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Meet Imani Rupert-Gordon, NCLR’s new leader

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Laughter. Full-throated, hesitancy-clearing, energetic laughter. Thirty seconds into Imani Rupert-Gordon’s inaugural phone interview with the Los Angeles Blade, the new executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights poofs away old ideas of protocol and power differentials and launches into a conversation between two humans living in a shared space.

Kate Kendell, the LGBTQ icon Rupert-Gordon is replacing at the helm of NCLR after Kendell’s 22 years of service, had a similar experience.

“Apart from her substantial resume, experience and gravitas, the thing I most remember when I first met Imani in San Jose was a smile that had a wattage unlike most I had ever seen and an open heartedness that made me feel like we had been friends for years, rather than this being our first meeting,” Kendell tells the Los Angeles Blade. “You cannot teach that kind of openness and generosity of spirit. It is something one either possesses or never gets. And she had it and that quality is one of those intangibles that marks a leader for the ages.”

Rupert-Gordon’s humor and humility are evident immediately, disarming in a context where leadership generally implies an air of assumed arrogance. But her way of being reflects an apparent larger trend in new leadership at other national LGBTQ organizations, where the character derived from lived experience is as important as a resume packed with prestigious degrees and power-punch relationships.

“Do they know that I’m a social worker?” Rupert-Gordon asked when told NCLR’s head-hunters wanted to meet her. “I went into this thinking OK, obviously they’re looking for something different and I said, so I’m just going to talk about where I think the movement is, where I think the movement should go next, and NCLR’s place in that,” she tells the Los Angeles Blade.

“I think what really stood out to them was my understanding of intersectional issues and the way that I look at the movement. I think it probably provided a unique perspective, as well as someone that’s not a lawyer. Something that I’ve been telling people over and over again — they have a lot of lawyers at NCLR and they are at the top of their fields. Perhaps they don’t need another lawyer. I think that they really saw and appreciated my vision. I’ve always been very impressed by the work at NCLR. NCLR was created to be intersectional. That’s something I really value in the movement, and so, I feel really good about moving to this organization.”

Imani Rupert-Gordon with sister Maya Rupert (Photo from Maya Rupert’s Facebook page, Jan. 19, 2017)

In fact, NCLR is kind of a family thing. Rupert-Gordon’s straight sister Maya Rupert, a 2006 graduate of Berkley Law School, joined NCLR in 2010 as federal policy director because of her sister.

“My work for the LGBT community came from my sister and wanting to do something that would be meaningful and impact a number of lives, hers included,” Rupert told Hello Beautiful. “The question that NCLR always asks is who’s being left out of the conversation, so this is an organization that’s specifically being active about being proactive for people who are a part of marginalized communities and so many other issues that we talk about and think about.”

Rupert took that fight against discrimination through an intersectional lens to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development where she became a Senior Policy Advisor to HUD Sec. Julian Castro. She pointed out, for instance, that while the seemingly neutral Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination in housing based on race, color, religion and other categories, it does not include protection for people with a personal criminal background.

Rupert – a widely honored writer with such essays as “Imagining a Black Wonder Woman,” “This ‘cool black girl’ is gone,” and “Nothing defensible about DOMA” –subsequently became Castro’s campaign manager when he announced his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020.

When Rupert-Gordon settles into her new San Francisco-based job next March, she will be leaving Chicago and coming home to California. Born in Bedford Heights, Ohio 40 years ago last April 17, Rupert-Gordon grew up in Yucca Valley.

“My experience was very much in the Joshua Tree, Yucca Valley County where I grew up, went to elementary school and high school,” she says. Upon graduation, she went to school near San Diego until her sister went to UC Santa Barbara. “I transferred to UC Santa Barbara with her by the winter. My sister and I are very, very close,” she says.

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in sociology, Rupert-Gordon went to the University of California, Santa Cruz, where she worked in residential life for almost eight years, lectured, and cofounded the Social Fiction Conference, which uses science fiction as a lens through which to view bias and injustice.

