in the Native American music industry.

“I’ll forever sing that song no matter where I go in our career because that’s the history as taught to us by our grandparents, chairmens and family.”

Although he is half Choctaw from his father, Battiest is a member of the Seminole tribe — the Indigenous people of Florida who escaped European colonization and remain unconquered to this day. 

It is on his ancestral land that a shiny new Guitar Hotel was built and inside is a display dedicated to Spencer and Doc’s award-winning work.

“I wouldn’t be in this position if it weren’t for allies like Susan Renneisen [Hard Rock VP of Community Affairs & Special Events] who has watched me progress in my career since I was 14,” said Battiest. 

As a songwriter, Battiest doesn’t shy away from heartbreak, as evidenced in his album “Stupid In Love”, and prefers to keep lyrics gender-neutral for more universal appeal. 

“I write from a place of truth and honesty,” he said.  “As queer indigenous people, we’ve lived in a space where it hasn’t always been great.” 

Expressing vulnerability is part of the authenticity Harvey Milk proclaimed when he famously declared, “Hope will never be silent.” For Battiest that means striking the right balance. 

“I try to find harmony and peace in the life that I’ve lived and to be an example for anyone who sees me and that includes the struggle, insecurity and negative responses that come with being a queer person especially living out here in this state,” he said. “You have to find the harmony and peace that’s within yourself and for me that’s my family, tribe and partner.” 

Diversity Honors is scheduled for Saturday, March 9 at 7 p.m. and includes a cocktail reception, seated dinner and after party at the Guitar Hotel.

For tickets or more information, call (954) 463-9005, ext. 105 or visit www.diversityhonors.org.

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John McDonald is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Oregon. He has written for many publications over the course of a 29-year career that started as a high school football writer in Troy, Alabama. His memoir, Slice of Good Ol Boy Life, is available on Amazon. 

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Texas

Texas High School cancels play about Matthew Shepard

“As a queer student in this show, I’m livid it’s been cancelled not once, but 2X. People in KISD should not have the right to discriminate”

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A Timber Creek High School theatre production dress rehearsal. (File Photo Credit: Timber Creek High School - Keller ISD/Facebook)

FORT WORTH, Texas – In an email sent out to students and parents last week, officials of Timber Creek High School in suburban Ft. Worth announced that student-led production of The Laramie Project — a play about the aftermath of the 1998 murder of 21-year-old University of Wyoming freshman Matthew Shepard was cancelled.

According to The Dallas Morning News:

In the brief email to families, school leaders said they are “working on developing an alternative production opportunity for our students.” Keller Independent School District spokesman Bryce Nieman said in a statement that the decision was “made by many stakeholders.”

“The decision to move forward with another production at Timber Creek High School was based on the desire to provide a performance similar to the ones that have created much excitement from the community, like this year’s Keller ISD musical productions of Mary Poppins and White Christmas,” Nieman wrote in an email.

The Dallas Morning News also reported that parents were not given an explanation when they were informed the show was cancelled. “We understand that it is unusual for a production change like this to take place. Students will still have an opportunity to read, discuss, and analyze the play during the school day,” Nieman’s email read. 

Judy Shepard, told the paper she was disappointed. “My heart is broken when people still refuse to see how important this work is,” she said. Judy and her husband Dennis founded the Denver, Colorado-based Matthew Shepard Foundation in the months after their son’s murder 25 years ago.

The Laramie Project, written by Moisés Kaufman, is one of the many programs endorsed by the Foundation in its ongoing effort to advocate for LGBTQ+ youth and has been performed tens of thousands of times globally since it premiered at The Ricketson Theatre by the Denver Center Theatre Company in February of 2000.

The Matthew Shepard Foundation provides help and resources for those wishing to produce The Laramie Project or The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later. The Foundation’s Laramie Project Specialist can help with media, historical context, creative consulting, and other resources and services at no charge to non-profit theatres and educational and religious institutions. The Foundation can also help those who wish to engage their communities in a conversation about how to erase hate in the world.

