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Kevin Jennings: new leadership at Lambda Legal

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Kevin Jennings is not a lawyer so why was he tapped to lead Lambda Legal, one of the LGBTQ community’s most important national organizations?

“Well that was sort of what I said when Lambda called me,” Jennings told the Los Angles Blade by phone before officially starting on Dec. 2. “They said, ‘We’re not looking for a lawyer. We have lots of brilliant lawyers. We’re looking for an experienced organizational leader,’ — and that I am. I’ve been a leader of the LGBT movement for over 30 years and this is really a critical time for a movement, particularly for Lambda. The right wing has a very clear strategy to use the court and all of [President]Trump’s horrific judicial appointments to roll back everything we’ve won over the last 40 years. Lambda is going to be a key player in stopping that.”

Jennings is “very excited” to be taking the helm at this pivotal juncture.

“Everything I’ve been working for my entire adult life since I marched in my first Pride in 1986 is at risk now.  We’re in real danger of losing things that we thought just a few years ago were safe. I’m very excited to be part of the resistance and making sure that doesn’t happen,” says Jennings, best known as the founder of GLSEN and assistant deputy secretary for the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools at the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration.

Jennings boldly underscores the lights up and pounds home the point.

“The right wing is coming for us through the courts,” he says. “This is their whole strategy. They’ve been planning this. People think a lot of things about the right wing — they are not stupid. Never underestimate them. They know exactly what they are doing. They are coming for us through the courts, and we know that, and we are waiting and we are ready.”

Jennings intends to emphasize the education aspect of Lambda’s incorporated name — Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund.

“The courts are going to be the central battleground,” Jennings says. “Much of what we’ve won could be taken away through the courts. It doesn’t matter if you’re a lawyer right now. The courts are where it’s at and everybody needs to be paying attention to what’s happening in the courts.”

Jennings points to Jay Sekulow, head of the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), as “the mastermind of the right wing litigation strategies” and ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council) as producer of their model legislation.

“They have very carefully invested over 50 years to build a whole infrastructure of organizations,” Jennings says. “They have the Federalist Society, where they have built a very sophisticated infrastructure that identifies young people in law school and begins training them and grooming them and preparing them for court appointments. They’re brilliant at what they do. I will give them credit. They play a long game. We’ve got to be just as smart on our side because they make strategic investments that they expect to pay off in 10, 20, 30, 40 years, and we’ve got to be just as strategic on our side.

“What they’re doing right now is they are reaping the investments with people like [Supreme Court Justice] Brett Kavanaugh, investments they made decades ago. We’ve got to be doing the same thing. We’ve got to be investing in long term change in the same way they are,” says Jennings.

As a national leader and forever a teacher at heart, Jennings knows how to listen to the community’s needs and frustrations, including about the past several years at Lambda.

“I plan to build a plan for the organization that responds to those concerns and frustrations,” he says. “I know that there is a real need to address people’s frustrations that are out there and I come in aware of that and prepared to listen to those and to address them.”

The larger context for Jennings’ plan is Lambda’s 46-year history and its “very well documented track record of success” plus Jennings’ own superlative track record as a leader in the LGBTQ community for over three decades. Additionally, Jennings’ own story adds that degree of authenticity that he personally grasps LGBTQ issues that are too often overlooked or overshadowed.

“I grew up in a trailer park on an unpaved dirt road in an unincorporated town in rural North Carolina in a single parent family,” Jennings says. “My mother worked in fast food restaurants and cleaned people’s houses. That’s how she supported us. My entire childhood was below the poverty line. I was the first person in my family to graduate from college. I understand the needs of our community members who are struggling with poverty and other factors in a firsthand visceral way because I’ve lived there.”

Jennings intends to put his decades of experience to public use.

“We’ve got to help people understand the issues and explain them and teach people, and I think that that is where I, because of my background as an educator, can contribute a great deal to Lambda. We have to not just educate judges, we have to educate the public. We have to work in both the court of law and the court of public opinion.”

