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Transgender women transferred from ICE detention center in NM

Agency faces growing calls to release all trans detainees

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The Cibola County Correctional Center in Milan, N.M. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement)

An immigrant advocacy group on Monday said the transgender women who were in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody at a privately-run detention center in New Mexico have been moved to other facilities around the country.

The Santa Fe Dreamers Project in a press release said ICE at 3 a.m. on Jan. 21 “without warning” transferred half of the total number of trans women who were detained at the Cibola County Correctional Center in Milan, N.M., to the Aurora Contract Detention Facility near Denver. The Santa Fe Dreamers Project noted ICE on Jan. 25 later transferred the “second half of the group” to the Tacoma Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Wash., via a facility in Florence, Ariz.

The GEO Group, a Florida-based company, operates the Aurora and Tacoma Northwest Detention Centers.

Charlie Flewelling, an attorney with the Santa Fe Dreamers Project, on Tuesday told the Los Angeles Blade their organization was in “regular contact with” 29 detainees at the Cibola County Correctional Center. Flewelling said three of them were in solitary confinement or housed with men at the facility, and the remaining 26 detainees were housed in a unit that ICE created specifically for trans women in their custody.

“Santa Fe Dreamers Project is currently working with legal service providers in both locations to ensure a continuity of legal services, including requests for immediate release and legal representation in the event those requests are denied,” said the Santa Fe Dreamers Project in their press release.

Flewelling told the Blade that ICE sent one of the detainees to the Otero County Processing Center, a detention facility in Chaparral, N.M., operated by Management and Training Corporation, a Utah-based company.

“To my knowledge we were in regular contact with everyone housed in the trans unit, as well as every trans woman held in solitary as well as with every trans woman held with the men,” they said.

CoreCivic, a private company once known as the Corrections Corporation of America, operates the Cibola County Correctional Center that is roughly 80 miles west of Albuquerque, New Mexico’s largest city. ICE in 2017 opened the unit for trans women.

The Santa Fe Dreamers Project in its press release suggested ICE “appears to be in the process of closing the unit and transferring all of the women to other detention centers in the U.S.”

An ICE official with whom the Blade spoke on Tuesday confirmed 27 detainees “previously housed at the Cibola County Correctional Center” were transferred “to other facilities throughout the country.” The official said not all of the detainees who were transferred from the Cibola County Correctional Center are trans women.

“ICE routinely transfers aliens for a number of reasons including available bed space, access to specific health care needs, or due to temporary adverse facility conditions,” the official told the Blade.

The official noted ICE “is currently working with its contractor to assess and improve the quality of long-term health care management at the Cibola County Correctional Center.”

“In the interim, ICE has found available bed space in other facilities with existing resources to better manage the needs of certain detainees requiring continuous medical case management,” said the official. 

“ICE will continue to work with the facility operators to ensure those in our custody at the Cibola County Correctional Center reside in a safe, secure, humane environment with access to necessary health care,” added the official.

The official did not say whether ICE is plans to close the unit. Flewelling on Wednesday insisted to the Blade it is closed.

“The trans pod is closed, and regardless of if that is permanent or temporary we stand by the statements made in our press release,” they said.

Transgender immigrants ‘not safe in immigration detention’

The Santa Fe Dreamers Project is among the advocacy groups that have sharply criticized the treatment of trans women at the Cibola County Correctional Center and other detention centers around the country.

Roxsana Hernández, a trans Honduran woman with HIV who had briefly been detained at the Cibola County Correctional Center, died at an Albuquerque hospital on May 25, 2018.

More than two dozen trans women at the Cibola County Correctional Center on June 26, 2019, sent a letter to Trans Queer Pueblo, a Phoenix-based group that advocates on behalf of undocumented LGBTQ immigrants, in which they complained about inadequate medical care and mistreatment from staffers. The detainees wrote the letter two weeks after ICE invited this reporter and a handful of other journalists to tour the facility.

The Santa Fe Dreamers Project on Jan. 16 demanded the release of a trans Salvadoran woman in ICE custody at the Cibola County Correctional Center because she is “in a life-or-death medical crisis.”

A 2015 memorandum then-ICE Executive Associate Director of Enforcement and Removal Operations Thomas Homan signed requires personnel to allow trans detainees to identify themselves based on their gender identity on data forms. The directive, among other things, also contains guidelines for a “respectful, safe and secure environment” for trans detainees and requires detention facilities to provide them with access to hormone therapy and other trans-specific health care.

More than 40 Democratic members of the U.S. House of Representatives earlier this month in a letter to Acting ICE Director Matthew Albence and Acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf called for ICE to release all trans people in their custody. The Santa Fe Dreamers Project and Trans Queer Pueblo are among the more than 80 advocacy groups that made the same demand in their own letter to Albence and Wolf last week.

“Transgender immigrants are simply not safe in immigration detention,” reads the groups’ letter.

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Florida

Broward high school students stage walkout over Trans exclusion

Monarch High principal James Cecil, a 25 year veteran of the Broward schools district, had been reassigned off-campus

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Screenshot/YouTube WPTV News

COCONUT CREEK, Fla. –  Students at Monarch High School in northern Broward County walked out of classes Tuesday protesting in support of the trans community and school staff who were reassigned amid an investigation involving a transgender female student allowed to play on a girls’ sports team.