Though happy there, she started thinking about going to graduate school. “When I was thinking about what it is that I loved, I really enjoyed working with folks as they’re sort of working through things themselves,” something she experienced as a student navigating life without a cohesive bridge between her academic and non-academic worlds.

Rupert-Gordon intended to get her master’s degree in social work through an online program but her then-girlfriend, now wife Derah (38) encouraged her to go to graduate school and have a great experience as she had. Derah promised to move with her to a big city where advertising jobs were more readily available than in Santa Cruz.

Imani Rupert-Gordon with wife Derah Rupert-Gordon (Photo courtesy Rupert-Gordon)

“When there’s this person you want to spend your life with who just wants more for you than you do with yourself in that moment — and that’s how I really thought of that — we went to Chicago,” where she earned her master’s degree from the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration.

But upon graduation, Rupert-Gordon found it hard to find a job. She landed at Broadway Youth Center providing therapy to LGBTQ youth. But she grew restless. “I felt like I still had things to give, but I didn’t feel like the things that I had to give were as unique in such a way that no one else could do that,” she says.

Fortuitously, the executive director of Affinity Community Services — the nation’s oldest Black LGBTQ social justice organization — was leaving and encouraged her to take the job. She’s been there for four years.

Now Rupert-Gordon thinks she has something to give the national movement.

“I think that as we’re working to do more inclusive and more intersectional work, that I have something to provide here,” she says. “I’m really excited about working specifically at a law firm where we’re going to be integrating litigation and legislation and policies and public education. I think working to create an integrative approach is something that social workers do often. So, I’m excited to bring that perspective to NCLR.”

That includes frank discussions about social justice issues.

“I’ve experienced overt racism before,” though that experience is not always as relevant to the way she approaches race politics, Rupert-Gordon says. “Overt racism is sometimes easier to confront because most people understand overt racism as racism. For instance, if someone says ‘the N-word,’ most people recognize that as racism.

“What I experienced growing up,” she continues, “is people explaining that ‘You’re not like other Black people, you’re cool,’ or saying something like, ‘You don’t sound Black.’ I knew that these people were trying to compliment me, but it didn’t feel like a compliment. What they were saying hurt and I didn’t always have the language to explain why it hurt.

“Systemic and institutional oppression often requires a more thoughtful and nuanced analysis because not everyone recognizes it as oppression,” Rupert-Gordon says. “I’m interested in the systems in place that support oppression. For example, the G.I. Bill made it possible for folks to really buy homes for the first time, but loans from the FHA were given to people based on race and subsequently the equity in those homes were then attached to race—and that is just one example of how generational economic mobility is attached to race in this country.

“So when people talk about people with low incomes being ‘lazy,’ I’m frustrated because there is something systemic being ignored —and that is not a little thing. That’s a big thing. And that narrative is untrue, and dangerous,” she says. “So when I think of racism, or any oppression, I don’t necessarily think about individual events that happened to me but systematic ways that people experience oppression based on identity. I’m not saying that racism is the exact same as heterosexism or sexism. I’m saying that we are missing something if we don’t think about the institutional, systemic dynamic.”

And, says Rupert-Gordon, “if we don’t consider institutional oppression within the LGBTQ movement, then folks that experience multiple jeopardy or oppression because of multiple parts of our identity, will not be able to fully benefit from the wins of the LGBTQ movement. Our movement has to be intersectional if we are going to achieve equality.”

Rupert-Gordon had to use her own critical thinking to grasp the concept of “intersectionality.”

“It’s an experience I had growing up [in Yucca Valley] that I didn’t have a word for. When I think about my first understanding of intersectionality,” she says, “it was when we were talking about the Constitution,” and the different times Black people and women were given the right to vote. “They had this conversation as if there were no Black people that were women, and I was the only one, and I think that’s how my teacher at the time was just talking about that.

