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Lesbian couple from Cuba fights for life together in US

Yanelkys Moreno Agramonte remains in ICE custody, partner free on bond

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From left: Yanelkys Moreno Agramonte and her partner, Dayana Rodríguez González. (Photo courtesy of Dayana Rodríguez González)

Editor’s note: Yariel Valdés González is a journalist from Cuba who has been granted asylum in the U.S. He spent nearly a year in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody until his release from the River Correctional Center in Ferriday, La., on March 4.

Yanelkys Moreno Agramonte, 36, and Dayana Rodríguez González, 31, had never been apart in the nearly five years since they began dating. Their lives were one until Nov. 3, 2019, when they both applied for asylum in the U.S. at a port of entry in El Paso, Texas, and they were separated a short time later.

Moreno and Rodríguez were placed into different cells as their entry into the country was processed.

“They locked me up in a small, lonely place,” Moreno told the Los Angeles Blade on June 9 during a telephone call from the South Louisiana ICE Processing Center in Basile, La., where she remains in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody. “I was there for two days and my partner was transferred the day after we arrived.”

“We lost all ties,” Rodríguez told the Blade during a telephone interview from Phoenix on June 10 where she now lives. “I didn’t know where she was and she didn’t know where I was. On the fourth day, they moved me at night to the detention center and there I was, still unsure whether they would send her there.”

The next day, they saw each other for a few minutes in the El Paso Service Processing Center’s dining room, since they were not in the same dorm. Rodríguez and Moreno did whatever they could to see each other.

“They scolded us twice because I was the last one in line in order to wait for her to come and eat together,” recalled Rodríguez.

Both devised a strategy to see each other in the library and even during Catholic Masses held in the El Paso facility.

“Yanelkys made the requests for visits a couple of times and they allowed us to be together only once,” said Rodríguez. “All of the couples were together in the same room, one next to the other. We couldn’t touch each other, just a kiss at the entrance and a kiss at the exit and with an officer watching over us the entire time.”

Perhaps this story would not have been so bitter if the two women had been married because ICE, in theory, allows a married asylum seeker to sponsor their spouse once it grants them “derivative” status. This process allows them to stay together as long as they present a marriage or civil union certificate.

But Moreno and Rodríguez are citizens of Cuba, an island where same-sex marriage is not yet legal. The government’s policies and social attitudes also emphasize discrimination against the LGBTQ community.

Their immigration cases are the same, but Moreno in December was once again separated from Rodríguez. She was sent more than 900 miles east of El Paso to the South Louisiana ICE Correctional Center, where she currently remains in ICE custody. Rodríguez was detained in El Paso until Feb. 4 when she was released on parole and a $7,500 bond.

The two women saw each other for the last time through a door’s glass window, sending their love to each other with signs after a conversation that would define both of their lives forever. Moreno was gone the next morning and the frustration of not being able to say goodbye to her partner is painful to this day.

Downtown El Paso and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, from the Scenic Drive Overlook in El Paso, Texas, on July 15, 2019. Yanelkys Moreno Agramonte and her partner, Dayana Rodríguez González, asked for asylum in the U.S. at a port of entry in El Paso. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Couple suffered homophobia, police harassment in Cuba

Moreno and Rodríguez’s families never accepted that two women could fall in love and live together. The prejudices that still persist in Cuba and especially in Zulueta, a small town in the center of the country where they lived, were constant hurdles to their social lives and their life together as a couple.

“My parents divorced because of my sexual orientation,” said Moreno. “My father is the typical Cuban man, who said that his children could not be homosexual. My sister was the only one who always supported me.”

Rodríguez was kicked out of her home when her family found out she was in a romantic relationship with another girl.

“They took all of my things from me and that was terrible,” she said. “It was raining and also in the middle of a blackout. I had to collect my things and go to her home. It was something we did not expect.”

Rodríguez’s family’s decision to disown her was compounded by her neighbor’s accusatory looks, so she and her partner did not even dare to hold hands in the street. Moreno told the Blade that such intolerance suffocated her “because there (in Cuba) homosexuals are not well regarded, neither by family, nor by the authorities, we are quite discriminated against. I felt bad because in the end we are also good people. We have rights and the government constantly violates them. We cannot have our own family.”

Because of the impossibility of getting married, gay and lesbian Cubans cannot adopt children.

