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Group becomes lifeline to migrants in Mexico border city

Gaby Zavala co-founded Resource Center Matamoros

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More than 2,000 people are currently living in a migrant camp in Matamoros, Mexico. (Los Angeles Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

MATAMOROS, Mexico — It was shortly before noon on Jan. 14 when Gaby Zavala, co-founder of Resource Center Matamoros, walked into a camp in the Mexican border city of Matamoros in which more than 2,000 migrants are currently living.

Zavala passed a man who was getting his beard trimmed in a makeshift barbershop before she arrived in the portion of the camp that Resource Center Matamoros manages. Zavala began to speak with a group of migrants and volunteers, including Reuven Magder, a 12-year-old boy from D.C., who were erecting a tent for two families from Honduras and Ecuador who had just arrived in the camp.

Zavala said the Mexican government last month built a canopy over the tents after officials learned Resource Center Matamoros was planning to install “better shelters” that would be “more appropriate for a refugee camp setting.” Zavala told the Los Angeles Blade the organization now works with Mexican immigration authorities “to help set people up under them with better, more spacious tents.”

“We’re working as a collaborative to relate to the Mexican government,” she said.

From left: Reuven Magder and his father, Dan Magder, of D.C., listen to Gaby Zavala, co-founder of the Resource Center Matamoros, in a migrant camp in Matamoros, Mexico, on Jan. 14, 2020. (Los Angeles Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

The camp is located adjacent to the Gateway International Bridge that spans the Rio Grande and connects Matamoros with Brownsville, Texas. Resource Center Matamoros is among the myriad groups that provide assistance to migrants who live there.

Zavala noted Resource Center Matamoros was the first group to bring clean, treated water to the camp. She said the drowning of a 15-year-old girl in the Rio Grande prompted her to bring water tanks into the camp and build privacy tents with cups, buckets and donated shampoo and conditioner that migrants could use to bathe.

“Before that people were bathing in the river, washing clothes in the river, using the restroom in the river,” said Zavala.

Resource Center Matamoros last October moved into a building that is across the street from the camp.

Lawyers for Good Government’s Proyecto Corazon and the South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project (ProBAR) work alongside private attorneys at Resource Center Matamoros to provide legal assistance to migrants who have asked for asylum in the U.S. Resource Center Matamoros also provides a variety of other services that include massage therapy and yoga for migrants who have suffered trauma.

Resource Center Matamoros next month will launch an HIV testing program in the camp. Ray Rodríguez, a gay Cuban man who asked for asylum in the U.S., were among the migrants who were working at Resource Center Matamoros on the day the Blade visited.

“People, when they left their countries, they were fully functional people,” said Zavala during an interview in her office. “They had jobs. They had houses, they were supporting their children. They were self-sufficient at one point.”

“The whole migration has victimized them … in so many different ways,” she added. “So, they are now basically, left as a dependent, dependent on other people for food and for shelter.”

Zavala, 37, has been a community organizer for nearly two decades. The Valley AIDS Council, an HIV/AIDS service organization in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, and Planned Parenthood are among the groups for which she has worked. Zavala’s family is also from Matamoros.

Zavala in 2018 began to cook food for migrants in Matamoros. She later brought them to “consultorios” in the city where they could see doctors and receive medications.

Zavala last spring started to provide meals, clean clothes, personal hygiene items and other items to migrants who U.S. Customs and Immigration Services and U.S. Border Patrol dropped off at Brownsville’s main bus station, which is a few blocks from the Gateway International Bridge. Zavala also helped organize a respite center for migrants at a Brownsville church.

“It just made sense that we were to take the people at the bus station to them so that they can take a shower, they can get information about what’s happening, get supplies that they needed,” she said.

Resource Center Matamoros co-founder Gaby Zavala in her office in Matamoros, Mexico, on Jan. 14, 2020. (Los Angeles Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

A State Department travel advisory urges U.S. citizens not to travel to Mexico’s Tamaulipas state in which Matamoros is located because of “crime and kidnapping.” Many of the migrants who live in the Matamoros camp have been forced to return to Mexico under the Trump administration’s controversial “remain in Mexico” policy and await the outcome of their U.S. asylum cases there.

“Now we have MPP,” Zavala told the Blade, referring to the Trump administration’s overall immigration policy that includes a requirement for migrants to place their name on a waiting list in order to apply for asylum at a U.S. port of entry. “And now we have several others that have just been implemented that are completely unfair, and they leave asylum seekers available in this country.”

Zavala, who identifies as bisexual, also told the Blade that LGBTQ migrants who live in the camp are even more vulnerable to mistreatment, discrimination and even violence from groups that include drug cartels and Mexican police officers.

“For me seeing that in the context of the camp is hurtful,” she said.

Resource Center Matamoros works with the Texas Civil Rights Project, a group that provides assistance to LGBTQ migrants. Resource Center Matamoros also provides LGBTQ migrants with a space in which they can privately meet with lawyers and volunteers.

Zavala said she hopes to provide HIV tests to up to 150 migrants a month once the program launches and connect those who test positive to HIV/AIDS clinics known by the Spanish acronym CAPASITS (Centro Ambulatorio para la Prevención y Atención en SIDA e Infecciones de Transmisión Sexual) that the Mexican government operates. Zavala conceded the program will prove challenging, in part, because LGBTQ migrants in Matamoros are often not out and have fled countries where violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity is rampant.

“You really have to take extra, extra caution when you’re having a ‘charla’ because rumors run through the camp like wildfire,” she added, noting confidentiality remains a top priority. “It’s very sensitive.”

Resource Center Matamoros is ‘a big family’

Zavala told the Blade she has faced resistance from organizations outside the Rio Grande Valley who “feel like you can’t do it … and want to usurp all the hard that we’ve ever done.” Zavala also said she has felt judged and not supported in her efforts to help migrants, but stressed she has become part of the “main stakeholders of the work in Matamoros.”