Jennings is intent on developing coalitions to strengthen the LGBTQ hand.

“Probably because I was a teacher, I believe strongly in the concept of playing well with others, and the leaders in this movement know me as someone who believes in the power of collaboration,” Jennings says. “Lambda already has a strong record of collaborating with other organizations and I plan to build off that reputation, as well as my own track record of collaborating with other organizations to strengthen those relationships because I believe that our movement is at its best when we’re all working together. We each have unique roles to play and when we’re collaborating and leveraging each others’ strengths, it makes the whole community stronger.”

He acknowledges that Lambda Legal has not always lived up to that reputation, such as at times during the up and down struggle over marriage equality.

“Prop 8 was a dark chapter in many ways in our community,” he says. But he emphasizes Lambda’s long participation in the Legal Round Table, which brings together all of the various groups that do litigation.

“I think that structures like that — bringing people together so that there is dialogue and people are trying to collaborate — are really important and I’m really committed to keeping those structures going and building even more of them.”

Out of that dialogue will come new strategies to deal with the shifting legal landscape of the Trump administration packing the courts with young lifetime appointees.

“Trump’s nominees fill one quarter of the seats on the nation’s Circuit Court of Appeals. He has seen more Circuit Court judges confirmed, more by this point in his presidency than any other past president in U.S. history,” says Jennings. “They have packed the courts systematically and carefully under Trump and they still have at least 14 months to go. The landscape has shifted dramatically against us, and we need to recognize that means that we are going to have to focus on developing a very robust distinct strategy.”

Given Trump’s legal legacy, victory for the LGBTQ community may look very differently for many years to come.

“Victory, on one level, is going to consist of stopping horrific things from happening,” says Jennings. “We’re going to have to be very selective and very strategic in how we use litigation to try to advance a proactive agenda.

“We’re going to have to be strategic in two ways,” Jennings continues. “Our selection of which circuits we bring cases in, and what arguments we make because in some circuits, we are going to be DOA [dead on arrival] because they have appointed such extremist judges. And we are going to be facing judges who subscribe to very different philosophies than the ones we have been used to encountering. We are going to have to make new kinds of targeting.”

Jennings says he’s “completely confident” in Lambda’s brilliant attorneys. “But we’re going to have to be very strategic when we are trying to advance good things,” he says. “We’re going to have to have a surgical approach to advance any positive things. It was never easy, but it has gotten exponentially harder, thanks to Trump.”

Kevin Jennings with the Concord GSA at the 1993 March on Washington (Photo courtesy Jennings)

Jennings cites his experience at GLSEN as an example of strategically reframing the argument.

“25 years ago when we were trying to get Gay/Straight Alliances [GSAs] instituted in schools around the country, the principals were telling kids they couldn’t start them,” says Jennings. “David Buckel, who was a Lambda attorney, found a piece of legislation called the Equal Access Act. This said that if you allow students to form clubs, you had to allow them to form any club they wanted to form. Now it was written intended to protect the rights of students to form clubs like bible clubs and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. That was its intent. But David said we can use this to say you have to allow kids to form Gay/Straight Alliances. He was able to convince the courts to interpret it that way so that it protected the rights of kids to form GSAs.”

Jennings calls such creative thinking “judicial jujitsu.” No longer can LGBTQ and ally attorneys expect the courts to agree with old arguments.

“It’s an unfortunate thing that the right wing has politicized our judiciary so extremely, but since they’ve done it,” says Jennings, “we are not going to stand by and be idle. We are going to fight fire with fire.”

Photos of Kevin Jennings courtesy Lambda Legal

Please note: this story has been corrected to indicate Lambda’s 46-year history, not 41-years. Apologies. 

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U.S. Federal Courts

U.S. Appellate Court rules trans people have legal protections under ADA

“This is a thorough, well-reasoned opinion recognizing that the ADA prohibits discrimination against individuals with gender dysphoria”

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Lewis F. Powell Jr. Courthouse, United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, Richmond VA (Photo Credit: GSA)

RICHMOND – Transgender people have additional protections from discrimination in the eyes of federal law for having a disability if they experience gender dysphoria, the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday in a consequential decision that marks a first for a federal appeals court.