A Change.org petition was started to get the Keller ISD administrators to reconsider their decision. A signer and Timber High School drama and theatre student who identified himself as Danny Street commented:

“As a queer student in this show, I am absolutely livid that it has been cancelled not once, but TWICE. My freshman year we were meant to perform Laramie, and it was changed right before auditions. KISD has been continuously pushing their anti-lgbtq agenda these past few years and it’s hurtful and uncalled for. This year alone we have given teachers “the right” to not call transgender students by their preferred name, which is a problem I have to face daily. The people in our district should not have the right to discriminate against its queer students. Let us tell this story, if you don’t then you are proving you’re on the wrong side of history and you stand right with the bigots who caused the demise of Matthew Shepard. Protect queer kids and queer art in schools.”

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National

Libs of TikTok’s Raichik says Washington Post reporter is a “lizard”

Chaya Raichik is livid after this weekend’s Washington Post interview revealed her to be an admitted and unrepentant liar

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Libs of TikTok is interviewed by Washington Post journalist Taylor Lorenz.in California. (Screenshot/YouTube The Washington Post)

By Joe Jervis | NEW YORK – Libs Of TikTok creator Chaya Raichik is livid after this weekend’s Washington Post interview revealed her to be an admitted and unrepentant liar who revels in accusations of having incited terrorism, which Raichik says makes her feel “important.”

Today she writes this about the reporter Taylor Lorenz: 

– she’s not at all concerned about our open border and millions of people invading our country
– she’s pro mutilation and castration of minors
– she wants p*rn in schools
– she wants the media to be allowed to defame me with impunity
– she wants me to be responsible for all reactions, comments, and actions that happen after I post a tiktok but doesn’t want to take responsibility for what happens after her reporting on me
– she’s a lizard person
– she’s scared of people knowing her age
– she’s still wearing a mask outdoors in 2024

Lorenz has said she is immuno-compromised. Of note, “lizard person” is a common QAnon claim about people they accuse of pedophilia. Many of them actually believe in literal so-called “reptilians.”

Libs also tweeted:

RELATED

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Joe Jervis is a senior editor and veteran journalist whose Joe.My.God blog reaches nearly 1.5 million visitors every month as he covers issues of importance to the LGBTQ+ community.

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Texas

Abbott: UN can ‘pound sand’ amid criticism of anti-LGBTQ policies

Letter issued last month to the United Nations that expressed alarm over the “deteriorating human rights situation” for LGBTQ Texans

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Texas Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signs the “Save Women’s Sports Act” on Aug. 7, 2023. (Photo courtesy of the Office of the Governor)

AUSTIN, Texas – Gov. Greg Abbott (R) on Sunday dismissed news coverage of a letter issued last month to the United Nations that expressed alarm over the “deteriorating human rights situation” for LGBTQ people in the Lone Star State.

Signed by Equality Texas, ACLU of Texas, GLAAD, the Human Rights Campaign, and the University of Texas at Austin School of Law Human Rights Clinic, the letter details how Texas legislators introduced 141 bills targeting the LGBTQ community, passing seven into law.

“The UN can go pound sand,” Abbott wrote in a post on X.

Related

In 2023, the governor signed a ban on gender affirming care for transgender youth, a ban on diversity, equity, and inclusion programs at public universities, a ban on transgender athletes competing in college sports, a law allowing schools to use religious chaplains for counseling services, a ban on “sexually oriented performances” on public property accessible to minors (which targets drag shows), a law allowing schools to restrict LGBTQ books, and a ban on nondiscrimination ordinances by local governments.

The groups argued in their letter that these policies constitute a “systemic discriminatory policy” in violation of international human rights laws, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a multilateral treaty whose tenets are enforced by the UN Human Rights Committee.

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Texas

One less safe space: The impact of UT-Austin’s new DEI ban

The new state law prohibits public universities from having diversity, equity & inclusion programs. Students say schools are overcorrecting

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Lecturer Paige Schilt planned to talk about how to find mentors as an LGBTQ student navigating higher education for the first time, but her talk was replaced with another lecture after UT-Austin’s legal office had raised concerns the lecture could violate SB 17. (Photo Credit: Maria Crane/The Texas Tribune)

By Kate McGee and Ikram Mohamed | AUSTIN, Texas – Aaliyah Barlow needed to raise $20,000 by the end of the month.