Zavala also described Resource Center Matamoros “a big family.”

“What I have found here is life, is love, is compassion,” she said. “We all take care of each other and I’ve never felt so backed by a group of people.”   

A girl mops a tent platform at a migrant camp in Matamoros, Mexico, on Jan. 14, 2020. Resource Center Matamoros manages this portion of the camp that is under a canopy the Mexican government built. (Los Angeles Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)
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Oklahoma

LGBTQ+ leaders call for DOJ to investigate Nex’s death

Police backtracked after claiming trauma “did not cause” death of Nex, a trans teen beaten in an Oklahoma bathroom, and now suspect foul play

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16-year-old Nex Benedict (Family Photo)

By Erin Reed | OWASSO, Okla. – On Thursday afternoon, investigators from the Owasso Police Department filed a search warrant for cellphones and lockers of students involved in the beating of Nex Benedict, a transgender teenager in Oklahoma who lost their life following the incident.

The announcement came after a previous claim by police that initial paraphrased autopsy results showed Nex “did not die as a result of trauma,” a finding that came under scrutiny by LGBTQ+ activists and Nex’s family.

Now, LGBTQ+ rights leaders are calling for a DOJ investigation into their death, casting doubt on the initial statements of local police officers and school officials.

Here is what we know: According to early reports, after a year of being bullied over their transgender identity, Nex Benedict was involved in a fight in a bathroom in which three girls allegedly beat them. Some reports state that Nex’s head was “banged into the floor.” Nex’s mother substantiated the reports in an interview with The Independent. The school reportedly did not call an ambulance for Nex, and instead, Nex was brought to the hospital by their mother and was discharged from the hospital later that evening. The following day, Nex collapsed and was pronounced dead. In later released text messages, Nex revealed that those involved in their beating had a history of bullying them.

Following news of Nex’s death, many pointed to the influence of major anti-LGBTQ+ figures in Oklahoma and nationally. Libs of TikTok, for instance, targeted a previous teacher and mentor of Nex two years prior. Chaya Raichik, who runs the anti-LGBTQ+ hate account, was appointed to an advisory role in the state Department of Education in Oklahoma as part of a plan to “make schools safer,” according to State Schools Superintendent Ryan Walters. Walters himself has led extreme anti-trans initiatives in the state, such as directing the Department of Education to release a video calling trans people in bathrooms “an assault on truth.”

On Wednesday, though, police officers in Oklahoma released a statement questioned by many, stating that Nex’s death was not due to trauma, even though they were taken to the hospital over their head injury and experienced difficulty walking. You can see that police statement here:

While the investigation continues into the altercation. Preliminary information from the medical examiner’s office is that a complete autopsy was performed and indicated that the decedent did not die as a result of trauma. At this time, any further comments on the cause of death are currently pending until toxicology results and other ancillary testing results are received. The official autopsy report will be available at a later date” – Owasso Police

The statement immediately aroused suspicion. Independent journalist Judd Legum wrote about the event, noting that the statement released by the police closely mirrored that issued by the school. “If the police will not release the autopsy report, why are they releasing partial, paraphrased information?” asked Legum. These sentiments were echoed by many following the case.

The statement also prompted a response by attorneys for Nex’s family calling into question the police statement:

While various investigations are still pending, the facts currently known by the family, some of which have been released to the public, are troubling at best. We urge those tasked with investigating and prosecuting all potentially liable parties to do so fully, fairly and expediently. Notwithstanding, the family is independently interviewing witnesses and collecting all available evidence.”

Meanwhile, a local transgender student who went to the same high school released their own video, claimed that they were “called slurs almost daily” and “called slurs by a teacher in the school.” They also allege that they were sexually assaulted in the school and told by the administration to keep quiet so as not to ruin their attacker’s life. “The administration has never cared about its LGBTQ+ students, the murder of Nex is a direct product of their design,” they say, adding later, “Now they are playing the cover-up game, one that they know all to well, because they have been using it the last ten years.”

The same day, many LGBTQ+ leaders began calling for a civil rights investigation by the Department of Justice, casting doubt on the credibility of local police officers and investigators’ ability to impartially carry out justice. Brandon Wolf, a Pulse survivor and national press secretary for the Human Rights Campaign, stated, “The Department of Justice needs to tap in. Nex’s family deserves a full, thorough investigation into what happened.” Similar calls for DOJ involvement came from Kelly Robinson, president of the Human Rights Campaign. Other major LGBTQ+ figures, such as Senator Sarah McBride, the first transgender candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives, similarly called for a “full investigation.”

Now, one day after releasing their statement that trauma was not involved in Nex’s death, the Owasso Police Department appears to be backtracking. A search warrant from the police department was filed looking targeting the cell phones and lockers of those suspected of involvement in Nex’s death. The search warrant states that “Owasso police officers suspect foul play involved and need to initiate an in-depth investigation into the death.”

The search warrants of cellphones may be important in establishing if any premeditation occurred around the incident and can establish a track record around targeted hate and a history of animosity towards Nex over their transgender status.

Many prominent Democrats have issued calls for justice for Nex and an end to anti-LGBTQ+ hate, including Representative Nancy PelosiSenator Elizabeth Warren, and Representative Mark Takano.

The Biden administration and the Department of Justice, however, have yet to comment on the incident. Meanwhile, questions about the competency and motives of the Owasso Police Department remain prominent. Unless the Department of Justice gets involved, there may always be lingering questions and doubts about the ability to serve justice in Nex’s death.

