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Puerto Rico HIV/AIDS service groups respond to coronavirus

Concerns over government’s response to pandemic mount

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Hurricane Maria, gay news, Washington Blade
Sunset in San Juan’s Ocean Park neighborhood on Sept. 21, 2018. The coronavirus pandemic has forced organizations that serve Puerto Ricans with HIV/AIDS and members of the LGBTQ community to change the way they work. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

The coronavirus pandemic has forced HIV/AIDS service organizations and advocacy groups in Puerto Rico to change the way they work.

AIDS Healthcare Foundation Regional Director for Puerto Rico Silvana Erbstein on Tuesday told the Los Angeles Blade in an email the organization’s clinic in Trujillo Alto, a municipality that is less than 15 miles southeast of the Puerto Rican capital of San Juan, “remains operational.”

Erbstein said the clinic continues to provide medical, case management and pharmacy services and transportation for its patients.

“All staff is on site and our clients are being served in person when needed (emergencies, needed lab, treatment) or via phone consultation,” said Erbstein. “Strict policies and procedures on safety for patients and staff, and social distancing are followed.”

Erbstein said AIDS Healthcare Foundation’s pharmacy “continues its operations as usual,” although it is delivering most medications to patients’ homes or making them available for on-site pick up. Arianna Lint, executive director of Arianna’s Center, a South Florida-based organization that works with transgender Puerto Ricans, told the Blade that Arianna’s Center has also reached out to the pharmacy to “make sure transgender people in Puerto Rico have a continued relationship” with it during the pandemic.

Wilfred Labiosa, executive director of Waves Ahead and SAGE Puerto Rico, told the Blade on March 31 during a telephone interview from San Juan that local pharmacies have also given medications to patients without prescriptions.

Labiosa said Waves Ahead and SAGE Puerto Rico went fully online on March 17, the day before Gov. Wanda Vázquez issued an island-wide lockdown and curfew. Labiosa told the Blade the organizations’ roughly 300 clients who live in the San Juan metropolitan area and in Cabo Rojo, a municipality on Puerto Rico’s west coast, access services through their smart phones.

Waves Ahead and SAGE Puerto Rico also continue to provide coronavirus and non-coronavirus information and services on their Facebook pages.

“We are adapting to the new reality in Puerto Rico,” said Labiosa.

Bill’s Kitchen is a San Juan-based organization that prepares meals for nearly 900 people with HIV/AIDS.

Sandy Torres, the group’s executive director, on April 3 told the Blade during a telephone interview that she and her colleagues began to plan for the pandemic’s arrival in Puerto Rico in February.

Torres said Bill’s Kitchen provided clients with two weeks worth of supplies after Vázquez announced the curfew.

She told the Blade that Bill’s Kitchen received additional funds that allow her staff to deliver food, medications and other basic needs to more than 100 clients. Torres also said case managers continue to call their clients to see what they need.

“We put that intervention together three weeks ago and we have been doing that on the phone everyday since then,” she said.

From left: Bill’s Kitchen Executive Director Sandy Torres speaks with Angel Rodríguez, one of her organization’s volunteers, at her organization’s headquarters in San Juan’s Hato Rey neighborhood on Sept. 20, 2018. Bill’s Kitchen prepares meals for people with HIV/AIDS and other diseases. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

The pandemic arrived in Puerto Rico less than three years after Hurricane Maria devastated the U.S. commonwealth. A series of strong earthquakes caused extensive damage on Puerto Rico’s southwest coast earlier this year.

Former Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, a member of the pro-statehood New Progressive Party, resigned last August after a series of homophobic and misogynistic messages between him and members of his administration became public. Vázquez was Puerto Rico’s justice secretary before she became governor.

The Puerto Rico Department of Health indicates there are currently 683 confirmed coronavirus cases on the island and 33 deaths. The latest statistics also indicate 6,696 coronavirus tests have been conducted in Puerto Rico.