As president of the University of Texas at Austin’s Black Student Alliance, a student group, the junior is in charge of securing funding for three dozen of her peers to attend an annual conference for Black student leaders within the Big 12 Athletic Conference. For months, she’s been asking different colleges and departments within the university to sponsor their travel, as they’ve always done before.

But this year, it’s been crickets.

President Jay Hartzell’s office — usually their largest supporter — didn’t return emails, she said. Neither did other typically supportive departments. At least one other department flatly said no.

She was told it was because of Senate Bill 17, the new state law that bans diversity, equity and inclusion offices, programs and training in Texas public universities.

As of Friday, Barlow said she and her peers have raised about $6,000, which will cover half the students originally set on attending. Instead of renting a bus, they now plan to drive the 14-hour trip. Or they’ll meet up with another school along the way to take their bus to the conference.

“It’s been really frustrating, especially since we’ve been getting money from these places every single year,” Barlow said. “We’re just a student organization … so I assumed we’d be okay. But that’s not the case, unfortunately.”

Students walk past the former Multicultural Engagement Center during a passing period on Feb. 20, 2024.
Students walk past the former Multicultural Engagement Center during a passing period on Feb. 20, 2024. (Photo Credit: Maria Crane/The Texas Tribune)

Situations like Barlow’s are playing out on college campuses across the state. At UT-Austin in particular, feelings have been fraught with students and advocates saying the school is going above and beyond what’s required by the state’s DEI ban.

Since the law went into effect at the beginning of this year, UT-Austin has closed a beloved multicultural center that housed several student organizations sponsored by the school and ended a scholarship program for undocumented students. This month, the undergraduate college canceled a lecture on finding mentors in higher education through the lens of the LGBTQ student experience after university lawyers argued it could be construed as diversity training. Some students say university officials have gone back on their word, often with little explanation, after promising that certain programs would not be impacted by the ban.

“I don’t think people even understood for real what it was until January 1, when they came back and they noticed the [Division of Diversity and Student Engagement] is not here anymore. They noticed the Multicultural Engagement Center letters have been ripped off the wall of this room,” Barlow said. “It wasn’t taken seriously because I don’t think people really understood how severe it was until it was already in effect and it was too late.”

Critics of the law say the ban’s language is vague and universities’ legal teams are advising their clients to play it safe with their interpretation of it. They believe the tendency is to overcorrect, which is ultimately harming students and faculty.

“It’s becoming a tool to usher in a colorblind university system in a way that is evasive of the history of race discrimination, evasive of state-sanctioned exclusion, not to mention attacks on the queer community,” said Antonio Ingram II, a lawyer with the Legal Defense Fund, a Washington, D.C.-based legal organization that focuses on racial justice.

UT-Austin officials have provided little information to students and faculty who have demanded more transparency about how they are interpreting the law. They did not respond to interview requests or a list of written questions.

Amid that silence, students are scrambling to fill the financial gaps and continue traditions the university used to support.

Aaliyah Barlow helps to lead the Black Student Alliance meeting at the University of Texas at Austin on Feb. 19, 2024.
Aaliyah Barlow helps to lead the Black Student Alliance meeting at the University of Texas at Austin on Feb. 19, 2024. (Photo Credit: Maria Crane/The Texas Tribune)

Texas’ DEI ban

Early last year, conservative think tanks started to home in on DEI offices, accusing them of indoctrinating students with left-wing ideology and forcing universities to hire people based on how much they support diversity efforts rather than on merit and achievement. Republican lawmakers agreed and have introduced legislation targeting these offices across the country. Texas became the second state to ban DEI offices, programs and training at public universities, following Florida.

“DEI programs have been shown to be exclusive, they have been shown to be ineffective and they have shown to be politically charged,” state Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, the ban’s author, said on the Senate floor last year. “Many of these programs have been weaponized to compel speech instead of protecting free speech.”

Over the past few years, DEI offices have become increasingly common at universities. They are typically charged with boosting faculty diversity and helping students from all backgrounds succeed.

These offices often coordinate mentorships, tutoring and support programs to help students from underrepresented groups feel welcome and find a community on their campuses. They also provide spaces for a wide range of student groups to gather, from students of color and LGBTQ students to students with disabilities and veterans. In addition, these offices help departments cast a wide net when searching for job candidates and ensure that universities don’t violate federal discrimination laws.