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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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Eastern Europe

LGBTQ Ukrainians bear brunt of psychological toll of ongoing war

The silent struggle faced by the LGBTQ community in Kharkiv and beyond necessitates international attention, according to Human Rights First

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A Pride commemoration in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on Sept. 25, 2022. (Photo courtesy of Sphere Women's Association)

By Amber Laenen | KHARKIV, Ukraine – As Ukraine weathers Russian missile attacks and endures a harsh winter, the psychological consequences on its LGBTQ community are emerging as a distressing and often overlooked aspect of the conflict.

Recent reports from Human Rights First, based on their visits to the northeastern Ukrainian region of Kharkiv, shed light on the profound emotional impact experienced by LGBTQ individuals amid the sustained Russian aggression.

Saturday marks two years since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began. Throughout this time, Human Rights First has sought to bring human rights into the heart of the discussion surrounding the conflict, offering support to human rights defenders, activist organizations, and individuals profoundly affected by the war.

Human Rights First last November initially surveyed Kharkiv to understand how communities were preparing for the harsh winter. Returning last month they found the LGBTQ community faced not only the physical challenges of extreme temperatures but also the hidden harm of severe psychological distress.

Human rights defenders on the forefront were documenting war crimes and supporting marginalized communities, including LGBTQ individuals. They emphasized the critical need for specialized psychological support within this community.

Vasyl Malikov, a key figure in Kharkiv-based LGBTQ NGOs Alliance.Global and Spectrum Women’s Association in Kharkiv, spoke about the increasing requests for psychological assistance and counseling. 

Malikov highlighted the urgent need for both psychologists and a more comprehensive education about mental health and trauma issues.

“Some counseling can be done online, and it’s better than nothing, but what’s really needed is face-to-face time with a psychologist. Of course, that’s resource-intensive,” Malikov said, underscoring the unique challenges faced by the LGBTQ community.

Associate Professor Taras Zhvaniia, collaborating with Alliance.Global, shared insights into the growing demand for psychological support within the LGBTQ community. Initially addressing trauma in children, the scope expanded to include adults grappling with anxiety, depression and other emotional challenges related to the ongoing conflict.

Zhvaniia detailed the psychological struggles unique to the LGBTQ community, ranging from anxiety and panic attacks to specific fears such as reluctance to sleep in beds at home, avoiding bomb shelters and apprehension about routine activities during shelling.

Efforts to increase psychological knowledge for the general population are underway, yet the escalating demand for LGBTQ-focused support outpaces available resources. Human rights defenders have proposed measures, including funding for online counseling and visits by foreign psychologists, specifically tailored to address the psychological impact on the LGBTQ community.

The silent struggle faced by the LGBTQ community in Kharkiv and beyond necessitates international attention, according to Human Rights First. The organization added the lack of adequately trained psychologists raises concerns about the unaddressed psychological impact, underscoring the urgency for U.S. officials and the international community to comprehend and respond to the unique challenges faced by LGBTQ individuals in the midst of the ongoing conflict.

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Amber Laenen is a senior at Thomas More Mechelen University in Belgium. She is majoring in journalism and international relations. Amber is interning with the Blade this semester as part of a continued partnership with the Washington Center.

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Los Angeles County

LA County sues Grubhub alleging deceptive business practices

Lawsuit seeks to hold Grubhub accountable for business practices that deceive & overcharge consumers, exploit drivers & restaurants

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App food delivery driver picks up an order. (Screenshot/YouTube)

LOS ANGELES – Los Angeles County filed a lawsuit yesterday against food delivery company Grubhub alleging false and deceptive advertising, misrepresentation and unfair business practices that financially harm consumers, delivery drivers and restaurants.

“This lawsuit sends a clear message: Los Angeles County will not tolerate businesses that deceive consumers, take advantage of restaurants, and exploit the drivers who work hard to provide a valued service,” said Los Angeles County Board Chair Lindsey P. Horvath. “Our County Counsel and Department of Consumer and Business Affairs are standing up for consumers and businesses by fighting these unfair practices.”

The lawsuit alleges that Grubhub engages in the following unfair and deceptive business practices and seeks statewide relief to stop these violations:

Harm to Consumers

  • Deceptively advertises that consumers can place delivery orders online “for free” but then charges consumers fees on those orders at check-out.
  • Uses bait-and-switch tactics to lure consumers with a flat, unqualified price for delivery upfront while adding deceptively labeled “service,” “small order” and “driver benefits” fees at checkout. In some cases, the costs of the fees exceed the cost of the food item ordered.
  • Misrepresents restaurant search results on its apps and websites, telling consumers that the search results are based on relevance to the consumer’s query (e.g., “Chinese food near me”), when in fact, the results and rankings are based in part on how much restaurants have paid Grubhub for placement.

Harm to Drivers

Grubhub misrepresents the qualities, characteristics and scope of the “Driver Benefits Fee,” which Grubhub charges consumers in connection with Proposition 22. Grubhub deceptively implies that the fee provides healthcare benefits to drivers and that consumers no longer need to tip their drivers because “they don’t have to depend on tips.”

Harm to Restaurants

Grubhub deceptively and unilaterally charges restaurants for customer refunds, which Grubhub issues without restaurants’ consent, and without verifying whether the customer or the restaurant was responsible.

“The deceptive and excessive fees charged by Grubhub at checkout blatantly undermine our goal of promoting a fair marketplace where businesses, employees and consumers can thrive,” said Rafael Carbajal, Director of the LA County Department of Consumer and Business Affairs. “These practices inflict financial harm on LA County’s residents, restaurants and workers and are unacceptable while so many of them struggle to make ends meet.”

Consumers, drivers and restaurants who believe they have been harmed by Grubhub’s actions are invited to share their experiences with DCBA by emailing: [email protected], filing online at https://iddweb.isd.lacounty.gov/dca_ecomplaint/ or calling 800-593-8222.

The lawsuit, filed by Los Angeles County Counsel Dawyn R. Harrison on behalf of the people of the State of California in response to complaints from consumers and restaurant owners, seeks injunctive relief to stop the unfair and deceptive business practices, and civil penalties. County Counsel’s Affirmative Litigation and Consumer Protection Division has retained the law firm of Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC to assist on this case.