In a statement, officials with Broward County Public Schools said that Monarch High principal James Cecil, a 25 year veteran of the Broward district, had been reassigned off-campus while an investigation into allegations of improper student participation in sports, specifically allowing a trans student to participate on the girls’ volleyball team.

Local NBC News affiliate WPTV 6 reported that in addition to Cecil, several other staff were reassigned as school district officials investigate the allegations that the Florida state law signed by Florida’s Republican Governor Ron DeSantis two years ago, banning Trans youth athletes from participating in sports was violated.

Local journalist Kevin Deutsch reported that in an email and robocall Monday morning, Monarch High School parents and staff were informed that Cecil and three others “have been notified that they are part of the BCPS Special Investigative Unit’s investigation and have been reassigned to non-school sites pending the outcome,” according to a district spokesperson.

The other staff members are Assistant Principal Kenneth May, Teacher/Athletic Director Dione Hester, and Information Management Technician Jessica Norton, according to BCPS.

Additionally, Alex Burgess, a temporary athletic coach at the school, “has been advised his services are paused while the investigation is ongoing,” the spokesperson said.

Students perform MASSIVE WALKOUT at Monarch High School after staff reassigned:

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U.S. Federal Courts

California AG: Unredacted Federal lawsuit against Meta “damning”

“Meta knows that what it is doing is bad for kids — period. It is now there in black and white, and it is damning” 

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California Attorney General Rob Bonta listens intently to a member of the LGBTQ+ Community during a August 2023 presentation. (Photo Credit: Office of the Attorney General)

OAKLAND, Calif. — California Attorney General Rob Bonta on Monday announced the public release of a largely unredacted copy of the federal complaint filed by a bipartisan coalition of 33 attorneys general against Meta Platforms, Inc. and affiliates (Meta) on October 24, 2023.

Co-led by Attorney General Bonta, the coalition is alleging that Meta designed and deployed harmful features on Instagram and Facebook that addict children and teens to their mental and physical detriment.

As originally filed, however, much of the federal complaint included information conditionally under seal. Based on the company’s own documents, the removal of the redactions provides additional context for the misconduct that the attorneys general allege against Meta. 

“Meta knows that what it is doing is bad for kids — period. Thanks to our unredacted federal complaint, it is now there in black and white, and it is damning,” said Bonta. “We will continue to vigorously prosecute this matter.”

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CBS News reported that the state’s prosecutors built their case, in part, using snippets of emails, earnings call transcripts and other internal communications — all of which suggest the extreme value of young users’ personal information and time to company profits. 

In an emailed statement from October when the joint suit was filed, Meta said it was disappointed by the route taken by the attorneys general.

Meta is determined to provide teens with “safe, positive experiences online, and have already introduced over 30 tools to support teens and their families,” the company said at the time.

In a Monday statement, a Meta spokesperson said, “The complaint mischaracterizes our work using selective quotes and cherry-picked documents.”

Highlights from the newly revealed portions of the complaint include the following:

  • Mark Zuckerberg personally vetoed Meta’s proposed policy to ban image filters that simulated the effects of plastic surgery, despite internal pushback and an expert consensus that such filters harm users’ mental health, especially for women and girls. Complaint ¶¶ 333-68.
  • Despite public statements that Meta does not prioritize the amount of time users spend on its social media platforms, internal documents show that Meta set explicit goals of increasing “time spent” and meticulously tracked engagement metrics, including among teen users. Complaint ¶¶ 134-150.
  • Meta continuously misrepresented that its social media platforms were safe, while internal data revealed that users experienced harms on its platforms at far higher rates. Complaint ¶¶ 458-507.
  • Meta knows that its social media platforms are used by millions of children under 13, including, at one point, around 30% of all 10–12-year-olds, and unlawfully collects their personal information. Meta does this despite Mark Zuckerberg testifying before Congress in 2021 that Meta “kicks off” children under 13. Complaint ¶¶ 642-811.

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Texas

Prominent anti-LGBTQ+ activist running for Texas House

Woodfill has for years been at the helm of conservative Christian and anti-LGBTQ+ movements in Houston and Texas

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Jared Woodfill (Screenshot/YouTube KHOU Houston)

By Robert Downen | HOUSTON, Texas – Prominent anti-LGBTQ+ attorney and former Harris County GOP chair Jared Woodfill is running for the Texas House and to replace House Speaker Dade Phelan.

Woodfill announced his candidacy for House District 138 this week, touting his legal challenges to COVID-19 mandates and LGBTQ+ legislation, and the four “Republican sweeps” that Harris County Republicans saw during his tenure as the local GOP’s leader from 2002 to 2014.

He’s running against incumbent Republican Rep. Lacey Hull, who was first elected to represent the northwest Houston district in 2020 with backing from Gov. Greg Abbott and U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Houston. Hull was ranked as one of the most conservative members of the Texas House this year based on an analysis of voting records by Rice University political scientist Mark Jones.

Woodfill’s campaign has already tried to frame Hull as a Republican in Name Only — RINO — by citing D ratings from two conservative activist groups. His campaign also accuses her of conspiring with Phelan — a longtime nemesis of Woodfill and other ultraconservative Texas Republicans — to “undermine” conservative legislation and impeach Attorney General Ken Paxton.

“The entire episode was an example of why ‘RINOs’ in Austin must be voted out of office,” Woodfill’s campaign website states. “Woodfill will be ready on Day 1 to bring decency back to HD 138, and return our conservative grassroots values back to the Texas House of Representatives.”