Student talk, sit and read on the South Mall a the University of Texas at Austin on Feb. 22, 2024. The UT Tower is located north of the South Mall.
Students gather at the University of Texas at Austin’s South Mall on Feb. 22, 2024. 
(Photo Credit: Maria Crane/The Texas Tribune)

Faculty and students have argued that banning universities’ DEI efforts would make it harder to recruit and retain top faculty and could lead some students to feel unwelcome and unsafe on campus. They also argue it walks back years of progress toward making sure that everyone, especially underrepresented students or those previously barred from entry, can succeed in school.

Texas’ DEI ban states that public colleges and universities cannot create diversity offices, hire employees to conduct DEI work, or require any DEI training as a condition for being hired by or admitted to the university. All hiring practices must be “color-blind and sex-neutral,” the law says.

The law also lists some areas that it should not affect, including course instruction, faculty research, student organizations, guest speakers, data collection or admissions. It specifies that it does not apply to any “policy, practice, procedure, program, or activity to enhance student academic achievement or postgraduate outcomes that is designed and implemented without regard to race, sex, color, or ethnicity.”

In preparation for the law’s implementation, UT-Austin administrators shared with students and employees guidance from the University of Texas System, which oversees the school, about what is permitted under the ban. For instance, system guidance states that while student organizations are exempt from prohibitions, some of those groups may shut down based on the extent of institutional support they receive from the university.

“As with all new laws, I fully expect that there will be divided opinions on our campus about both the law itself and its eventual impacts on our University,” Hartzell wrote in a December letter to the campus community. “But it is the law, and with compassion and respect for all of our community members, we will comply.”

Students walk in and out of the William C. Powers Student Activity Center at the University of Texas at Austin on Feb. 22, 2024. A sign saying 'Make it Your Texas' is on the windows above the entrance.
A sign reads “Make it Your Texas” above the entrance of the William C. Powers Student Activity Center at the University of Texas at Austin. 
(Photo Credit: Maria Crane/The Texas Tribune)

“What they said wouldn’t happen, happened”

The DEI ban’s exclusions led students like Guadalupe — a UT-Austin junior who is undocumented and asked to be identified only by her middle name out of fear of making her immigration status public — to believe that some of the programs she relied on throughout her time at the university would not be affected.

She mentioned the Monarch Program, which provided support and scholarships to students from undocumented families or with fluid immigration statuses. It was founded in 2016 by a UT-Austin graduate student, but the university took it over, hiring its first full-time employee in 2021 and funneling university funding for the first time just last year.

Guadalupe stumbled into the program shortly after her laptop died three years ago, a few weeks into her freshman year. She was able to borrow a laptop through Monarch’s technology lending library until she saved enough money to buy a new one. Ever since, she’s worked with the program to help other students like her stay in school and graduate.

But last month, UT-Austin eliminated the program without a public explanation. According to The Dallas Morning News, internal documents show UT-Austin believed the program violated the state’s DEI ban and federal law.

Guadalupe said she was surprised UT-Austin ended the program, especially because university officials gave students reassurances last fall that SB 17 would not affect it. She’s also frustrated the university didn’t give the program a chance to adjust to the new law.

“All these different programs were being [told], ‘This is how your program does not comply with SB 17, this is what you need to change,’” she said. “And that was just not a conversation that was had about Monarch.”

Students also argue SB 17 should not apply to the Monarch Program since it did not implement any race or gender-based programming.

“People who are undocumented come from very different backgrounds,” Guadalupe said. “You can’t just point at undocumented folks and be like, ‘oh, this is specifically like [for] the Latino community or the … Asian community,’ because it’s a very diverse group.”

In late January, a group of university department chairs sent a letter to UT administrators asking for clarity about the decision to end the Monarch Program.

“We recognize the immense challenges that SB 17 has created for your offices, but we hope that the process of compliance will not result in throwing out too many babies with the proverbial bath water,” the professors wrote.

They did not receive a response.

Since Monarch was canceled, a student-run organization called Rooted, which also provides support for undocumented students, has taken over some of the services that the program used to provide.