“Our lawsuit seeks to hold Grubhub accountable for their unfair and deceptive business practices that deceive and overcharge consumers, exploit drivers, and unfairly short-change restaurants on order refunds,” Harrison said. “My office is committed to protecting County workers and residents and holding businesses accountable for violations of consumer and worker protection laws.”

The lawsuit was filed in Los Angeles Superior Court, and a copy of the complaint is available here: LA County Grubhub Complaint-Redacted.pdf.

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Southern California

Triple A: SoCal Gas Prices Pause

The average price for self-serve regular gasoline in Southern California is $4.64, which is the same as a week ago

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Triple A Auto Club/Los Angeles Blade

LOS ANGELES – Local gas prices in most areas remained unchanged for the week after three straight weeks of price increases, according to the Auto Club’s Weekend Gas Watch. The average price for self-serve regular gasoline in California is $4.64, which is the same as a week ago. The average national price is $3.27, which is one cent lower than a week ago.

The average price of self-serve regular gasoline in the Los Angeles-Long Beach area is $4.80 per gallon, which is the same as last week, 14 cents higher than last month, and three cents lower than last year. In San Diego, the average price is $4.81, which is one cent more than last week, 23 cents higher than last month, and two cents lower than this time last year.

On the Central Coast, the average price is $4.77, which is two cents higher than last week, 19 cents higher than last month, and two cents more than last year. In Riverside, the average per-gallon price is $4.68, which is the same as last week, 30 cents higher than last month and four cents lower than a year ago. In Bakersfield, the $4.58 average price is unchanged from last week, four cents lower than last month, and 14 cents lower than a year ago today.

“Although refinery maintenance continues to cause some production outages in Southern California, indications are that the regular unleaded gasoline supply is sufficient for now,” said Auto Club Spokesperson Doug Shupe.

The Weekend Gas Watch monitors the average price of gasoline. As of 9 a.m. on Feb. 22, averages are:

022224

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Mississippi

HIV criminal laws lopsided impact on Black men in Mississippi

Mississippi’s 2021 Ending the HIV Epidemic Plan called for reform of the state’s HIV criminal laws to align with modern HIV medicine

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Los Angeles Blade graphic

LOS ANGELES – A new report by the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law finds that at least 43 people in Mississippi were arrested for HIV-related crimes between 2004 and 2021. Half of all arrests in the state happened between 2017 and 2021.
 
The HIV epidemic and Mississippi’s HIV-related criminal laws disproportionately impact men, and Black men in particular. Men make up 49% of Mississippi’s population, 71% of people living with HIV (PLWH), and 72% of HIV-related arrests. Black men comprise 18% of the state’s population and 50% of PLWH. However, they make up 47% of HIV-related arrests.
 
Researchers analyzed data obtained from the Mississippi Department of Public Safety. Findings show that the enforcement of HIV criminal laws is concentrated around the state’s capital and most populous city, Jackson, and near the Gulf Coast. Almost 20% of arrests occurred in three counties: Harrison (15%), Hinds (13%), and Lamar (11%).
 
HIV criminalization is a term used to describe laws that either criminalize otherwise legal conduct or increase the penalties for illegal conduct based on a person’s HIV-positive status. Nearly two-thirds of U.S. states and territories currently have laws that criminalize people living with HIV.
 
Mississippi has two HIV criminal laws. The knowing exposure law makes it a felony to knowingly expose another person to HIV, hepatitis B, or hepatitis C and is punishable by up to 10 years in prison and/or a $10,000 fine. Mississippi’s endangerment by bodily substance law makes it a misdemeanor to attempt to expose or expose anyone at a correctional facility to bodily fluids. However, if someone knows their HIV or hepatitis status, the crime is upgraded to a felony punishable by 3 to 10 years in prison and/or a $10,000 fine.
 
“Mississippi’s criminal laws do not require the actual transmission of HIV, the intent to transmit, or even conduct that can lead to the transmission of HIV,” said lead study author Nathan Cisneros, HIV Criminalization Project Director at the Williams Institute. “We now have medical treatments that wholly eliminate the risk of transmitting HIV through sex, yet these advances are not reflected in Mississippi’s laws.”
 
Mississippi’s 2021 Ending the HIV Epidemic Plan called for reform of the state’s HIV criminal laws to align with modern HIV medicine.
 
“HIV criminal laws perpetuate stigma and can discourage testing and treatment,” said co-author Brad Sears, Founding Executive Director at the Williams Institute. “That’s why many national and state organizations, including the American Medical Association, have called for a repeal of these laws.”
 
This report is part of a series of reports examining the ongoing impact of state HIV criminalization laws on people living with HIV.
 
Read the report

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Politics

Tuberville promotes anti-transgender sports ban at CPAC

The senator accused the Democrats, “the socialist party” of “dividing the family” by “trying to bring gender together”

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U.S. Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) speaks at CPAC 2024 (Washington Blade photo by Christopher Kane)

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. – During an interview with right-wing talk show host Ben Ferguson at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Thursday, U.S. Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) promoted a bill he introduced on Feb. 1, the Protection of Women in Olympic and Amateur Sports Act.

The legislation, which Tuberville acknowledged would not be brought to the Senate floor so long as Democrats have a majority in the chamber, would “prohibit any governing body recognized by the U.S. Olympic Committee” from allowing transgender women to participate “in any athletic event intended for females.”

The senator accused the Democrats, “the socialist party” of “dividing the family” by “trying to bring gender together, because they think men can have babies now.”

Tuberville expressed frustration with Republican Senate colleagues who did not agree with his sports bill, recounting how he had asked some of them, “don’t you have a daughter?”