A three-judge panel on the Fourth Circuit, which has jurisdiction over Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina, determined the Americans with Disability Act prohibits discrimination against people with gender dysphoria — despite explicit language in the law excluding “transsexualism” and “gender identity disorder” as a protected classes.

U.S. Circuit Court Judge Diana Gribbon Motz, an appointee of Bill Clinton, wrote in a 56-page decision gender dysphoria doesn’t fall under the those two categories in the law because “gender dysphoria is not a gender identity disorder.”

“[T]he ADA excludes from its protection anything falling within the plain meaning of ‘gender identity disorders,’ as that term was understood ‘at the time of its enactment,’” Motz writes. “But nothing in the ADA, then or now, compels the conclusion that gender dysphoria constitutes a ‘gender identity disorder’ excluded from ADA protection.”

As a result, the appeals court remanded the case for additional review to the lower trial court, which had come to the opposite conclusion and determined transgender aren’t covered under ADA.

The case was filed a Kesha Williams, a transgender woman with gender dysphoria who spent six months, incarcerated in the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center. Although she was initially housed in a women’s prison, she was transferred to a man’s prison when officials learned she was transgender and was faced delays in getting transition-related care as well as harassment from fellow inmates and prison officials.

Among the group advocating in the case for additional protections under ADA were LGBTQ groups, including GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders and the National Center for Lesbian Rights, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief before the Fourth Circuit.

Jennifer Levi, GLAD’s transgender rights project director, said in a statement the decision is a “huge win” for transgender advocates because “there is no principled reason to exclude transgender people from our federal civil rights laws.”

“It’s incredibly significant for a federal appeals court to affirm that the protections in our federal disability rights laws extend to transgender people,” Levi said. “It would turn disability law upside down to exclude someone from its protection because of having a stigmatized medical condition. This opinion goes a long way toward removing social and cultural barriers that keep people with treatable, but misunderstood, medical conditions from being able to thrive.”

The idea transgender people are covered under ADA has been controversial even among transgender people. On one hand, reading the law to include transgender people gives them added legal protections. On the other hand, transgender advocates have fighting hard for years to make the case being transgender isn’t a mental disorder. The American Psychological Association removed “gender dysphoria” as a type of mental disorder with the publication of DSM–5 in 2013.

“This is a thorough, well-reasoned opinion recognizing that the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination against individuals with gender dysphoria,” said NCLR’s Legal Director Shannon Minter. “This decision sets a powerful precedent that will be important for other courts considering this critical issue.”

Although the Fourth Circuit is the first federal appeals court to rule transgender people have protections under the Americans with Disabilities Act, other courts have come to the same determination. In 2017, a federal trial judge in Pennsylvania ruled transgender people are able to sue in cases of discrimination under ADA despite the exclusions under the law.

“The effort to exclude transgender people from their rightful protections under the ADA was always baseless and discriminatory,” said Joshua Block, Staff Attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union’s LGBTQ & HIV Project, “and we’re thankful the Fourth Circuit affirmed that reality today. Transgender people are denied a multitude of reasonable rights and accommodations, particularly while incarcerated, and today’s ruling is a step forward for their fairness and equality.”  

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Mississippi

Police: Murder ‘isolated’ incident- no ongoing threat to LGBTQ community

Police arrested Sheldon Timothy Herrington Jr., a 22-year-old Ole Miss graduate, for Lee’s murder, & he is currently being held without bond

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Jimmie “Jay” Lee (Photo courtesy of the Oxford Mississippi Police Department)

By Molly Minta | OXFORD – The Oxford Mississippi Police Department released a statement Friday afternoon that the killing of Jimmie “Jay” Lee, a Black student who was well-known in the town’s LGBTQ community, is an “isolated incident” that does not reflect a broader threat to queer people in Mississippi. 