“I remember being incredibly confused — when does that mean that I would be able to vote?” Rupert-Gordon continues. “I just realized that I didn’t know how to ask the question, and I was the only one that would’ve asked the question. I knew that I was the only one that was having this experience.”

Later, she learned the term “intersectional,” a term developed in 1989, that became “really everywhere for me,” and still is.

People under-represented identities are talked about “as if we can segment the parts of our identity and we can talk about it, just one thing,” Rupert-Gordon says. “The thing is — I can’t talk about being a queer person without my experience being a Black woman. All of those things happen together. And so, when the expectation is for me to separate it, that’s not something I can do.” She wants to talk about “how someone can bring their entire self, their entire experience and be represented in this movement.”

But, Rupert-Gordon adds, “representation is important, but representation doesn’t shift cultures. It doesn’t change institutions. It doesn’t shift the power dynamic. And so, it would mean putting the education in schools [and] changing the culture fundamentally,” realizing, for instance, that while history is a mandatory course, Black history is an elective.

“I’m a Black, queer woman. There was definitely a time in the feminist movement that I wasn’t included in that. When we looked back on the first and second waves of feminism, many of us are ashamed that it looked the way that it did, and when we think about being inclusive about what our feminism looks like, we have an opportunity to mention that are learning from the past, and we are including more,” says Rupert-Gordon. “I’m sympathetic when folks explain that they feel like they’re going to be left out of the movement because, the thing is — many of us have been left out of a movement, and we are sometimes just terrified that that will happen again, that we would be ignored in the movement.

Rupert-Gordon is blunt. “There is enough equality to go around, and that’s what I want to make sure that we are paying attention to — that we’re all going to be better when we’re all better,” she says. “Once upon a time, my Blackness made someone question how much of a woman I could be. Any time you’re in a situation where you’re having people question your gender or if you belong somewhere, then that hurts all of us. Our feminism and our movement has to be thoughtful around that.”

The “future core for our movement,” she says, “absolutely has to become a racial justice movement. It has to become an economic justice movement. It has to become a gender justice movement. It doesn’t help when we are working to fight for protection and to provide support and liberation for all LGBTQ folks if people aren’t able to fully access them because they experience racism or they don’t have the economic power to utilize or appreciate what’s happening. We have to work with folks that are at the margins, people that are experiencing discrimination at multiple levels. Because when we start working with folks that are experiencing the most amount of discrimination, if we start from those folks, everyone will benefit from what we do.”

Rupert-Gordon says she doesn’t have all the answers but she knows it starts with working in coalition, with everyone working to achieve the same goal. But it’s more, going beyond inclusion.

“Inclusion is getting everyone to the table,” she says. “It’s providing perspective. But it doesn’t get that power shift. That is what’s going to need to happen. We’re going to need to shift power” to create a movement that’s more economically just, more gender inclusive and picks leaders who “can actually lift up our entire movement.”

Rupert-Gordon says she’s already having discussions about this transformation, including with NCLR’s renowned legal director, Shannon Minter.

“Shannon is also an icon, so I definitely have had conversations with Shannon about this — about sort of what’s next and being really thoughtful, really strategic in finding new ways to be successful in supporting this community,” especially since President Donald Trump has remade the judiciary to be more conservative and anti-LGBTQ.

“When we think about being more inclusive, we’re looking at a variety of things that keep folks in places of oppression,” she says. “We’re thinking about issues that people don’t necessarily think about being LGBTQ issues — things like voter suppression and criminalization of sex work. When we think about prison systems in juvenile justice and folks in foster care systems, there are many things that are keeping folks from being free.”

Kendell is “over the moon” about Rupert-Gordon leading NCLR into the future.

“What she brings is a lived experience of what we popularly call ‘intersectionality.’ It’s not an experience that is intellectual, although it might have pieces of that. It’s not an experience that is scholarly, although it likely has that. It’s not an experience that is born of empathy, although certainly there will be some of that, too,” Kendell tells the Los Angeles Blade, as if rhetorically handing off the mantle.