Woodfill and Hull could not be reached for comment Friday.

Woodfill has for years been at the helm of conservative Christian and anti-LGBTQ+ movements in Houston and Texas. In 2015, he and well-known Houston GOP powerbroker and anti-gay activist Dr. Steven Hotze played key roles in the defeat of an ordinance that would have extended equal rights protections to LGBTQ+ Houstonians, during which they compared gay people to Nazis and helped popularize “groomer” rhetoric.

The two have remained close, leading a pro-Paxton fundraising group during the attorney general’s impeachment this summer and spearheading legal challenges to COVID-19 closure mandates and election results in Harris County. Woodfill is also representing Hotze in a criminal investigation stemming from a 2020 incident in which a private investigator, allegedly acting at Hotze’s behest, held at gunpoint an air-conditioning repairman who he believed was transporting fake ballots.

Woodfill has faced his own legal issues: He has for years been at the center of an ongoing lawsuit in which a man accuses Woodfill’s former law partner and Southern Baptist leader Paul Pressler of decades of sexual abuse. In March, The Texas Tribune reported that Woodfill testified under oath that he was alerted in 2004 about child sexual abuse allegations against Pressler, who Woodfill was representing at the time in an assault lawsuit that was settled for $450,000. Despite that, Woodfill continued to work with Pressler, providing him with a string of young, male personal assistants who worked out of Pressler’s home. The lawsuit is set for trial early next year.

In 2018, Woodfill was also investigated for money laundering by the Harris County District Attorney’s Office after being accused of misappropriating funds from two clients of his law firm, though no charges were filed.

Hull cruised to reelection in HD 138 last year, beating her Democratic opponent Stephanie Morales by 15 percentage points — or about 8,000 votes.

Disclosure: Rice University has been a financial supporter 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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Robert Downen’s staff photo

Robert Downen is a reporter covering democracy and the threats to it, including extremism, disinformation and conspiracies. Before joining the Tribune in 2022, he worked for five years at the Houston Chronicle. As a Hearst Media fellow, he developed what would become “Abuse of Faith,” a landmark investigation into child sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention that prompted a Department of Justice investigation.

Before coming to Texas, Robert was a business reporter in New York’s capital region, and the managing editor of six newspapers in his home state of Illinois. He is a 2014 graduate of Eastern Illinois University.

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

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Quality journalism doesn’t come free

Perhaps it goes without saying — but producing quality journalism isn’t cheap. At a time when newsroom resources and revenue across the country are declining, The Texas Tribune remains committed to sustaining our mission: creating a more engaged and informed Texas with every story we cover, every event we convene and every newsletter we send. As a nonprofit newsroom, we rely on members to help keep our stories free and our events open to the public. Do you value our journalism? Show us with your support.

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Florida

Far-right blog says Satan’s overseeing Target’s holiday offerings

“When shoppers enter the seasonal aisles, they are greeted by pride flag waving Santa’s and transgender-themed nutcrackers”

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'Pride' Nutcracker 2023 holiday decoration item sold at Target stores. (Photo by Vilk Radic)

LAKE MARY, Fla. – A staff writer for Florida-based far-right anti-LGBTQ+ Charisma Media’s blog Charisma News, alleges that Satan aka The Devil, Lucifer, or the Prince of Darkness, Beelzebub, Mephistopheles, Baphomet, Lord of the Flies, the Antichrist, Old Scratch, Father of Lies and Moloch is in charge of Minneapolis-based Target Corporation’s Christmas offerings.

According to James Lasher, Satan and Target teamed up to offer shoppers LGBTQ+ themed Christmas decorations. One in particular, an LGBTQ+ affirming nutcracker drew scrutiny. Lasher writes: “The year is not over yet, and the retail giant thought it would be a good idea to ring in the Christmas season with another ‘Pride’ campaign where they deck the halls in transgender flag colors.” He then goes on to note:

“When shoppers enter the seasonal aisles, they are greeted by pride flag waving Santa’s and transgender-themed nutcrackers who come in white and black and feature purple bears and a pride flag, the higher tier model costing $63.00 and comes with a staff with a heart on it saying “Love is Love.””

Lasher summarizes the Target Christmas holiday shopping experience as: “The goal of Satan is to move our ever-increasingly secular society away from any references of Jesus Christ. And he has succeeded mightily in accomplishing that goal in America. This entire charade of dedicating the month of June to pride is merely cover for the real goal of saturating American culture in this pagan ideology 24/7, and what more proof do you need than the attempt at making Christmas ‘Pride’ now?”

The Christian extremist writer then cites biblical references as to why Target is marketing-in-sin and then writes: “The Christian church is battling this takeover itself, with apostate congregations taking down crosses and replacing them with pride flags. No longer do they pray to Jesus and read the Bible, but instead they pray to drag queens and read the works of radical activists.”

In May of this year, outrage over LGBTQ+ Pride related merchandise being sold, especially in the company’s southern regional stores, by far-right activists caused Target Corporation to confirm that in some of its locations in semi-rural areas of rural Georgia, South Carolina, and Arkansas have moved Pride merchandise from the front of the stores to backroom areas or deeper into the stores after confrontations and backlash from shoppers.