Victoria Uriostegui poses for a photo in the Student Services Building at the University of Texas at Austin on Feb. 20, 2024. The wall behind them reads, "You belong here."
Victoria Uriostegui at the Student Services Building at the University of Texas at Austin on Feb. 20, 2024. The wall behind them reads, “You belong here.” 
(Photo Credit: Maria Crane/The Texas Tribune)

Victoria Uriostegui, a UT-Austin junior and a member of Rooted, said watching the university eliminate Monarch without warning or explanation was exactly the kind of repercussions she warned lawmakers about when she testified against SB 17 at the Texas Capitol last year.

“What they said wouldn’t happen, happened,” she said. “Programs that were not supposed to be impacted are impacted. And I think that’s just what makes it more infuriating that many students continually testified about these chilling effects. Now we’re seeing them come.”

One less safe space

Aneesha Tadikonda felt seen in the university’s Multicultural Engagement Center.

Home to six student groups — Afrikan American Affairs; the Asian Desi Pacific Islander American Collective; the Latinx Community Affairs; the Native American and Indigenous Collective; Queer and Trans Black Indigenous People of Color Agency; and Students for Equity and Diversity — the center served as a meeting place for students of various underrepresented backgrounds and identities.

When she was a freshman, it was a place she felt comfortable asking for help as she navigated the daunting first year of college. Staffers there knew she wanted to go to medical school and would send her free study guides for the exam required to apply and discount codes for study materials. She made friends through movie screenings and book clubs. But she especially loved the opportunity to network with other Asian American students and leaders on and off campus.

“I heavily depended on [the center] for finding a community of people that had the same goals as me,” Tadikonda said. “Outside of class, that’s very difficult to find, especially as someone who’s really involved with activism and their identity.”

Students like Tadikonda were shocked when they learned early this year that the center was abruptly shut down in response to the state’s DEI ban. The university didn’t send out any formal communication to students regarding the center’s closure.

When students returned to campus from winter break, the space was still open for students to work in, but the staff was gone and the center’s name was removed. Since the ban does not apply to student organizations, the culturally specific groups once housed within the center were allowed to continue operating, but only if they disaffiliated from the university and stopped receiving financial support from the school.

Just like with the Monarch Program, students said the MEC didn’t get a chance to make changes to comply with SB 17. The center’s staff was given notice of the center’s closure about 10 days before the ban went into effect, students said.

Students are demanding that the university reestablishes the center in a way that’s compliant with SB 17. They feel that shutting down the center went beyond the requirements of the law and pointed out that other Texas universities, like the University of Texas at San Antonio and the University of North Texas, kept their versions of the center open.

“I think our proximity to the Capitol is a large part of it. I think donors are a large part of it. But I would 100% say it’s an over-compliance,” said Kelly Solis, a UT-Austin senior and co-director of Latinx Community Affairs.

Kelly Solis poses for a photo in the former Multicultural Engagement Center on Feb. 20, 2024. Solis is a senior at the University of Texas at Austin and Co-director of the Latinx Community Affairs organization.
Kelly Solis, a senior at the University of Texas at Austin and co-director of the Latinx Community Affairs organization, at the former Multicultural Engagement Center on Feb. 20, 2024. 
(Photo Credit: Maria Crane/The Texas Tribune)

The MEC was originally founded in 1988 by students who felt the university lacked proper support systems for Black and Hispanic students. Ten years later, the university’s Office of Student Affairs absorbed the center and gave it two full-time staff members.

The MEC’s abrupt closure has left students with the burden of preserving programs that previously received university funding and have been essential to their college experience.

That includes one of the most anticipated events that the six student groups within the MEC helped organize each year: cultural graduation ceremonies, which are smaller celebrations hosted for Black, Hispanic and LGBTQ students, among others.

“It’s such a big accomplishment when you come to UT, and maybe as a first generation student or a child of immigrants … and be away from home for the first time,” Tadikonda said. “It breaks my heart that now we have to work 100 times harder just to give people what they deserve, to give them the recognition that they might not get in a university-wide graduation.”

Organizers said these ceremonies highlight themes, like family, that are important for the groups they represent and that aren’t always part of university-wide graduations. For instance, families are invited to participate in GraduAsian, the ceremony that commemorates the achievements of Asian students. In the past, speakers have publicly thanked them for attending and helping graduates through their college journey.