“It is an experience as a Black lesbian, of understanding that the world every LGBTQ person deserves is a world where every piece of themselves is integrated, seen, valued and acknowledged and appreciated,” says Kendell. “And it is a unique life experience that queer people of color possess and that is so much about where the movement is headed next that will make Imani exactly the kind of leader to keep NCLR current and relevant and to assure that the movement is a movement for the entire queer community, not just certain segments.”

Rupert-Gordon is not cavalier about the work ahead. “Trust is not something I take for granted. It’s something you have to work for,” she says. “I have a commitment to radical transparency. I want to be part of transforming our movement so that it includes more of us.”

 

 

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National

APA passes policy supporting gender-affirming care

The American Psychological Association, representing 157,000 members, has issued a resolution calling for an end to trans care bans

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The American Psychological Association headquarters in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Harrison Keely)

By Erin Reed | WASHINGTON – On Wednesday, Feb. 28, the American Psychological Association announced in a historic policy resolution that it opposes gender-affirming care bans for transgender youth.

The association, the largest psychological organization in the world with 157,000 members, declared, “Government bans on gender-affirming care disregard the comprehensive body of psychological and medical research supporting the positive impact of gender-affirming treatments,” and resolves the organization’s support for the necessity of that care for transgender youth and adults. 

The policy, which passed 153-9, is the strongest yet from the organization in support of gender-affirming care and represents a major consensus among leading psychologists on the importance of gender-affirming care for youth and adults.

President Cynthia de las Fuentes, speaking of the new policy resolution, states, “It sends a clear message that state bans on gender-affirming care disregard the comprehensive body of medical and psychological research supporting the positive impact of such treatments in alleviating psychological distress and improving overall well-being for transgender, gender diverse and nonbinary individuals throughout their lives.”

The policy includes several findings and resolutions, such as:

  • Gender affirming medical care is medically necessary – “the APA underscores the necessity for access to comprehensive, gender-affirming healthcare for transgender, gender-diverse, and nonbinary children, adolescents, and adults”
  • The organization opposes bans on gender affirming care – “the APA opposes state bans on gender-affirming care, which are contrary to the principles of evidence-based healthcare, human rights, and social justice, and which should be reconsidered in favor of policies that prioritize the well-being and autonomy of transgender, gender-diverse, and nonbinary individuals”
  • Being trans is not “caused” by autism or post-traumatic stress – “legislative efforts to restrict access to care have involved the dissemination of misleading and unfounded narratives (e.g., mischaracterizing gender dysphoria as a manifestation of traumatic stress or neurodivergence, and equating affirming care for transgender, gender-diverse, and nonbinary youth with child abuse), creating a distorted perception of the psychological and medical support necessary for these youth and creating a hostile environment that adversely affects their mental health and wellbeing.”
  • False information on trans care needs to be combatted – “APA supports efforts to address and rectify the dissemination of false information to ensure the well-being and dignity of transgender, gender-diverse, and nonbinary individuals”
  • Discrimination, non-affirmation, and rejection risks suicide – “gender-based bias and mistreatment (e.g., discrimination, violence, non-affirmation, or rejection in response to gender diversity) pose significant harm, including risk of suicide, to the well-being of children, adolescents, adults, and families.”

Previously, the organization has released several policies supporting the rights of transgender individuals, such as a policy against conversion therapy and a policy opposing discriminatory laws and practices.

However, this policy goes much further than any of those, directly supporting gender-affirming care as medically necessary and opposing misinformation that emerges in legislative hearings targeting care.

Although virtually all major medical organizations in the United States have issued policies affirming the importance of care for transgender individuals, few rebut anti-trans talking points as comprehensively as this recent policy.