Target’s Pride Collection, which was displayed for sale starting on May 1, is comprised of more than 2,000 products, including clothing, books, music and home furnishings. Items include “gender fluid” mugs, “queer all year” calendars and books for children aged 2-8 titled “Bye Bye, Binary,” “Pride 1,2,3” and “I’m not a girl.”

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Speaking for the Minneapolis-based retail giant, spokesperson Kayla Castaneda noted: “Since introducing this year’s collection, we’ve experienced threats impacting our team members’ sense of safety and wellbeing while at work. Given these volatile circumstances, we are making adjustments to our plans, including removing items that have been at the center of the most significant confrontational behavior.”

Castaneda related that the company has been celebrating LGBTQ Pride Month for over ten years, but this year the increased opposition and hostility gave the company pause and led to a decision to pull some of the Pride merchandise.

In an email to the Blade in June, Castaneda said, “Our focus now is on moving forward with our continuing commitment to the LGBTQIA community and standing with them as we celebrate Pride month and throughout the year.”

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Kansas

Kansas library gets new lease by removing LGBTQ books for kids

‘I’m not real proud’: Advisory committee searched for LGBTQ words to identify and force removal of a dozen books

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Judith Cremer, director of the St. Marys public library, says she has worked with commissioners to keep the library's lease because the city's residents need access to the library. (Rachel Mipro/Kansas Reflector)

By Rachel Mipro | ST. MARYS, Ks. — The public library in St. Marys has managed to hang onto its lease for one more year by removing all of the youth-oriented LGBTQ books from library shelves.

Library director Judith Cremer said the decision was the result of her efforts to work with the city commission, which has been threatening the library’s lease for more than a year. 

Cremer said the adult section of the St. Marys location still contains some LGBTQ books, but in the junior collection, there are “probably not” any books left that contain LGBTQ content.

“I’m not real proud of that. … I feel bad because I think that there should be a variety of things for everybody, but like I say, we do have eight locations and I can get anything for anybody within about a day,” Cremer said. “So that’s a compromise I have to make.”

“I’m just trying to be realistic in the fact that we do have a precarious position here,” she added.

The St. Marys library is the headquarters for branches in more rural communities within Pottawatomie and Wabaunsee counties.

Cremer described the titles that were removed as “pretty mild” and “nothing that isn’t normal in mainstream society.”

A six-person library advisory committee is in charge of evaluating books. One of the committee members searched “gay,” “transgender,” “lesbian,” “bisexual” and “queer” in the library’s catalog to find books the committee wanted to review. They then read the books before determining which ones needed to be physically removed from the library premises.

They removed about a dozen books, including “Squad,” “Blood Countess,” “The Great American Whatever,” “Beyond Clueless,” “Red Rolls of Magic,” “Infinity Son” and “Icebreaker.”

“Most of these titles, the topic really isn’t LGBTQ or anything like that,” Cremer said. “It’s just describing a reality that is normal now for most people.”

Cremer has been working with the library advisory committee over the past few months in an attempt to appease city commissioners who threatened to pull the library’s lease because of religious-based objections to LGBTQ books. While the commissioners have no governing influence over the library, the Pottawatomie Wabaunsee Regional Library would be forced to find a new location if the lease weren’t renewed, giving up a community spot it has held for decades and depriving St. Marys residents of easily accessible library material.

The regional library has locations in Alma, Alta Vista, Eskridge, Harveyville, Olsburg, Onaga, St. Marys and Westmoreland, with county residents funding the library through taxes. Books removed from St. Marys were sent to these other locations.

The St. Marys location has struggled to work with members of the Society of St. Pius X, an extreme religious sect that has become a major influence in the small city of St. Marys. An estimated half of the library committee members have ties to SSPX.

All five of St. Marys’ city commissioners are tied to SSPX and have said their religion shapes their views, which includes an ongoing campaign against LGBTQ content. Some have characterized the library campaign as an SSPX attempt to dominate the last public space in St. Marys not already under its control.

A view of books inside the Pottawatomie Wabaunsee Regional Library in St. Marys
 St. Marys city commissioners have said they want LGBTQ “garbage” removed from the Pottawatomie Wabaunsee Regional Library. (Rachel Mipro/Kansas Reflector)

Commission member Matthew Childs, who currently serves as the mayor, authored a lease renewal clause last year that demanded the library remove all LGBTQ and socially divisive books from the shelves. Facing intense public pressure, the commission in December dropped the clause and renewed the lease for one year.

But as public pressure faded, the commissioners renewed their fight against the library in the spring, arguing that LGBTQ content, such as transgender “garbage,” needed to go.

“My goal is to terminate the lease with the library,” Commissioner Gerard Kleinsmith said during an April commission meeting. “If they want to have their library, so be it. Go do it. Find another building to do it in. … I will not ever vote for any taxpayer money, facilities, anything to be used anywhere that houses this kind of garbage.”

 Kleinsmith is meant to serve as the liaison between the city commission and library advisory committee.

During a Nov. 7 meeting, commissioners agreed to renew the library’s lease for another year.

Matthew Childs, new mayor of St. Marys, said some limits should be set on city debates. (Rachel Mipro/Kansas Reflector)
Matthew Childs,  mayor of St. Marys, says the library has shown its ability to work with the community. (Rachel Mipro/Kansas Reflector)

“They’ve been doing some good work,” Kleinsmith said. “They’ve gotten 12 books that have been removed from the St. Marys library. … They’re going in the right direction.”

Childs said the library’s actions showed they were able to work as a community.