“Now they want to tear down sports,” he said, warning that opening women’s and girls’ teams to trans women and girls will result in injury.

Tuberville and Ferguson criticized a new policy adopted by USA Boxing in January, which they found insufficiently restrictive.

The organization’s new rules stipulate that minors “must compete as their birth gender” and in weight classes specified in the rulebook — but allows trans women older than 18 to compete in the female category if they have undergone genital reassignment surgery and agree to quarterly hormone tests for four years.

More transphobia from GOP’s leading candidate for N.C. governor

Taking the stage after Tuberville and Ferguson was North Carolina Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, the Republican frontrunner in the state’s gubernatorial primary, who also spoke out against allowing trans women and girls to compete in athletics and proclaimed “men oughta go in their own bathroom, not the women’s bathroom.”

Robinson objected to press coverage of his anti-trans remarks during a campaign speech this month in which he said, “we’re going to defend women in this state,” which means “if you’re a man on Friday night and all of the sudden on Saturday, you feel like a woman and you want to go in the women’s bathroom in the mall, you will be arrested — or whatever we got to do to you.”

At a different rally, Robinson said those who “are confused” about their gender should “find a corner outside somewhere to go” to the bathroom.

Robinson accused “the leftist news media” of cherry-picking these statements in their coverage rather than his remarks about other subjects. “Whenever they mention my name, they mention it in connection with social issues,” he said. “According to them, I hate everybody.”

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Virginia

Virginia lawmakers give final approval to marriage equality bills

Voters in 2006 approved an amendment to Virginia’s constitution that defines marriage as between a man and a woman

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Virginia House of Delegates in session. (Photo Credit: Commonwealth of Virginia government)

RICHMOND, Va. – Virginia lawmakers this week approved two bills that would affirm marriage equality in the state.

The Virginia House of Delegates approved state Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria)’s Senate Bill 101 by a 58-42 vote margin. The Virginia Senate passed state Del. Rozia Henson (D-Prince William County)’s House Bill 174 by a 22-17 vote margin.

Both bills now go to Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin. 

“Virginians across the political spectrum have taken heart to see these bills receive bipartisan support in the General Assembly,” said Ebbin, a gay Democrat, in a press release. “I hope Gov. Youngkin will sign this critical legislation to create state-level protections for all Virginians regardless of who they love.” 

Voters in 2006 approved an amendment to Virginia’s constitution that defines marriage as between a man and a woman.

Same-sex couples have been able to legally marry in the state since 2015.

The General Assembly in 2021 approved a resolution that seeks to repeal the marriage amendment. It must pass in two successive legislatures before it can go to the ballot.

“Senator Ebbin and I introduced this legislation to codify marriage equality in Virginia’s Code so that all marriages are protected under Virginia law beginning July 1, 2024,” said Henson, who is also gay. “Codifying marriage equality will assuage concerns from the LGBTQ+ community in Virginia following the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization (2022) reversal on abortion rights by the Supreme Court and Justice Thomas’ comments in his concurrence.”

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Tennessee

New Tenn. law allows refusal to conduct same-sex marriages

Republicans control both chambers of the state house & have been advancing what Tennessee Equality Project called a “slate of hate” bills

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Tennessee’s Republican Governor Bill Lee signing legislation. (File photo credit: Office of the Governor)

By Rob Salerno | NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee’s Republican Governor Bill Lee signed a law Wednesday that allows people to refuse to solemnize a marriage if they disagree with it, a measure critics say was designed to allow officials to refuse to solemnize same-sex marriages.

Bill HB 0878 adds a single section to the Tennessee Code, stating “A person shall not be required to solemnize a marriage if the person has an objection to solemnizing the marriage based on the person’s conscience or religious beliefs.” The bill was given an emergency clause, making it come into effect upon the governor’s signature.

Under existing Tennessee law, couples get a marriage license from a county clerk before having their marriage solemnized by a notary public, government official, or religious figure. Religious figures already have protections under the first amendment allowing them to deny solemnizing marriages contrary to their faith.

Chris Sanders, executive director of the Tennessee Equality Project says his organization is ready to fight the law in court.

“Half of this bill is unnecessary because clergy are already protected. The other half is discriminatory because it allows public officials to turn away couples who have obtained a valid marriage license. Public officials should serve the entire public. We would be glad to work with organizations seeking to bring a legal challenge to the law,” he says.

Tennessee Equality Project is encouraging anyone who has a public official refuse to solemnize their wedding to contact them.

The law has the potential to affect more than the LGBT community. Under the law, officials could refuse to marry interfaith or interracial couples. While couples may have the opportunity to find alternate officials to solemnize their marriages in larger cities, couples in smaller or rural communities may be forced to travel far simply to find someone willing to solemnize their legal marriage.

The bill passed the Tennesseee state house 74-22 last March and passed the state senate 27-5 on Feb 12.  Only one house Democrat supported the bill; no Republicans voted against it.

Republicans control both chambers of the state legislature and have been advancing what Tennessee Equality Project has called a “slate of hate” bills this session. 

Also on Wednesday, a bill that would ban any flag but the flag of the United States or the state of Tennessee from being displayed in any school narrowly advanced out of the senate education committee. The bill is one of many copycat bills being introduced by Republican legislators attempting to ban the Pride flag in schools.

related

A companion bill in the House has had an amendment added which would allow the display of certain other flags, including the flags of other countries, Native American tribes, and military flags. The Tennessean reported that during debate, the house education committee attorney said it was unclear if the Confederate flag or the Nazi flag would be banned from schools under the amended bill.

Another bill is scheduled for consideration in the senate judiciary committee that would bar the department of children’s services from requiring that foster parents support a policy on sexual orientation or gender identity that conflicts with their beliefs. The bill would essentially require the department to place queer and trans foster kids with non-affirming parents.