The policy emerges amid an international debate on gender-affirming care and seems to directly counter many claims made in hearings targeting such care. For instance, Representative Gary Click in Ohio attributed the increase in transgender individuals coming out in recent years to autism, using those claims to justify passing a ban on care.

Pamela Paul, in her recent New York Times piece criticizing trans care, similarly suggested that neurodivergence and obsessive-compulsive disorder could cause gender dysphoria. The APA policy directly refutes such notions by a significant margin.

The resolution also directly counters the claim that there is no scientific consensus on gender-affirming care. Conversion therapy organizations such as the Gender Exploratory Therapy Association, now renamed Therapy First after its previous name became associated with conversion therapy, have asserted that “there is no genuine medical consensus” on transgender care. Groups opposed to transgender rights, like the Society for Evidence-Based Gender Medicine, which has strong connections to SPLC-designated hate groups and pseudoscience networks, have argued that there is a “lack of clinical consensus” on the appropriateness of gender-affirming care.

However, the resolution’s passage by an overwhelmingly large margin suggests otherwise. The council of representatives, an elected body of leaders representing the consensus of the association’s 157,000 members, can be seen as accurately reflecting the views of psychologists from the world’s largest psychological organization.

Though the policy document may not convince Republican officials to back off on targeting trans care, it will be important in court fights moving forward. Findings of fact from places where gender affirming care bans have been overturned often point to the professional consensus on the importance of care.

Similarly, the document will be an important rebuttal to increasing misinformation around transgender care. Other professional organizations are similarly in the process of releasing updated policies themselves which will bear watching in the coming days.

***************************************************************************

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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Ohio

Ohio State University student charged in anti-LGBTQ+ crime

City prosecutors file multiple charges against an individual who vandalized a pride flag & directed homophobic remarks toward residents

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Screenshot/YouTube WBNS 10TV Columbus

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Columbus City Attorney Zach Klein announced that city prosecutors have filed multiple misdemeanor criminal charges against an Ohio State University student who was caught on camera urinating on a pride flag and directing homophobic remarks toward residents at a home in Columbus’s Weinland Park neighborhood in February.

Prosecutors filed four misdemeanor charges against 20-year-old Trey Samuel Fetzer in Franklin County Municipal Court Tuesday, including ethnic intimidation, criminal mischief, criminal trespass and disorderly conduct.

“Vandalizing property and making homophobic remarks in an attempt to intimidate members of the LGBTQ+ community will not be tolerated in our city,” said Columbus City Attorney Zach Klein. “Columbus is diverse and tolerant, and we celebrate our LGBTQ+ community. Hate has no home here, and as long as I’m City Attorney, we will continue to aggressively prosecute hate and bias crimes.”

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According to court documents and released home surveillance video, on Feb. 8, the defendant walked up to the front porch of a home in the Weinland Park neighborhood near Ohio
State’s campus and urinated on a pride flag while another man recorded the incident on a cell
phone. The defendant then proceeded to make homophobic remarks and banged on the door of the house before fleeing on foot.

Penalties for the misdemeanor charges filed Tuesday could include hundreds of dollars in fines, possible jail time or probation, among other penalties.

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Congress

Partisan fights imperil efforts to undo harm of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’

The Pentagon has endeavored to address the problem, but advocates say the agency has been too slow to act to address the issue

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U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) and U.S. Rep. Lori Chavez-DeRemer (R-Ore.) (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

WASHINGTON — Despite bipartisan agreement over the need to bring justice to U.S. service members who were harmed by discriminatory military policies like “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” competing legislative efforts have divided members of Congress and sparked accusations that both Democrats and Republicans are “playing politics” with the issue.

Following the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in 2011, thousands of veterans who were discharged other than honorably over their sexual orientation continue to face barriers finding housing and employment, with many unable to access federal benefits that otherwise would be available to them.