“That was the question in the first place really, ‘Why don’t we work as a community?’ And it looks like we’re doing that. So that’s a win,” Childs said. 

It’s uncertain how many more books could be removed from the library in the future. When asked if there was a line she would hold if the committee continues to ask for more removals, Cremer said it would depend on the decision-making process.

Her priority is hanging onto the St. Marys location, she said, because she feels city residents need the library.

“We need to protect all of our areas of information, so that when people need that information to make decisions about their life, we have that information available,” Cremer said. “I know that and that’s what I’m striving for. But I do have to compromise to keep the doors open.”

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Rachel Mipro

A graduate of Louisiana State University, Rachel Mipro has covered state government in Baton Rouge and New Orleans. She and her fellow team of journalists were 2022 Goldsmith Prize Semi-Finalists for their work featuring the rise of the KKK in northern Louisiana, following racially-motivated shootings in 1960. With her move to the Midwest, Rachel is now turning her focus toward issues within Kansas public policies.

The preceding article was previously published by the Kansas Reflector and is republished with permission.

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Texas

Texas school board investigates how trans kid was stripped of role

The Sherman school board also temporarily ended the superintendent oversight of its fine arts programs pending results of the investigation

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Amy and Phillip Hightower sit with their son Max Hightower in a hotel in Denton on Nov. 9, 2023. Max temporarily lost his role in the Sherman High School musical because he is transgender. (Photo Credit: Azul Sordo for The Texas Tribune)

By Ayden Runnels | DENTON — A rural North Texas school board on Friday agreed to launch an investigation into how a transgender student temporarily lost his role in the high school musical — an administrative decision that thrust the small town into the national debate over LGBTQ+ rights.

The board also stripped the school district’s superintendent of his duties overseeing the fine arts department, pending the outcome of the investigation.

The Sherman school board’s decision Friday afternoon is the latest flashpoint since Max Hightower, a senior at Sherman High School, was told he would lose his role — and solo — in the musical earlier this month.

The school board previously reversed that decision, directing school leadership to reinstate Hightower and other students in their original roles in “Oklahoma!” — a quintessential American musical about love and statehood.

The board’s decision seems to counter Texas’s political reality. For several years, Republicans and conservative policymakers at all levels have sought to limit transgender rights. Nearby schools in suburban Dallas have pushed book bans and policies that require teachers to call students by the name on their birth certificate and use similar gender pronouns. The Legislature this year also banned gender-affirming treatment for minors, even with parental permission.

And yet the school board’s actions reaffirms what Max Hightower, 17, and his parents have long felt about their rural town. Until the musical controversy, Max said he largely felt accepted here.

“I’ve never had any issues,” Max said. “That’s why I was so surprised.”

Public backlash for the decision to recast Max and other students was swift — dozens of news articles and multiple statements from organizations across the nation condemned the move.

The school board meeting Friday was a stage of its own, with dozens of Sherman residents giving impassioned public comments both for and against Sherman ISD Superintendent Tyson Bennett. One commenter had to be removed by security after he refused to cede his time.

Community pastors and former school employees lined up to support Bennett. They said the board’s decision to give Max his role back was more than enough.

“Get your pound of flesh somewhere else,” former Sherman ISD employee Bob Jones said during the meeting.

Those who suggested Bennett should be either fired — or at the least reprimanded — called the decision illegal and cited Title IX, the federal civil rights law prohibiting discrimination based on gender. Others called for investigations into how the superintendent handled this situation and others in the past, as some parents called the move a “pattern” of behavior.

The board voted unanimously both to approve the hiring of an investigator and to remove Bennett from supervising the fine arts programs. Sherman ISD’s chief academic officer Amy Pesina will oversee fine arts programs in the interim.

Bennett has served as Sherman’s superintendent since May 2022, and has been met with criticisms from parents since the beginning of his tenure. Bennett introduced the “Stand in the Gap” program, which encourages local churches to be more involved with the district, and invited pastors to say prayer during one of the district’s convocations, a move several parents described as “inappropriate.”

The board’s decision on Friday is a “little win” to Phillip Hightower, Max’s father, but he says Bennett is still “dangerous” to LGBTQ+ students in the district.

“It’s great that he won’t interact with the fine arts,” Phillip said. “But what about all the other students?”

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Ayden Runnels’s staff photo

Ayden Runnels is a reporting fellow based in Denton, Texas. Ayden was born in the Houston suburb of Clear Lake and speaks English and Arabic. They serve as editor-in-chief of the North Texas Daily, the University of North Texas’ student-run newspaper, and have worked on freelance projects for Newsweek and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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

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Quality journalism doesn’t come free

Perhaps it goes without saying — but producing quality journalism isn’t cheap. At a time when newsroom resources and revenue across the country are declining, The Texas Tribune remains committed to sustaining our mission: creating a more engaged and informed Texas with every story we cover, every event we convene and every newsletter we send. As a nonprofit newsroom, we rely on members to help keep our stories free and our events open to the public. Do you value our journalism? Show us with your support.