The statement comes three days after a Lafayette County judge determined there was probable cause for police to arrest Sheldon Timothy Herrington Jr., a 22-year-old Ole Miss graduate, for Lee’s murder, and that he should be held without bond. 

“Based on the information collected to date, our investigators believe this crime represents an isolated incident stemming from the relationship between Jay Lee and Tim Herrington,” the release states. 

Members of the LGBTQ community in Oxford have been asking police to release more information about the nature of the case ever since Herrington was arrested three weeks ago. Many members said more transparency from police would help them make decisions about how to stay safe. 

Police nodded to this perspective in the release: “More broadly, we want to stress that our agencies are committed to doing all that we can to maintain a safe environment for everyone in our community.”

Members of the LBGTQ community are more likely to be the victim of physical harm from domestic and intimate partners. This is especially true for Black queer people who face compounded discrimination due to homophobia and racism — a routine threat of violence that is personal and systemic, with roots much deeper than any one case.

The release also follows a story Mississippi Today published earlier this week based on accounts from 11 LGBTQ students, faculty and University of Mississippi alumni who said they no longer felt safe in Oxford. At least one community member is afraid to leave their house, said Jaime Harker, the director of the Sarah Isom Center for Women and Gender Studies at UM and the owner of Violet Valley, a feminist bookstore near Oxford. 

Harker said she felt that OPD’s silence contributed to harrowing rumors in the community about the nature and reason for Lee’s killing. 

“I think people are filling the void with what their biggest fears are,” she said. 

Lee, 20, was a well-known member of Oxford’s LBGTQ community who regularly performed at Code Pink, a local drag night. An open, confident person, Lee ran for homecoming king last year to promote a platform of “self love and living your truth.” He repeatedly spoke out about the harassment received for wearing women’s clothing. 

For many people in the community, Lee’s outspokenness made his disappearance all the more terrifying. 

Lindsey Trinh, a senior journalism student at Ole Miss, told Mississippi Today that after weeks of receiving no information about Lee’s killing, she decided she was too fearful and anxious to return to classes in person. She wrote an email to the university provost and her professors explaining how Lee’s case had affected her. 

“At the time and because of the unknown of why this has happened to Jay and the whereabouts of his body, I have decided that I cannot physically come back to Oxford for my last semester this Fall,” Trinh wrote in her email. “I fear for my safety and well-being as an outspoken and proud gay person of color.”

Authorities believe that Lee’s body, still missing, is somewhere in Lafayette or Grenada County. But the circumstantial evidence that police have so far gathered was enough to bring charges, Lafayette County Assistant District Attorney Tiffany Kilpatrick argued in court on Tuesday. 

“In 2022 you do not need a body,” Kilpatrick said. “It’s not the 1870s.” 

During the preliminary hearing, Kilpatrick alleged that Herrington’s casual relationship with Lee was unknown to his friends and family. She said that early in the morning on July 8, Herrington “lured” Lee to his apartment, strangled him, and then “staged a cover up” by driving Lee’s car to Molly Barr Trails, a student housing complex. 

Herrington then picked up a box truck belonging to his moving company, Kilpatrick said, and drove it to his parent’s house in Grenada where he retrieved a long-handle shovel and wheelbarrow. 

Kilpatrick argued that Herrington should have been denied bond because his charge – first-degree murder – will likely be elevated to capital murder as police uncover more evidence; some of which is still being processed at a private crime lab. Kilpatrick also argued Herrington was a flight risk, noting that a forensic search of his MacBook showed he had searched for flights from Dallas to Singapore. 

Herrington’s defense attorney, state Rep. Kevin Horan, disputed that Herrington, who has $1,910 in his bank account, could afford to flee the state. In his closing statement, Horan said the prosecution’s case amounted to “suspicion, conjecture and speculation.” 

Horan called four witnesses who testified, in an effort to obtain bond for Herrington, to his character and connections to the community in Grenada. The witnesses included Herrington’s mother, an elder at his church, one of his teachers, and ??Emily Tindell, the principal of Grenada High School. 