Vázquez on Sunday announced all businesses except for pharmacies and gas stations will be closed over the Easter weekend. Labiosa and other activists and service providers continue to criticize the Puerto Rican government’s response to the pandemic that includes lost coronavirus tests and the resignation of two health secretaries in March.

“It’s hard to tell the impact on the LGBTQ community and Puerto Ricans living with HIV because the government has not made testing widely available,” Pedro Julio Serrano, founder of Puerto Rico Para [email protected], a Puerto Rican LGBTQ advocacy group, told the Blade on March 31 in a text message. “To make things worse, there’s very little demographic information on who has tested positive.”

Serrano, who is a vocal critic of Vázquez and the New Progressive Party, added Puerto Rico is “flying with a blindfold imposed by the government and that is dangerous.”

“There’s no way of telling how widespread the pandemic is on the island,” he said.

Raymond Rohena of the Puerto Rico Trans Youth Coalition echoed Serrano.

“A lot of scientific information is needed to have an accurate picture of the actual situation with regards to coronavirus-related deaths,” said Rohena last week during a Facebook Messenger chat with the Blade their family’s home in the San Juan suburb of Carolina.

Labiosa noted San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz has worked with Quest Diagnostics to open a drive-through coronavirus testing site in her city’s Río Piedras neighborhood. Labiosa nevertheless conceded testing remains limited in Puerto Rico.

“There’s a very limited access to testing here, like in many parts of the states, but here the central government has lost tests in route,” he said.

Puerto Rico Gov. Wanda Vázquez (Photo via Twitter)

Rohena and other activists with whom the Blade has spoken say the lockdown and curfew the government has implemented in order to curb the pandemic have made people with HIV/AIDS and LGBTQ Puerto Ricans even more vulnerable.

Labiosa said one of his organizations’ clients — a 78-year-old man with HIV who lives in the San Juan metropolitan area — was eating only one egg every other day until he received his food stamp benefits at the end of March. Labiosa told the Blade the man then waited 45 minutes to enter a supermarket and had to use a shopping cart to bring his groceries home.

“He had to wait and then he exposed himself to go to a major store,” said Labiosa.

Labiosa told the Blade a lack of transportation and access to technology are among the other issues with which his organizations’ clients are dealing.

“It has been really hard for them to join into the platforms that we have developed in order not to stop the services,” he said, noting Waves Ahead and SAGE Puerto Rico are helping their clients get cell phones that can connect to the Internet.

“It is a challenge that we are meeting head on,” added Labiosa.

Lint said many of Arianna Center’s clients in Puerto Rico are sex workers. She told the Blade that many of them are “very, very concerned about their housing situation” because the curfew prevents them from working.

Torres said another concern is many Puerto Ricans with HIV have asthma and other health issues that make them even more vulnerable to the coronavirus. Torres told the Blade that many of Bill’s Kitchen’s clients receive food stamps and they are concerned about whether they will have enough food to eat during the lockdown.

“[There is] a very high level of anxiety,” Torres told the Blade. “There is also a lot of loneliness with this distancing.”

Rohena and Labiosa also expressed concern over the way the Puerto Rican government will distribute the money earmarked for the U.S. commonwealth under the $2.2 trillion stimulus package that President Trump signed on March 27.

The Associated Press reports anyone who makes under $75,000 a year will receive $1,200. Parents will also receive $500 for each child under the bill that Trump signed.

“I am afraid to ask about the distribution of that aid,” Labiosa told the Blade. “I told myself don’t hold your breath for the check. Let’s just celebrate if we receive it.” “We would be pleasantly surprised if all of our clients get that check,” he added. “It will really benefit them and a lot of the people in general who work in the tourism industry or those (industries that) are really impacted.”

The Blade has reached out to the Puerto Rican government for comment.

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U.S. Federal Courts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mississippi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania Governor bans conversion therapy using state funds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After the signing the Governor also noted:

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

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

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

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

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