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Maryland

Out former Maryland mayor sentenced to 30 years for child porn

The sentencing followed news that surfaced which shocked Wojahn’s friends and longtime political supporters that he had been arrested

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Former Mayor Patrick Wojahn was sentenced to 30 years of incarceration on Monday. (Mugshot via Prince George's County Police Department)

UPPER MARLBORO, Md. – A Prince George’s County Circuit Court judge on Monday, Nov. 20, sentenced gay former College Park Mayor Patrick Wojahn to 30 years of incarceration at an emotional three-and-a-half-hour long sentencing hearing that took place more than three months after Wojahn pleaded guilty to 140 counts of child pornography-related charges as part of a plea agreement with prosecutors.

In agreeing to carry out the plea agreement, Judge Karen Mason sentenced Wojahn to 150 years in prison, with 120 years suspended, requiring that he serve 30 years. 

The judge and prosecutors pointed out that under Maryland’s sentencing rules Wojahn will be eligible to apply for release on parole after serving 25 percent of the 30-year sentence, which could result in his release after seven and a half years.

The sentencing followed news that surfaced in March of this year, which shocked Wojahn’s friends and longtime political supporters, that he had been arrested after police raided his College Park home and confiscated multiple cell phones, a tablet, computer, and a storage device containing video and still images, leading to two indictments alleging possession and distribution of child pornography.

The 140 counts to which he pleaded guilty include 60 counts of distribution of child porn, 40 counts of possession of child porn, and 40 counts of possession of child pornography with intent to distribute it.

He announced his resignation as mayor, a position he held since 2015, shortly before his arrest.

Wojahn’s husband, mother, sister, and 13 friends testified at the sentencing hearing. Most told the judge they understood the seriousness of the charges against their loved one and friend but called on the judge to take into consideration the good that Wojahn has done as a family member, friend, and elected official over his lifetime. Several of the friends said mental health issues and an addiction problem had played a role in Wojahn’s actions and urged the judge to arrange for him to receive mental health related services.

Among those who testified were Sister Jeannine Gramick, a Roman Catholic nun who co-founded the LGBT Catholic support organization New Ways Ministry, and Francis DeBernardo, the current executive director of New Ways Ministry. Also testifying was Thomas Bower, an official with the LGBT Catholic organization Dignity Washington, of which Wojahn has been a participant.  

Judge Mason said she would refer Wojahn, who has been held without bond since the time of his arrest in March of this year, to the Patuxent Institution, a maximum-security correctional facility located in Jessup, Md., that specializes in providing mental health services for its male and female inmates.

Mason also included in her sentencing a requirement that Wojahn serve five years of supervised probation upon his release from incarceration, register as a sex offender, and have no unsupervised contact with minors.

The testimony from family members and friends came after P.G. County Assistant State’s Attorneys Jessica Garth and Monica Meyers argued that those who possess and distribute child pornography are responsible for the suffering of victims of child sex abuse who are forced to take part in the production of child porn video and still images, even though, as in Wojahn’s case, the perpetrators do not produce the images and don’t directly come into contact with the children depicted in the images.

Police and prosecutors have alleged in charging documents that Wojahn had uploaded and/or shared dozens of videos or still images on the social media app Kik depicting explicit sexual acts between adult men and prepubescent boys, depicting prepubescent boys engaging in sex with each other, or engaging in masturbation.

In a development that surprised some attending the sentencing hearing, the two prosecutors disclosed that with the help of law enforcement officials and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, they identified 52 of the juveniles who were depicted in the video or still photo images that police had confiscated from Wojahn’s home. At a press conference following the sentencing hearing, prosecutor Meyers said the 52 then children who were identified, most of whom are now adults, were from the U.S., Canada, Mexico, and several European countries, including Germany, Russia, Portugal, and the United Kingdom.

Through information obtained from law enforcement officials in the U.S. and internationally, the two P.G. County prosecutors said they obtained statements from or case reports for about 42 of the individuals listed as victims and presented those statements at the sentencing hearing by projecting them on two large screens in the courtroom. Meyers read each of the statements as they were projected, with most of the victims saying they suffered long-lasting harmful effects from being forced as children to take part in the production of pornographic images.

Meyers said while prosecutors presented victim impact statements for about 40 of the juveniles who were identified in the porn videos and still images, Wojahn had possession and helped to distribute images of “hundreds more on his devices” who were not identified.

In an effort to highlight the large numbers of sexually abused juveniles in the videos or still images in Wojahn’s possession, Meyers pointed to a photo that the prosecutors displayed on the large video screen in the courtroom during Monday’s sentencing hearing of a junior high school in College Park located near where Wojahn lived.

“That his own elementary school a half a mile from his house has less than 500 students who attended, he had more victims than that on his telephone,” Meyers said at the press conference. “And on his device, he had memorialized more than 500 victims who were sexually abused, raped, and tortured,” she said.  

“These are not victimless crimes, even though the victim is separated from the person who’s abusing them by a computer screen,” Assistant State’s Attorney Garth said at the press conference. “They are real people. They experience real damage, psychological and physical damage,” she said. “And they have to live with what happened to  them for the rest of their lives.”  

P.G. County State’s Attorney Aisha Braveboy, who called the press conference, thanked the team of prosecutors and police investigators who worked on the Wojahn case.

“No child deserves to be sexually abused,” Braveboy said. “No child deserves their images to be displayed on the internet or any platform for hundreds of thousands and possibly millions of people to view,” she said. “And so, in accepting this plea agreement, we are satisfied that Mayor Wojahn understood the seriousness of his actions and wanted to take responsibility.”