The Pentagon has endeavored to address the problem, but advocates say the agency has been too slow to act while service members, rather than the Department, bear the considerable burden of requesting reviews of their papers – a process so complicated that many have had to seek legal counsel for help navigating the bureaucratic red tape.

Gay U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), who chairs the Congressional Equality Caucus, has long worked to address the challenges faced by veterans who are in this position with his Restore Honor to Service Members Act, which he first introduced in 2013 and re-introduced several times over the years, most recently in 2023.

Among the subsequent iterations were the bicameral version introduced in 2019 by Pocan and U.S. Rep. Katie Hill (D-Calif.) along with U.S. Sens. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), and another that was introduced in the Senate last year by Schatz, which was backed by Republican U.S. Sens. Todd Young (Ind.) and Susan Collins (Maine).

The National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2024 was passed in the Senate with provisions taken from the Restore Honor to Service Members Act, including directions for the Pentagon to establish a “Tiger Team” to “build awareness among veterans of the process established [by the NDAA in FY 2020] for the review of discharge characterizations by appropriate discharge boards.”

Pocan, along with caucus co-chairs U.S. Reps. Robert Garcia (D-Calif.) and Chris Pappas (D-N.H.), wrote to U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin last month to request information to facilitate implementation of the department’s decision to (1) review records for service members who were discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” (2) forward cases to their respective secretaries to consider correction through the service boards, and (3) reach out to veterans to make sure they are kept up to speed throughout the process.

Last week, however, another bill targeting the same issue, the Recover Pride in Service Act, was announced by Republican U.S. Rep. Lori Chavez-DeRemer (Ore.) in conjunction with Log Cabin Republicans, the conservative LGBT group.

A spokesperson for the congresswoman told the Washington Blade in a statement, “There’s a significant difference between the two bills. The Recover Pride in Service Act requires the Department of Defense to automatically upgrade all discharges that were solely based on sexual orientation within five years.”

The spokesperson continued, “This key provision would ensure veterans adversely impacted by Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell won’t have to endure an arduous and costly application process and can get their status updated without having to lift a finger. I would also note that just 10 percent of LGBTQ+ veterans have had their discharges upgraded, and that’s because of the application process. Only requiring an outreach group isn’t enough.”

The Recover Pride in Service Act would also, per the press release announcement, establish an “Outreach Unit” to contact service members who were discharged for their sexual orientation along with other reasons specified in their papers. The bill promises to simplify administrative requirements and includes a provision stipulating that “a lack of documentation cannot be used as a basis for denying a review, and the responsibility of finding and producing relevant documentation lies with the DOD, not the service member.”

“If Republicans truly cared about helping veterans discharged under ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ they would have signed on to the Restore Honor to Service Members Act, which has been around for a decade and has support among the broader LGBTQI+ community,” Pocan told the Blade in a statement.

“Instead, they introduced a bill that plays partisan politics with the issue rather than advance it,” he said. “If we really want to do something to help veterans, there is a decade-long effort to get that done. Posing for pictures with a duplicative effort doesn’t get us closer to the goal.”

Log Cabin Republicans Senior Advisor Alex Walton told the Blade by phone last week that “discussions about the Restore Honor to Service Members Act all happened close to eight to nine months ago before we kind of shifted focus when we realized that they weren’t going to cooperate and work with us.”

Walton said that while there was significant interest in joining Pocan’s bill among House Republicans, “they were only going to do it assuming that Democrats were going to match the number of Republicans that co-sponsored the legislation, so you didn’t have 150 Democrats and, you know, 12 Republicans.” A source familiar with the discussions said Pocan was never asked to limit the number of Democratic cosponsors.

Additionally, Walton said, the House Republicans “also wanted a Republican lead,” but Pocan “was unwilling to let that happen.”

Months later, Walton said Pocan and House Democrats remained uncooperative in discussions over the Recover Pride in Service Act, the bill that was ultimately introduced by Chavez-DeRemer.