The legislature is also considering bills to bar trans people from using a gender-appropriate bathroom, removing the concept of “gender identity” from state law, forcibly outs trans students to their parents, and creates a separate marriage procedure for same-sex couples.

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Rob Salerno is a writer and journalist based in Los Angeles, California, and Toronto, Canada.

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Political commentary & analysis

Republicans issue new shutdown threat over trans people

On Wednesday, the House Freedom Caucus issued a letter indicating that the government may shut down if anti-trans polices are not included

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U.S. Capitol Dome
U.S. Capitol Dome (Photo by Michael Key)

By Erin Reed | WASHINGTON – On Wednesday, the House Freedom Caucus published a letter threatening a government shutdown in which it outlines a number of policies that are needed to supposedly avert such a result.

Listed among these policies are restrictions on gender affirming care, transgender participation in sports, DEI programs, and defunding Planned Parenthood. This comes after nearly a dozen riders targeting transgender people have been inserted into numerous government spending bills that could result in large scale government shutdowns if not handled by March 8th.

In an exclusive released by Axios, Republican sources state that “people are predicting a shutdown.” The report states that one of the primary drivers of the shutdown frustrations are policy riders on gender-affirming care and abortion.

Currently, Speaker Mike Johnson’s negotiations reportedly do not include gender affirming care policies, which is upsetting Republicans who have pushed for the inclusion of those policies in the final bill. Biden has stated opposition to any bill that contains them, and the riders did not make the final cut for the previous stopgap budget bill.

Now, in a letter from the House Freedom Caucus, Republicans state that unless these policies are included, the “probability that the appropriations bills will be supported by even a majority of Republicans” is low.

See the full letter here:

Increasingly, Democrats and LGBTQ+ organizations have applied pressure on the Biden administration and Democratic leadership not to accept any deal that includes anti-LGBTQ+ riders. In a letter signed by 163 Democratic members of congress, they state that bans on gender affirming care, pride flags, DEI initiatives, and discrimination should not be on the table for negotiation. Human Rights Campaign has likewise released an advertisement echoing that message:

These policies encompass bans on pride flags, prohibitions on insurance coverage, restrictions on DEI programs, and even the defunding of children’s hospitals that offer gender-affirming care.

Such measures could lead to nationwide bans on care if “federal funding” is broadly interpreted. These provisions are found in funding bills for the Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Health and Human Services, the military, and the Department of Veterans Affairs, among other sectors.

Some factions within the Republican Party have increasingly indicated that targeting transgender individuals is a top priority and may view a shutdown as worth the political risk over transgender issues. Representative Dan Crenshaw stated in June that such bans are the “hill we will die on.”

It would not be the first time government operations have ground to a halt over transgender issues; in 2023, Republicans refused to move forward with any other bills unless they could pass a ban on gender-affirming care, allowing a filibuster to last for three months. Should this occur at the national level, however, it would represent the most significant impact of anti-trans policies on multiple sectors of government.

Democrats have not shown a willingness to compromise over national anti-transgender riders so far. However, if a new bill is not passed by March 1st, a partial government shutdown will trigger; March 8th is the deadline for a full government shutdown.

Should Republican leadership proceed without any of the anti-trans policy riders, many Republican voters will likely vote against the bill, and Speaker Johnson could see his own speakership threatened. Until the 2024 general elections, the riders represent the largest risk for transgender people and their care nationwide.

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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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Houston candidate tests if Democrats tolerate anti-LGBTQ votes

Rep. Shawn Thierry voted for three anti-LGBTQ bills last year, which could make her more vulnerable as she fights for reelection

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Texas state Rep. Shawn Thierry (D-Harris County) reelection yard sign. (Screenshot/YouTube Campaign advert)

By Zach Despart | HOUSTON, Texas – That Senate Bill 14 would pass was not in doubt.

The legislation, which would bar gender-transitioning care for children and teens, had universal Republican support and merely awaited final sign-off by the GOP-led House.

The only surprise that May evening in the Capitol was when Rep. Shawn Thierry, a Democrat from Houston, strode to the front of the chamber and announced she was breaking with her party to support the bill.

Children must be protected from transgender care because of its risk of harm, she said, citing precedent in Texas for allowing only adults to get tattoos, use tanning salons and purchase tobacco products. She said teenagers’ brains are not developed enough to make potentially irreversible medical decisions.

“This debate… was never about erasing trans children,” Thierry said in a tearful 12-minute speech. “For me, this discussion is about how to best protect and care for these children as they navigate through the challenging journey of finding the best version of themselves.”

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Thierry’s remarks ignored that treatment decisions for minors can only be made by parents or legal guardians, as well as the consensus of major medical groups that gender-transitioning care should be available to children and teens in the care of doctors.

Republicans were quick to praise Thierry as a brave politician willing to buck her radical party. To Democrats, who watched the speech in stunned silence, she had betrayed their party’s commitment to protect LGBTQ+ rights and vulnerable Texans.

“It feels defeating, when you’re a Democrat in the Texas Legislature,” said Dallas Rep. Jessica González, one of several gay members of the caucus. “The last two legislative sessions had the most conservative bills. That’s why it’s even more important for us to stick together.”

The political fallout is spilling into the Democratic primary, where in her bid for reelection Thierry faces two challengers. One of them, labor organizer Lauren Ashley Simmons, is well funded and has secured the support of several Democratic officials — including sitting House members — and progressive groups like the influential Houston LGBTQ+ Political Caucus. A Democratic club in Houston censured her, accusing Thierry of turning her back on the gay and transgender community.

Thierry, whose small-dollar donations have largely dried up, now relies heavily on wealthy Republican donors to fund her campaign.

More than a third of Thierry’s donations over the past year came from individuals or groups who typically support Republican candidates, a curiosity in a predominantly Democratic district. They include $10,000 from Doug Deason, a conservative activist, and $15,000 from his pro-school voucher Family Empowerment Coalition PAC.