Wojahn, who was dressed in an orange prison jumpsuit, was the last to speak at the hearing before Mason issued her sentence. Due to the fact that Wojahn and many of the others who spoke at the hearing were not using microphones, much of what was said could not be heard clearly.

“I want to give an apology,” he could be heard saying. “I don’t know what happened. I can’t explain what changed me,” he continued, weeping while speaking. “I want to apologize to all my friends. I apologize to my family,” he said. He then turned to look at his husband, Dave Kolesar, and expressed his love for his husband. Both were crying as Wojahn spoke.

“I hope what I went through will help others who need help, get help,” he said. “I do hope I will be able to recover fully myself. I hope others will know recovery is possible.”

Wojahn’s attorney, David Moyse, pointed out that Wojahn had cooperated fully with the investigation into his actions as soon as P.G. County police entered his house with a search warrant in March. Much of what Moyse said couldn’t be heard due to the faulty sound system in the courtroom, but he urged the judge to take into consideration all the positive aspects of Wojahn’s life.

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Florida

Newly introduced Florida bill could destroy LGBTQ+ nonprofits

The legislation would establish “biological” pronouns as official state policy applying to government employees and contractors

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Florida House Of Representatives (Photo Credit: Florida House Of Representatives)

By Erin Reed | TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A new bill just introduced in Florida aims to expand “Don’t Say Gay Or Trans” provisions to a broad range of workplaces. Targeting government employees, contractors, and nonprofits, the bill sets forth restrictions and bans on policies relating to pronouns, gender identity, and sexuality.

Specifically, it would prohibit state and local government employees as well as any contractors engaged with the government from changing their pronouns or honorifics if they do not match their assigned sex at birth. It would also bar them from instructing on gender identity or sexuality, similar to “Don’t Say Gay Or Trans” laws already active in the state education system. The legislation would establish “biological” pronouns as official state policy.

The bill also would establish protections for what it calls “deeply held biology-based beliefs.” It may even prevent all nonprofits in the state from mandating any “training, instruction, or other activity on sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression,” a clause that could destroy LGBTQ+ nonprofits across Florida.

The bill, HB599, was introduced by Representative Ryan Chamberlin, a Republican. The bill is split into two sections, with the first section applying to government employees and contractors, which it defines as “an individual, partnership, corporation, or business entity” that “enters or attempts to enter into a contract for services” with any state, county, municipality, or special district of Florida.

These definitions encompass a huge number of businesses, such as stadiums, convention centers, major hospitals, insurance agencies, and more. For these businesses, as well as for all government workers, the bill would declare that it is the state’s policy that “a person’s sex is an immutable biological trait and that it is false to ascribe to a person a pronoun that does not correspond to such person’s sex.” It then would bar covered employees from sharing pronouns that “do not correspond to that person’s sex,” effectively banning social transition at work for these employees.

See the provisions barring pronouns, honorifics, and more here:

The bill also would enshrine a new phrase into law: protections for employees “deeply held religious or biology-based beliefs.” The phrase “deeply held religious beliefs” has longstanding precedent in constitutional law and is used to overturn laws judged to be violating someone’s freedom of religion.

Deeply held “biology-based” beliefs, however, are not something that has ever been a part of any law. It would appear that this line is meant to provide religious-based protections to people who assert that their misgendering of transgender people and using transgender people’s old names is part of their “biology-based” rights.

The bill is not limited in its application to government employees and contractors, however. A separate section of the bill would apply to “nonprofit organizations or an employer who receives funding from the state.” In the most broad reading of this section, separating “nonprofit organizations” from “employers who receive funding from the state,” it would bar all such organizations from mandating “training, instruction, or other activity on sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression.”

Provisions in HB599

This provision is severe in its potential impact. Virtually every LGBTQ+ organization would be radically affected by it and would likely have to shut down. It would be nearly impossible for an LGBTQ+ organization to run without providing instruction, training, and “other activity” around gender identity or sexuality. It would be a blatant power grab by the state targeting organizations critical to the government and would further drive LGBTQ+ activism and organizing underground in the state. If enforced broadly, this section could have a similar impact to laws in Russia designed to shut down LGBTQ+ organizations there.

This section would have impacts far beyond LGBTQ+ organizations as well. The provisions would apply to “any organization that is exempt from taxation” including “s. 501” organizations. This would include, for instance, 501c4s, which are crucial during election cycles and could be used to target left-leaning organizations running election ads. Many of these organizations have LGBTQ+ employees and provide instruction and accommodations for their employees, which would be barred by the state if this gets passed into law.

It could also have impacts on medical organizations that do business with state and local governments. Planned Parenthood, a 501c3, heavily provides care for LGBTQ+ people, and such a law could be used to target the organization statewide. Likewise, many state hospital systems that do business with the government often must educate employees and patients on HIV and AIDs, which is impossible to divorce from LGBTQ+ issues. Community health clinics would, similarly, have to contend with these provisions.

Brandon J. Wolf, the National Press Secretary for the Human Rights Campaign said to the Blade in a statement Tuesday: “This Florida bill is a hateful, anti-LGBTQ+ monstrosity. It is dangerous, unconstitutional, and we know it’s just the start of politicians’ attacks on our community this legislative session. We’re prepared to fight back.”

This legislation represents an early move in what promises to be a challenging year for anti-LGBTQ+ legislation in 2024. Historically, Florida has often been the breeding ground for new laws aimed at the LGBTQ+ community. This bill might well serve as a precursor to the next “model policy” that could be replicated in multiple states, and bears close watching.