The former Multicultural Engagement Center on Feb. 20, 2024. While some DEI wall art has been removed from the space, others remain.
The former Multicultural Engagement Center on Feb. 20, 2024. While some DEI wall art has been removed from the space, others remain. (Photo Credit: Maria Crane/The Texas Tribune)

The student groups that used to be housed at the MEC now say they’re unclear if they can even reserve space on campus to host their events.

“People are scared, people who work for the university,” Solis said. “They might want to give us money or might want to provide resources in some way for our events, but don’t know if they can. So just out of fear, uncertainty and a lack of transparency, they might just say, ‘Sorry, we can’t provide anything at this time.’”

The student groups have created GoFundMe pages seeking donations to help cover the expenses of hosting celebrations for this year’s graduating class. The university’s alumni organization, Texas Exes, recently announced that they’d host cultural graduations for students, according to The Daily Texan.

Ariana Seeloff, a senior and co-director of the Afrikan American Affairs Collective, said this particular class — whose high school graduations were disrupted by COVID in 2020 — are determined to host these celebrations.

“To have this happen four years later, and not be able to have a proper send-off from college for these degrees that we’ve worked so hard to earn, it’s unimaginable,” she said. “This senior class deserves to be celebrated.”

But students say it’s unclear what will happen to culturally specific graduations after this year.

Lecture or training?

Paige Schilt, a former lecturer at UT-Austin, was thrilled when she was invited by the university’s undergraduate college to give a talk this semester about how to find a mentor as a student navigating higher education for the first time.

Schilt, a therapist, teacher and writer, planned to lean on her own personal experience as a LGBTQ student as she found ways to advocate for herself as a scholar. Staff and administrators were excited about the lecture, she said.

But in mid-January she got an email saying that UT-Austin’s legal office had raised concerns the lecture could violate SB 17 because it “would fall within a prohibited training, activity, or program.”

SB 17 prohibits mandatory diversity training, which is defined as training developed in reference to race, color or gender identity. But Schilt said her lecture was not training. SB 17 does not prohibit any DEI-related scholarly research or creative work, and faculty are still allowed to share it on campus.

Schilt said she tried to work with the undergraduate college to shift the lecture’s format and instead give a reading from her memoir in progress in the hope of appeasing the university’s lawyers, but was unsuccessful. Ultimately, her talk was replaced with another lecture.

“I was really sad and discouraged to think that this law was having such a chilling effect, that basically any person from one of the marginalized communities targeted by SB 17 speaking from their own experience was now, by definition, a training,” she said.

Lecturer Paige Schilt poses for a photo outside of the the Center for Women's & Gender Studies on Feb. 19, 2024. The CWGS room is located inside of Burdine Hall.
Lecturer Paige Schilt planned to talk about how to find mentors as an LGBTQ student navigating higher education for the first time, but her talk was replaced with another lecture after UT-Austin’s legal office had raised concerns the lecture could violate SB 17. 
(Photo Credit: Maria Crane/The Texas Tribune)

Lauren Gutterman, an American Studies professor who focuses on LGBTQ issues, said she felt the university’s response to Schilt’s lecture was a misinterpretation of the law.

“This makes no sense to me as the lecture was not a training, it was not required, and it was not limited to any one group of students,” she said. “The only grounds I can see for their concern is that it had to do with LGBTQ+ issues.”

Schilt, who taught a class on LGBTQ history at UT-Austin last semester, said it was painful to watch students’ disappointment and sadness last semester when the university reorganized the Gender and Sexuality Center, which is now called the Women’s Community Center.

“As a teacher who had a strong connection with my students, it was really hard to kind of help them navigate through all the feelings that they were having about, ‘what does this mean about how welcome I am here?’” she said.

Who will carry the torch? 

In his December message to the UT-Austin community, Hartzell said he would follow up with students in January regarding the implementation of SB 17. He hasn’t done so as of late February.

While student groups are trying to fill in the gaps left by the loss of university resources, they worry about who will help incoming students feel supported and welcomed on campus next year. Many of the students leading these groups will graduate in May.