Tindell said that Herrington and his family have “the best of character in Grenada County.”

In her closing statement, Kilpatrick said that Herrington was not the same person that his teachers and family described. 

“They don’t know this other Tim Herrington, his double life,” she said. “They don’t know the Tim Herrington who lives in anonymity. This Tim Herrington, your honor, is the Tim Herrington who killed Jay Lee.”

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Molly Minta, a Florida native, covers higher education for Mississippi Today. She works in partnership with Open Campus, a nonprofit news organization focused on higher education. Prior to joining Mississippi Today, Molly worked for The Nation, The Appeal, and Mother Jones.

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The preceding article was previously published by Mississippi Today and is republished with permission.

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Mississippi Today is building a better Mississippi by providing news and resources centered on the lived experiences of the people who live and work here. By donating, you’re joining the thousands of members who voluntarily pay to provide all Mississippians with free and accessible nonprofit journalism that holds public officials accountable and puts a human face on the issues.

MississippiToday.org is supported by grants from foundations, by contributions from donors and sponsors and by advertising. All donations are tax deductible.  A complete list of the Mississippi Today donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania Governor bans conversion therapy using state funds

Pennsylvania is now the 27th state in the country to enact statewide protections against the practice of conversion therapy

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Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf (D) (Photo Credit: Office of the Governor)

HARRISBURG – Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf, (D) signed an executive order Tuesday that banned use of state funds for conversion therapy and also directs state agencies to discourage conversion therapy. The order will also put measures in place to ensure state offices implement culturally appropriate care and services to LGBTQ constituents.

“Conversion therapy is a traumatic practice based on junk science that actively harms the people it supposedly seeks to treat,” said Governor Wolf in a press statement. “This discriminatory practice is widely rejected by medical and scientific professionals and has been proven to lead to worse mental health outcomes for LGBTQIA+ youth subjected to it. This is about keeping our children safe from bullying and extreme practices that harm them.”

Advocates from The Trevor Project attended Tuesday’s signing of the executive order, commemorating it as a victory for LGBTQ young people in the state. On Wednesday, The Trevor Project will be hosting a town hall meeting in Philadelphia to discuss the impact of the executive order with community members.

“Taxpayers’ dollars must never again be spent on the dangerous and discredited practice of conversion ‘therapy’ — which has been consistently associated with increased suicide risk and an estimated $9.23 billion economic burden in the U.S.,” said Troy Stevenson, Senior Campaign Manager for Advocacy and Government Affairs of The Trevor Project.

“Thank you Gov. Wolf for your leadership and for taking bold action to protect and affirm LGBTQ young people across the Commonwealth. We urge the state legislature to pass comprehensive state-wide protections and for governors across the nation to follow the Keystone State’s lead in ending this abusive practice.”

After the signing the Governor also noted:

“The Trevor Project’s Youth Mental Health Survey showed that rates of negative mental health outcomes among LGBTQIA+ youth are much lower in communities, schools and families that are accepting and supportive of LGBTQIA+ people. That’s why I signed this executive order to protect Pennsylvanians from conversion therapy and the damage it does to our communities. Because all of our youth deserve to grow up in a commonwealth that accepts and respects them.

“I want LGBTQIA+ youth and individuals across Pennsylvania to know that I stand with you. I see you, I respect you and I support you. My administration will continue to support policies to keep children safe from bullying and harmful practices.”

“We have worked tirelessly over the last year to collaboratively get this executive order drafted, through discussions with advocates, parents, and many stakeholders. With this action, the practice of conversion therapy has its days numbered in Pennsylvania​,” said Rafael Alvarez Febo, executive director of the Pennsylvania Commission on LGBTQ Affairs. “Young people should never be punished for being who they are and that’s what socalled conversion therapy does, while causing sometimes irreparable trauma to individuals.” 

With the signing of this executive order, Pennsylvania is now the 27th state in the country to enact statewide protections against the practice of conversion therapy.

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