While she’s not the only Democrat in the House to have voted with Republicans on those bills, Thierry’s race has become a referendum on whether elected officials who do not fully support LGBTQ+ causes can remain in good standing with the Democratic Party. Thierry is insistent she can, and said her votes last year reflected the will of her constituents.

Thierry, who declined to sit for an interview but spoke briefly to The Texas Tribune by phone, said most of the criticism of her on LGBTQ+ issues comes from white progressives outside her district, who do not represent her base of more socially conservative, religious Black voters.

“I didn’t just jump out against … my constituents,” Thierry said. “Clearly, I have a good pulse of how the majority of the people in my district feel. I really do. I’ve lived here forever.”

But it’s a knife in the back for gay and transgender residents in District 146, who previously viewed her as an ally. The LGBTQ+ advocacy group Equality Texas endorsed Thierry as recently as 2022.

Ashton Woods, a gay man and founder of Houston’s Black Lives Matter chapter, accused Thierry of lying about her constituents’ support for her LGBTQ+ positions. He said the representative previously presented herself as an ally of the gay and transgender community, but in reality is solely interested in the views of a small group of mostly elderly supporters that agree with her.

“I don’t know who she’s talking to in my age group,” said Woods, 39. “She’s seeking a safe space where people share the same ideology as her.”

Woods, who unsuccessfully challenged Thierry in the 2020 Democratic primary, said her votes on LGBTQ+ issues last year were a reason why he has decided to run again.

Joëlle Espeut, a Black transgender woman in Thierry’s district, said she had doubts about the sincerity of Thierry’s commitment even before the votes.

“I think people think that showing support is merely just saying you support the LGBT community,” Espeut said. “Outside of these bills, her support, at best, was nominal.”

Thierry gives an emotional speech, on the House floor,  on her personal experience during childbirth, on July 31, 2017.
Thierry speaks on her personal experience during childbirth, on the House floor, on July 31, 2017. 
(Photo Credit: Marjorie Kamys Cotera for The Texas Tribune)

House District 146 covers a swath of south Houston, bounded by Brays Bayou, that includes the world-class Texas Medical Center and world-famous Astrodome. Three-quarters nonwhite and heavily Democratic — President Joe Biden won some precincts by more than 90 points — the district stretches west through middle-class Meyerland and Westbury, heart of the city’s Jewish community. But it is anchored in Sunnyside, a low-income, majority-Black neighborhood that once was a thriving economic hub that is trying to revitalize.

The district has always been represented by a Black Houstonian. Thierry, now 54, in 2016 was selected by Democratic precinct chairs as the party’s nominee for the seat after then-Rep. Borris Miles resigned to run for the state Senate. She was elected unopposed.

Thierry made an impression in her first session by fighting for bipartisan legislation to address the state’s high maternal mortality rate for Black mothers, drawing on the experience of her own difficult pregnancy with her daughter.

In the following sessions, Thierry voted reliably with her party. She joined most of the Democratic caucus in their 2021 protest of a GOP voter restrictions bill, where they absconded to Washington, D.C., for several weeks to shut down the House. It was an opportunity to follow in the footsteps of her mother, a civil rights activist who integrated Sharpstown High School in Houston.

In the 2023 regular legislative session, Republicans made sexuality and children their new top social issue. By the time lawmakers adjourned in May, much of the camaraderie Thierry had built with fellow Democrats unraveled.

Three major pieces of legislation proposed by Republicans became law last year: a bill aimed at removing sexually explicit books from school libraries, a designation critics feared would be used to target LGBTQ+ literature; a requirement that transgender college athletes play on teams that align their sex assigned at birth; and the ban on trans minors from receiving gender-transitioning care.

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Thierry supported all three. She was not the only Democrat to break ranks — 11 others supported the book-banning bill. But she was by far the most outspoken in her support for the legislation. She said in another floor speech that the book bill would set up guardrails against explicit materials that have “infiltrated” schools, noting one that she said teaches children how to access dating websites.

Fellow Democrats told the Tribune they were especially frustrated that Thierry did not support their efforts to offer compromises on the transgender bill.

Rep. Ann Johnson, whose district borders Thierry’s, offered an unsuccessful amendment that would have permitted trans teens from receiving such care if two doctors and two mental health professionals approved — a high bar intended to assuage concerns that treatment such as hormones could be carelessly prescribed. Johnson declined to comment.

Thierry skipped the vote on the item, as well as all 18 other Democratic amendments. Thierry said that her positions reflected the views of her constituents.

State representatives gather to listen to discussion of a Point of Order brought against SB 14 on the House floor at the state Capitol in Austin on May 12, 2023.
State representatives listen to a Point of Order discussion brought against SB 14 on the House floor at the state Capitol in Austin on May 12, 2023. 
(Photo Credit: Evan L’Roy/The Texas Tribune)
Ricardo Martinez, CEO of Equality Texas, prepares for a press conference in front of people who have gathered on the stairs across from the House floor to protest against SB 14, before it is heard for debate on May 12, 2023.
Ricardo Martinez, CEO of Equality Texas, prepares for a press conference in front of people who have gathered on the stairs across from the House floor to protest against SB 14, before it is heard for debate on May 12, 2023.  (Photo Credit: Evan L’Roy/The Texas Tribune)

Community leaders in Sunnyside said LGBTQ+ issues are not the ones they think most about. Sunnyside Civic Club President Tracy Stephens, 66, recalls when the neighborhood was a bustling center of Black life in Houston, with its own movie theaters, bowling alleys and grocery stores.

After decades of neglect and underinvestment, he said Sunnyside needs a representative that will secure funding for street repairs and strengthen penalties for pollution. He commended Thierry for being accessible and attentive to these needs.

Stephens also said he supported Thierry’s stances on the book rating and gender-transitioning care bills. These weren’t issues when he was a kid, he said, adding that he understood Thierry’s desire to protect children.