Student walk up the steps from Speedway towards the UT Tower at the University of Texas at Austin on Feb. 22, 2024.
Students walk up the steps toward the UT Tower on Feb. 22, 2024. 
(Photo Credit: Maria Crane/The Texas Tribune)

Guadalupe said entering college can be a stressful and isolating experience. She said she’s scared for underrepresented students who won’t have access to safe places to gather on campus like she did.

“Having not had their support and their resources, my college experience would be completely different,” she said. “I think about how much more they’re going to struggle.”

The Texas Tribune partners with Open Campus on higher education coverage.

Disclosure: Texas Exes, University of Texas at Austin and University of Texas System have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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Kate McGee’s staff photo

Kate McGee covers higher education for The Texas Tribune. She joined the Tribune in October 2020 after nearly a decade as a reporter at public radio stations across the country, including in Chicago; Washington, D.C.; Austin; Reno, Nevada; and New York. Kate was born in New York City and raised primarily in New Jersey. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Fordham University. Her work has appeared on NPR’s “Morning Edition,” “All Things Considered,” “Here and Now,” and “The Takeaway.” She is based in Austin.

Ikram Mohamed’s staff photo

Ikram Mohamed is a 2024 reporting fellow and a fourth-year journalism and sociology student pursuing a human rights and social justice certificate at the University of Texas at Austin, where she worked at her campus newspaper, The Daily Texan. A Pflugerville native, Ikram previously interned with the Austin Chronicle, Texas Observer and Texas Monthly. She speaks fluent Somali and Swahili.

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

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National

Video: Washington Post grills transphobic Libs of TikTok creator

Libs of TikTok creator Chaya Raichik said she doesn’t believe in gender-affirming care & espouses other anti-LGBTQ+ viewpoints

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Chaya Raichik, founder of Libs of TikTok is interviewed by Washington Post journalist Taylor Lorenz.in California. (Screenshot/YouTube The Washington Post)

LOS ANGELES – Grilled on a range of topics during an interview with Washington Post journalist Taylor Lorenz, Chaya Raichik, spoke about the great replacement theory, the death of Nex Benedict, a 16-year-old nonbinary in high school student in Oklahoma, why she won’t delete her false accusations about the Uvalde shooter and other mass-shooters, her views on gender, feminism and more.

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U.S. Federal Courts

Guilty verdict in first federal trial of murder based on gender identity

After a four-day trial a jury found a South Carolina man, Daqua Lameek Ritter, guilty of all charges in the indictment

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Dime Doe (Family photo)

COLUMBIA, S.C. — A federal jury handed down a guilty verdict of a man accused of murdering a Black transgender female in what is classified as the first in the nation federal trial over a hate crime based on gender identity.

After a four-day trial in a federal hate crime case, a jury found a South Carolina man, Daqua Lameek Ritter, guilty of all charges in the indictment, which included one hate crime count, one federal firearms count, and one obstruction count, all arising out of the murder of Dime Doe, a transgender woman.

“Acts of violence against LGBTQI+ people, including transgender women of color like Dime Doe, are on the rise and have no place in our society,” said Acting Associate Attorney General Benjamin C. Mizer. “The Justice Department takes seriously all bias-motivated acts of violence and will not hesitate to hold accountable those who commit them. No one should have to live in fear of deadly violence because of who they are.”

According to court documents and the U.S. Attorney’s Office, evidence presented at trial showed that Ritter was upset that rumors about his sexual relationship with Dime Doe were out in the community. On Aug. 4, 2019, the defendant lured Doe to a remote area in Allendale, South Carolina, and shot her three times in the head. At trial, the government proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Ritter murdered Doe because of her gender identity. Ritter then burned the clothes he was wearing during the crime, disposed of the murder weapon, and repeatedly lied to law enforcement. 

This was the first trial under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act for violence against a transgender person. The Shepard-Byrd Act is a landmark federal statute passed in 2009 which allows federal criminal prosecution of hate crimes motivated by the victim’s actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.

“A unanimous jury has found the defendant guilty for the heinous and tragic murder of Dime Doe, a Black transgender woman,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “The jury’s verdict sends a clear message: Black trans lives matter, bias-motivated violence will not be tolerated, and perpetrators of hate crimes will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. This case is historic; this defendant is the first to be found guilty by trial verdict for a hate crime motivated by gender identify under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. We want the Black trans community to know that you are seen and heard, that we stand with the LGBTQI+ community, and that we will use every tool available to seek justice for victims and their families.”