Meanwhile, he said, “We spoke to over 90 Republican offices, both in the House and the Senate, and we had a lot of conversations about this issue in general. And one of the things that we kept hearing from Republican offices is if a piece of legislation like this is going to pass, you’re gonna have to cut bureaucratic extras that are included in the Pocan version of the bill, and you’re just gonna have to get directly to the problem. And that’s what the legislation does by requiring the DOD to proactively upgrade these discharges.”

With Republicans holding the majority in the House, Walton said, Log Cabin and Republican members wanted a Republican lead sponsor on the bill in the lower chamber, while discussions were held with Senate Democrats with the expectation that a Democrat would be lead sponsor of the Senate version of the Recover Pride in Service Act.

Walton added that Pocan was offered the opportunity to be the lead Democratic member in the House — a claim that is disputed by the source familiar with the talks, who said the Wisconsin congressman was not consulted as the Recover Pride in Service Act was being drafted.

Pocan told the Blade, in a separate statement, that “I’ve had the Restore Honor to Service Members Act available for co-sponsorship for 12 years. Unfortunately, only a few Republicans have been interested in signing on. I welcome additional support. The best way to help our wrongly discharged veterans is to work in a bipartisan fashion with the members who’ve been working on this for a decade.”

He added, “I’ve been focused on getting justice for veterans discharged under ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ for years, which is why part of the Restore Honor to Service Members Act became law several years ago” with the NDAA. “Losing the majority doesn’t mean I should surrender the rest of my bill —that’s not how Congress works. But I do welcome any support from Republicans who haven’t drunk the anti-equality Kool-Aid.”

Walton said that by refusing to work with Republicans in good faith, “Pocan put himself over all of these veterans,” adding, “I’m not disregarding everything Pocan has done for gays and lesbians in Congress. But the reality is that he put himself and his own pride in this legislation over actually getting stuff done.”

Walton stressed the broad ideological base of support for Chavez-DeRemer’s bill among House Republicans, 13 of whom have signed on as co-sponsors. Along with more moderate members, “we have extremely conservative Republicans on this legislation,” he said.

Those co-sponsoring members are GOP Reps. Kat Cammack (Fla.), Andrew Garbarino (N.Y.), Anthony D’Esposito (N.Y.) Nicole Malliotakis (N.Y.), Nancy Mace (S.C.), Derrick Van Orden (Wis.), Juan Ciscomani (Ariz.), Ken Calvert (Calif.), John Duarte (Calif.), Mark Amodei (Nev.), Mike Turner (Ohio), Max Miller (Ohio), and Mike Carey (Ohio).

Several of these House Republicans have voted for anti-LGBTQ military policies, such as prohibitions on Pride month celebrations at U.S. military bases and provisions allowing employees at the Defense Department and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to discriminate against LGBTQ service members if they oppose, for instance, same-sex marriage on religious grounds.

House must pass spending bills by Friday


Meanwhile, House Republicans have held up passage of critical spending bills by insisting on conservative policy mandates that stand no chance of passing in the Senate with Democrats in the majority, nor of being signed into law by President Joe Biden.

If they are not able to reach an agreement by Friday, funding will lapse for military construction, agriculture, transportation, and housing programs. A full government shutdown would be triggered if spending packages are not passed by March 8.

The Equality Caucus, in a post on X Monday, said, “Just a reminder as we barrel towards a gov’t shutdown this week: House Republicans’ partisan funding bills include more than 45 provisions attacking the LGBTQI+ community.”

They added, “The House GOP needs to stop playing games with queer people’s rights & agree to bipartisan funding bills.”

Historically, appropriations packages have been cleared by both chambers with wide bipartisan margins.

During a conference call on Friday, Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson (La.) told GOP members they were unlikely to see many of their policy priorities included in the spending bills. He met with Biden at the White House on Tuesday, alongside other congressional leaders including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), to continue negotiations ahead of Friday’s deadline.

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U.S. Federal Courts

Appeals court allows 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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