“You’ve got to think about what’s going to happen to that kid in the long run,” Stephens said about gender-transitioning care.

Sandra Massie Hines, who earned the nickname “the mayor of Sunnyside” for her civil rights work in the community, said her focus lately has been helping elderly residents at risk of homelessness because of rising rents.

When it comes to gay and trans issues, Hines said she supported Thierry’s votes. She said exposing children to LGBTQ+ materials is confusing for them.

“I think kids shouldn’t be coached into being told they need to grow extremities, or cut off extremities,” said Hines, 75. “I just think a lot of that is fostered by adults.”

Gender transition surgery is extremely rare under the age of 18, according to doctors, and in most cases gender-transition medical care for minors means hormone therapy or puberty blockers.

But younger residents, and those with gay or trans family members, said Thierry’s stances are hurtful and don’t represent the largely progressive district.

Gender-transitioning care, including doctor-prescribed hormones, makes life bearable for a 16-year-old trans teenager in District 146, their mother said.

The Tribune granted her anonymity, after verifying her identity and address, because Gov. Greg Abbott has authorized state officials to open child abuse investigations into parents who provide gender-affirming care to their trans children. Those investigations are on pause due to a lawsuit filed by Texas families against the state.

The child came out as trans at age 7. They had a mental health crisis at 10, a common occurrence for children suffering from gender dysphoria, a type of psychological distress that results from a mismatch between a person’s sex assigned at birth and their gender identity. Their mother said at the time she did not understand the kind of support they needed. Gender-transitioning treatments have significantly improved the teen’s mental and physical health, she said.

“They can just go to school, do the SATs, get their driver’s license and think about who they’re going to take to the spring dance,” she said. “It freed them up to have a developmentally normal life, as opposed to where they were at prior to this care, which was a dark place.”

The mother said she wished to share her experience with Thierry as lawmakers considered SB 14 but said her Capitol staff declined to schedule an appointment. She said aides said constituents could visit the office at any time to see if Thierry was available. The mother said it was impractical to make the three-hour drive from Houston without a guarantee (Thierry’s chief of staff said she makes time to meet with visitors, even if it requires stepping away from legislative business).

Now that gender-transitioning care is banned, the mother said she has made a plan to move to a different state if necessary, a step other Texas families with trans children have already taken.

Lauren Ashley Simmons speaks with volunteers before block walking on Jan. 28, 2024, in the Meyerland neighborhood of Houston.
Lauren Ashley Simmons speaks with volunteers before block walking on Jan. 28, 2024, in the Meyerland neighborhood of Houston. (Photo Credit: Annie Mulligan for The Texas Tribune)

Anger with Thierry over her votes last year has created an opening for labor organizer Lauren Ashley Simmons, with a faction of Democrats coalescing around her.

Simmons, who has never before sought elected office, said residents encouraged her to run after a video of her criticizing the state takeover of Houston ISD exploded in popularity online. With two children in the district, Simmons was worried about Republican attacks on public education and felt Thierry was unresponsive to constituents about the issue.

She was shocked to see Thierry’s remarks on SB 14, which she felt were “ripped from the Republican national agenda.” Why not make a 12-minute speech on the most pressing issues in District 146, she wondered, like gun violence and the lack of grocery stores?

Simmons, 36, likened the plight of the parents of trans children to her own daughter’s treatment for sickle-cell anemia, which includes an experimental chemotherapy drug and opioids.

“Those are decisions that are hard for me and her dad to make with her medical team,” Simmons said. “I get really nervous when we start passing legislation about what decisions parents can make about their children’s health care.”

Simmons has captured some of the marquee Democratic endorsements, including labor unions and Planned Parenthood, as well as Equality Texas, which had previously endorsed Thierry. Democratic leaders including Houston City Controller Chris Hollins, former Harris County Democratic Party Chairman Odus Evbagharu and three House Democrats have also backed her.

Lauren Ashley Simmons checks addresses of voters as she block walks on in Houston.
Lauren Ashley Simmons checks addresses of voters as she block walks on in Houston. 
(Photo Credit: Annie Mulligan for The Texas Tribune)

Two Black Democratic House members — Reps. Barbara Gervin-Hawkins of San Antonio and Nicole Collier of Fort Worth — have endorsed Thierry, as have local groups including the Houston Black American Democrats and the Harris County chapter of the Texas Coalition of Black Democrats.

Collier disagrees with Thierry’s vote on SB 14. But she said Thierry has been a devoted Democrat on other issues and does not deserve to be purged from the party. Collier praised Thierry as a skilled and hardworking legislator who has done much for her district.

“It takes a lot of courage to take a stand on a provision that isn’t popular or safe,” Collier said. “I respect that as a leader, she is able to do that, in a time where everyone expected her to go along.”

Other Democrats view it differently. There is room for the party’s elected officials to offer lukewarm support to the LGBTQ+ community in moderate districts, they believe, but not in one that has one of the highest shares of Democrat voters of any in the state.

“It is increasingly hard for us to not only pass meaningful legislation, but also defeat harmful policies,” said González, who has endorsed Simmons. “I firmly believe it’s important for us to stand up and fight for our Democratic values and also elect other Democrats who share those values.”

William Melhado contributed reporting.

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Zach Despart’s staff photo

Zach Despart is a politics reporter for The Texas Tribune. He investigates power — who wields it, how and to what ends — through the lens of Texas government. He has extensively covered the Uvalde school shooting, including a groundbreaking investigation on the role the gunman’s rifle played in the disastrous police response.

He previously covered Harris County for the Houston Chronicle, where he reported on corruption, elections, disaster preparedness and the region’s recovery from Hurricane Harvey. An upstate New York native, he received his bachelor’s degree in political science and film from the University of Vermont.

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

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