Ritter faces a maximum penalty of life in prison. A sentencing hearing will be scheduled at a later date. A federal district court judge will determine any sentence after considering the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and other statutory factors.

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Oklahoma

Oklahoma state senator says LGBTQ+ people are “filth”

The Tahlequah Daily Press newspaper reported several audience members clapped, while others appeared shocked

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Oklahoma Republican state Sen. Tom Woods (Screenshot/YouTube)

TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – Republican state Sen. Tom Woods took part in a public legislative panel forum Friday Feb 23rd during which the panel was asked by a constituent about the death of Nex Benedict, a 16-year-old non-binary Owasso High School student, who had been attacked and beaten in a school bathroom.

The Oklahoma Voice reported that Cathy Cott, a 64-year-old semi-retired resident, asked the lawmakers why the Legislature had such an obsession with the LGBTQ+ citizens of the state, what people do in their personal lives and how they raise their children, according to the Tahlequah Daily Press, which first reported the remarks.

When she got no answer, she asked about the bills targeting the LGBTQ+ community.

“Why does the Legislature have such an obsession with the LGBTQ citizens of Oklahoma and what people do in their personal lives and how they raise their children?” Cott asked.

Woods replied, “We are a Republican state – supermajority – in the House and Senate. I represent a constituency that doesn’t want that filth in Oklahoma. You know we are a religious state. We are going to fight and keep that filth out of the state of Oklahoma because we’re a Christian state”

The Tahlequah Daily Press also reported several audience members clapped, while others appeared shocked.

Cott said in an interview with Oklahoma Voice that she was not surprised by Woods’ answer.

Cott said she has many family and friends who are LGBTQ+.

“I have dealt with other state representatives and senators and been to lobby day and tried to advocate for the LGBTQ+ community when I can so I am used to it,” she said. “They haven’t said anything like this to me before where they describe citizens of the state as filth, but they let me know they just don’t care.”

She said Woods’ remarks absolutely contribute to the hostile climate in the state for the LGBTQ+ community.

Prior to his election to his seat to represent Oklahoma’s 4th Senate district in 2022, Woods was a farmer and business owner. He ran a dairy farm, feed store, and trucking company. His district runs along the eastern border of Oklahoma from West Fort Smith, Okla. to Grove, and runs into Tahlequah.

Another Republican, state Sen. Dewayne Pemberton, a former teacher, told the audience he’s always seen educators’ jobs as “to educate students, not indoctrinate students.”

In a statement to the Blade, Brandon Wolf, the National Press Secretary for the Human Rights Campaign said:

The only “filth” here is this vile statement from a sitting state senator. This is the kind of hate speech that incites deadly violence against our communities. This is what we mean when we say that the flames of dehumanization and hate have been fanned in Oklahoma. Enough is enough. There needs to be accountability for this climate of hate — and the damage being done.”

Sarah Kate Ellis, the CEO and president of GLAAD told the Blade:

“Enough is enough. Oklahoma’s Republican leaders are continuing to nurture a climate of anti-LGBTQ animus, modeling disgusting anti-LGBTQ rhetoric, questioning our very humanity, attacking marginalized youth and educators who support them, and improperly handling bullying and assaults at school. Leaders with a bully pulpit have the power to inspire empathy and understanding, but they also have the power to inspire hate, bullying, and physical attacks. These so-called leaders fomenting hate, Sen. Tom Woods, Superintendent Ryan Walters, Governor Kevin Stitt are failing Oklahoma’s youth in dangerous and myriad ways.”

There has been national outage in reaction to the death of Benedict. Vice President Kamala Harris, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, House Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) are among those in leadership decrying the death and the political climate that LGBTQ+ advocacy groups say have been contributing factors.

Human Rights Campaign President Kelley Robinson has called for federal investigations by the U.S. Justice and Education Departments.

In her social media post, the Vice-President said: “My heart goes out to Nex Benedict’s family, friends, and their entire community. To the LGBTQI+ youth who are hurting and are afraid right now: President Joe Biden and I see you, we stand with you, and you are not alone.”

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

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