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Federal grand jury indicts men accused of murdering transgender women in Puerto Rico

Suspects allegedly killed victims before burning bodies in car

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Kirby, Conover v. Conover, hate crime, gay news, Washington Blade

A federal grand jury in Puerto Rico on Wednesday indicted two men accused of murdering two transgender women last month.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in San Juan in a press release notes the grand jury indicted Sean Díaz de León and Juan Carlos Pagán Bonilla on four charges that include carjacking resulting in death, using a firearm in relation to crimes of violence and destruction of property using explosive materials.

Díaz and Pagán allegedly murdered Serena Angelique Velázquez and Layla Pelaz on April 21 once they learned their gender identity after they had “sexual relations.” The trans women’s bodies were found inside Pelaz’s car, which had been set on fire underneath a bridge in the municipality of Humacao on Puerto Rico’s southeastern coast.

Díaz and Pagán have already been charged under the federal hate crimes law.

The two men could face the death penalty if convicted. Activists in Puerto Rico have urged federal prosecutors not to apply it in this case.

The indictment was announced against the backdrop of growing outrage over the murders of five trans people in Puerto Rico since the beginning of the year. The Broad Community for the Search for Equity, a coalition of LGBTQ advocacy groups in the U.S. commonwealth known by the acronym CABE, has also sharply criticized Gov. Wanda Vázquez and her government over its response to these cases and the murders of other LGBTQ Puerto Ricans.

“Wanda Vázquez’s silence is deafening,” Pedro Julio Serrano, founder of Puerto Rico Para [email protected], a Puerto Rican LGBTQ advocacy group, told the Los Angeles Blade on April 29 during a virtual press conference that CABE organized. “Her silence makes her complicit in these murders.”

Puerto Rico Senate approves controversial new Civil Code

Violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity is commonplace in Puerto Rico, and activists with whom the Blade has spoken say Hurricane Maria, which devastated the island in 2017, made LGBTQ Puerto Ricans even more vulnerable. The U.S. commonwealth’s hate crimes law is LGBTQ-inclusive, but prosecutors rarely use it.

The Puerto Rico Senate on Monday approved an amended version of the island’s Civil Code.

Lambda Legal in a press release notes the new Civil Code does not eliminate trans Puerto Ricans’ rights to change the gender marker on their birth certificates. Lambda Legal and other advocacy groups nevertheless say LGBTQ Puerto Ricans would remain vulnerable to discrimination if the new Civil Code becomes law.

Serrano in a press release urged Vázquez to veto it, in part, because the Senate approved it “in secret” and “without any transparency.”

“As of now the final version of what was approved, in the shortest vote possible, by the Senate has not been published,” said Serrano.

“There is great concern about the rights of women, LGBTTIQ+ people, common-law couples, among other groups,” he added.

Human Rights Campaign President Alphonso David echoed Serrano.

“Puerto Ricans deserve a fair, transparent ratification process of their Civil Code, not a rushed, backroom deal by the legislature,” said David in a statement that also criticized Puerto Rican lawmakers who he said have tried to use the new Civil Code to target LGBTQ Puerto Ricans.

The secrecy surrounding the codes and the legislative process is particularly troubling in the context of the COVID-19 global pandemic, which has critically hampered the ability for citizens to participate and make their voices heard. Governor Wanda Vazquez must stand up for LGBTQ Puerto Ricans and for democracy by slowing down this process and allowing all to participate in shaping the future of the island,” he added

Vázquez on Wednesday issued a statement that appeared to respond to critics of the new Civil Code.

“It is our understanding that amendments for which we asked — that guarantee the permanence of rights that had already been won — were included in the bill on the (Senate) floor on Monday,” she said in a tweet. “Specifically, the protection of the rights of women and those related to birth certificates and a person’s gender. However, the legislative process continues and now the measure returns to the House of Representatives.”

The Puerto Rico House of Representatives on Thursday approved the new Civil Code.

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Louisiana lawmakers fail to overturn Edwards veto of Trans sports bill

Edwards further said that the bill was “mean” because it targets “the most emotionally fragile children in the state of Louisiana.”

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Louisiana Democratic Governor John Bel Edwards (Photo Credit: Official state portrait)

BATON ROUGE – Louisiana lawmakers failed to override Gov. John Bel Edwards’ (D) veto last month of a bill that would have barred trans girls and women from participating on athletic teams or in sporting events designated for girls or women at elementary, secondary and postsecondary schools.

The measure, Senate Bill 156 authored by Sen. Beth Mizell titled the ‘the Fairness in Women’s Sports Act,’ in the Governor’s eyes, “was a solution in search of a problem that simply does not exist in Louisiana,” Edwards said in his veto statement;

“As I have said repeatedly when asked about this bill, discrimination is not a Louisiana value, and this bill was a solution in search of a problem that simply does not exist in Louisiana. Even the author of the bill acknowledged throughout the legislative session that there wasn’t a single case where this was an issue. 

The Republican majority state House chamber failed to override the Governor’s veto after voting 68-30 to override it, according to the state legislature’s website.

The vote narrowly missed the 70-vote threshold needed in the lower chamber to override the veto.

Two-thirds of both the House and Senate must vote to override a governor’s veto, according to the local Baton Rouge newspaper The Advocate.

The Governor reacted to the news that his veto withstood Republican efforts to overturn it in a press conference Wednesday.

Edwards noted that in his view he had “rejected a play” that had no place in Louisiana. 

“I would rather the headlines going out from today be that Louisiana did what was right and best. We rejected a play out of a national playbook that just had no place in Louisiana. That bill wasn’t crafted for our state, I mean go read it and look at the arguments that were made. None of that applies here,” Edwards said.