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Erin Reed is a transgender woman (she/her pronouns) 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.

Follow her on Twitter (Link)

Website here: https://www.erininthemorning.com/

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The preceding article was first published at Erin In The Morning and is republished with permission.

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Virginia

Virginia school board says no to grant from LGBTQ nonprofit

“The LBGTQ agenda in schools is about indoctrination and grooming our children into an evil and wicked lifestyle”

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E.C. Glass High School/Facebook

LYNCHBURG, Va. – At its regular board meeting last week, the Lynchburg City School Board  voted 7-2 against accepting a grant from the LGBTQ-focused nonprofit It Gets Better Project. The Lynchburg News and Advance reported that the $10,000 grant was earmarked to develop a safe-space or “quiet room.”

The E.C. Glass High School Gender and Sexuality Alliance (GSA) club was awarded the grant back in August as part of the non-profit’s “50 States 50 Grants 5,000 Voices” program, an “initiative to fund projects that support and uplift LGBTQ+ identity in schools across the U.S. and Canada.”

In an interview with Lynchburg’s WSET ABC 13 News, Brittany Harris, co-president of the GSA Club, said that E.C. Glass was the first school in Virginia to be awarded the money from the grant.

“We worked so hard to get this,” Harris said. “We submitted videos and testimonials from our students and how they have conquered so much; it was so surreal to be awarded the grant.”

During the October 24 school board work session meeting, Board Chairman Dr. Atul Gupta and LCS Superintendent Dr. Crytsal Edwards told E.C. Glass principal Daniel Rule to provide more information on it and answer questions about the grant. This was also requested of the student GSA officers.

“Many schools within LCS already have such rooms and they have been shown to promote student self-regulation and are correlated to better student outcomes,” Rule told the board at that meeting.

“The students selected this project due to the high rate of bullying that the LGBTQIA+ community experiences, but the entire school would be welcomed and encouraged to use the room. The budget for the room includes flexible seating, interactive sensory devices, non-intrusive lighting and white noise machines,” Rule added.

During the Nov. 14 meeting the Lynchburg News and Advance reported that five E.C. Glass students and GSA club members told the board why they applied for the grant and why they picked the projects it’s intended to fund.

“Many students, including myself, struggle with mental health. School can be overwhelming just by itself, but a lot has happened in the last three or four years, what with the uncertainty of COVID along with the many lockdowns and how those have affected students,” junior Lindley Crosby said.

“Students have skipped school because they don’t feel safe or they don’t feel supported and these classrooms can be disruptive and chaotic and sometimes it can be too much. We want to provide this safe room so they have somewhere to go and breathe for a second.”

There were points that the meeting became contentious, a grandparent and guardian of an E.C. Glass student, Greg Barry, spoke in opposition to the grant: “Let me be very clear, the LBGTQ agenda in schools is about indoctrination and grooming our children into an evil and wicked lifestyle, all while circumventing the rights and responsibilities of parents,” he said.

Lynchburg school board rejects grant for LGBTQ+ high school safe space:

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Pennsylvania

Moms for Liberty chapter in Philadelphia has sex offender leader

Moms for Liberty chapter faith-based outreach coordinator and a local pastor is also a convicted sex offender

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Screenshot/YouTube CBS 6 Philadelphia

PHILADELPHIA, Penn. – As first reported by The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Moms for Liberty Philadelphia chapter’s faith-based outreach coordinator and a local pastor is also a convicted sex offender stemming from a 2012 felony conviction for aggravated sexual abuse of a 14-year-old boy in Illinois.

According to court records obtained by The Inquirer, Phillip Fisher Jr. was living in Chicago at the time. In a statement to the The Inquirer, Fisher insists that he did nothing wrong, despite pleading guilty to one of 12 counts filed against him after an investigation by the Chicago Police Department.

Fisher, currently the pastor at the Center of Universal Divinity in Olney, and works with Moms for Liberty connecting the Philadelphia chapter with other local faith leaders in a campaign to expand the group’s influence.

The Inquirer also reported that a Moms for Liberty national spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment about Fisher’s criminal history.

Sheila Armstrong, another Republican ward leader who chairs the local Moms for Liberty chapter, said she was also surprised. She said Fisher has been active in community outreach events with local and federal law enforcement, and she expressed concern that children were sometimes part of that.

Armstrong was astounded to hear about Fisher’s criminal pastbecause she had just received from the state Department of Human Services on Thursday a “child abuse history certification” in Fisher’s name so that he could volunteer for an upcoming Christmas Party for an autism nonprofit that she operates.

That certificate said “no records exist” in the state’s database listing Fisher “as a perpetrator of an indicated or founded report of child abuse.”

Moms for Liberty spouts overt hate against the LGBTQ community, regularly targeting trans individuals. The group’s official Twitter page quoted an article in March claiming that The Trevor Project — the world’s largest suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for LGBTQ youth — “is actively grooming children into a trans identity.” As recently as June 13, Moms for Liberty described the increase of young people identifying as trans as a “transgender contagion” and encourage parents to “fight” it. 

The organization has advocated for the removal of select books with LGBTQ themes, describing the basis for removal as “sexually explicit” content — all while partnering with transphobic publishers to place right-wing propaganda in public school libraries. One chapter even filed a public records request asking for a list of “LGBTQ” book titles from the school library.

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