He further said that the bill was “mean” because it targets “the most emotionally fragile children in the state of Louisiana.” 

“We have to be better than that,” Edwards said. “We have to be better than that.” 

 

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Federal court blocks West Virginia Law banning Trans youth sports

“It hurt that the State of West Virginia would try to block me from pursuing my dreams. I just want to play.”

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Becky Pepper-Jackson (Photo credit: ACLU/Raymond Thompson)


CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A judge of the United States District Court, Southern District of West Virginia ruled Wednesday that 11-year-old Becky Pepper-Jackson must be allowed to try out for the girls’ cross-country and track teams at her school, blocking West Virginia from enforcing a law that bans transgender girls and women from participating in school sports. 

The ruling came in the lawsuit challenging the ban filed by Lambda Legal, the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of West Virginia, and Cooley LLP.

“I am excited to know that I will be able to try out for the girls’ cross-country team and follow in the running shoes of my family,” said Becky Pepper-Jackson, the plaintiff in the lawsuit. “It hurt that the State of West Virginia would try to block me from pursuing my dreams. I just want to play.”

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice signed H.B. 3293 into law at the end of April. It was one of hundreds of anti-LGBTQ bills pushed in state legislatures across the country in 2021. During legislative debate, it was not endorsed by any mainstream sporting or health organizations. A similar law in Idaho was blocked by a federal court in 2020, and a federal court in Connecticut recently dismissed a challenge to policies that allow all girls, including girls who are transgender, to participate on girls’ sports teams. Legal challenges are underway against similar laws passed in other states.

The Supreme Court recently refused to disturb Gavin Grimm’s victory at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, where he prevailed in challenging his school’s anti-transgender discrimination against him. This decision — which is binding precedent in West Virginia federal court — said that federal law protects transgender students from discrimination in schools.

“This is great news for Becky, and while our work is not done yet, today’s ruling jibes with similar rulings in other courts across the country,” said Avatara Smith-Carrington, Tyron Garner Memorial Law Fellow, Lambda Legal. “It is our hope that courts recognize and address discrimination when they see it, and nowhere is it more visible than in these stark attacks against trans youth.”

“Becky — like all students — should have the opportunity to try out for a sports team and play with her peers,” said Josh Block, senior staff attorney with the ACLU LGBTQ & HIV Project. “We hope this also sends a message to other states to stop demonizing trans kids to score political points and to let these kids live their lives in peace.” 

“We’ve said all along this cruel legislation would not survive a legal challenge, and we’re encouraged by the court’s decision today,” said ACLU-WV Legal Director Loree Stark. “We hope trans kids throughout West Virginia who felt attacked and wronged by the passage of this legislation are feeling empowered by today’s news.”

“We are extremely gratified — for Becky, and for all trans youth — at the court’s recognition that the law and the facts clearly support treating people who are transgender fairly and equally. Discrimination has no place in schools or anywhere else,” said Kathleen Hartnett of Cooley LLP.

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Conservative groups attack proposed Alabama capital city’s LGBTQ law

The groups allege that the law would require Christians to violate their religious beliefs or face fines under certain circumstances

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Approach to the Alabama State Capitol (Blade file photo)

MONTGOMERY – The Alabama capital’s City Council is being urged to reject a proposed ordinance that would make sexual orientation and gender identity protected classes under the law.  Matthew Clark, the Executive Director of the conservative Alabama Center for Law and Liberty sent a letter on behalf of his group and six allied organizations asking the Council to abandon a vote implementing the ordnance.

According to the letter, the groups allege that the law would require Christians to violate their religious beliefs or face fines under certain circumstances. Prominent among the other signatures is Mathew D. Staver, Chairman of Liberty Counsel which the Southern Poverty Law Center lists as an extremist anti-LGBTQ hate group.

The SPLC, which has its headquarters in Montgomery, writes; “The Liberty Counsel has also been active in the battle against same-sex marriage and hate crimes legislation, which it claimed in a 2007 news release to be “’thought crimes’ laws that violate the right to freedom of speech and of conscience” and will “have a chilling effect on people who have moral or religious objections to homosexual behavior.” In that same release, the Liberty Counsel falsely claimed that the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyo., had nothing to do with homosexuality, but instead was “a bungled robbery.”

In the letter Clark noted; ““As we read the ordinance, churches could be fined if they refuse to allow transgender people to use the bathroom of their choice, and they might be fined if they refused to let same-sex couples use their facilities for weddings,” Clark said. “They could also be fined if they declined to hire non-ministerial personnel, such as facility managers or secretaries, whose sexual orientation or gender identity contradicts the tenants of the church’s faith.”

“Christian schools, small business owners, and homeowners are also in the crosshairs. Schools could face liability if they decline to let transgender students use the locker rooms of their choice,” Clark said. “Small business owners like Jack Phillips [referring to Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission] could face liability. And homeowners who list their homes on Airbnb could be fined if they declined to let a same-sex couple engage in sexual activities in their home that violate the tenants of their faith.”

Clark then warned the City Council that if it passes the ordinance, litigation could result and the City would likely lose.

The Montgomery Advertiser reported last month that City Mayor Steven Reed said a council vote in favor of the LGTBQ nondiscrimination ordinance that’s now being drafted in Montgomery would send a message. 

“There are signals that communities can send, and this is an important signal not only to those residents that live here right now but people all over the country that have maybe one idea of Alabama and Montgomery, and we want to show them that there’s a different reality here,” he said. 

Reed and his team have been working with the Human Rights Campaign and other advocacy groups to draft an ordinance that would expand protections for LGBTQ residents in the state’s capital city. The proposed measure, which would specifically target discrimination in government, employment and housing based on sexual orientation or gender identity the Advertiser reported.

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