The current labor law does not protect transgender people, and they can only change their gender and photo on identity documents if they undergo sex-reassignment surgery. Members of Cuba’s National Revolutionary Police have also been accused of targeting LGBTQ Cubans.

Rodríguez in her asylum claim says a police officer constantly followed her and Moreno

“There was an officer named Sosa, who appeared wherever she was,” writes Rodríguez. “He was very rude to us. He insulted us on two occasions by saying that we were not setting a good example for society or children.”

“On the other occasion, we were sitting in the park during some local celebrations, holding hands, without disrespecting anyone and he also came and took us to the police station because, according to him, we could not do that,” continues Rodríguez. “He did not agree that we were a couple or that we showed it in public. He fined us 500 pesos ($20) because he didn’t want to see us together on the street any more. It was like a warning and we were detained for 73 hours. The officer in the police station told everyone that we were lesbians and they also started making fun of us and calling us names. And the truth is that we felt very bad about all that. Life for us was very difficult there.”

Cuban police officers watch participants in an unsanctioned LGBTQ rights march that took place in Havana on May 11, 2019. (Photo courtesy of Pedro Luis García)

Tired of this familial and societal rejection that Cuban governmental institutions also perpetuate, this young couple exclusively told the Blade they fled the country in order to be able to walk the streets without fear. Now, after seven months in the U.S., they are terrified that Moreno will be deported back to Cuba.

Moreno has already been denied parole twice, which would have allowed her to pursue her asylum case outside of ICE custody.

“ICE’s two responses to my request for parole have told me that I am a flight risk,” said Moreno. “The first was on Jan. 5 and a group of lawyers prepared the second request … it turned out very well, with everything they ask for: A very complete request and they denied me again. They set a date for an interview that they never did.”

ICE’s own directives mandate an asylum seeker must be released while awaiting their asylum hearing if they pass their credible fear interview and background check, prove they are not a danger to society and show they are not a flight risk. The parole rate for ICE’s New Orleans Field Office, which has jurisdiction over Louisiana, dropped from more than 75 percent in 2016 to zero percent in 2019, according to Judge James Boasberg of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia’s ruling that granted a preliminary injunction in a class-action lawsuit that other asylum seekers filed.

“I meet all the requirements they ask for: I entered through a (port of entry), I have someone who will receive me and I have a credible positive fear,” said Moreno. “I met with my deportation officer when I was denied parole for the second time and they did not know how to give me a convincing explanation. They just told me that when they were evaluating my case they determined that I was not going to show up to court hearings.”

Liza Doubossarskaia is a legal assistant for Immigration Equality who prepared Moreno’s second parole application under the supervision of Bridget Crawford, a lawyer who is the group’s legal director. Doubossarskaia in an interview with the Blade said ICE’s denial of Moreno’s parole applications is discriminatory based on the fact that another LGBTQ person who is not a blood relative will receive her upon her release.

“There is no provision in any document that the person receiving the immigrant must be his or her close relative,” said Doubossarskaia. “In the parole request, we affirm that her family does not support her because she is gay, but she does have ties to this country because she has a friend who is willing to take her in and the support of various organizations, including Immigration Equality, which will ensure that she attends immigration appointments. She is also not a danger, because we presented her criminal record and it is clean. ICE never explains why she is a flight risk.”

ICE declined to comment to the Blade on Moreno’s case.

“When we had the second negative response on parole, it was as if they were throwing a bucket of cold water at both of us,” said Rodríguez. “It shows in the tone of her voice, in her physique when I can see her on a video call that all that confinement and this time apart is affecting her. It is affecting both of us.”

Moreno is still awaiting her second court hearing, which is scheduled to take place on July 28.

She said her greatest fear is her final appearance before an immigration judge “because it is a lot of stress, for all the time I have been here, for all we have lived through. That moment will be very difficult.”

Rodríguez is terrified her girlfriend will be deported to Cuba “and everything is over.” Her voice cracked on the phone when she discussed this possibility.

“Today I ended the call with her in the morning crying because this absence has affected me a lot,” Rodríguez told the Blade. “The calls are also short because we have to save the little money that you have to communicate. When she tells me that she feels bad and ends up crying, the truth is that it makes me very bad.”

Congressman urges ICE to release LGBTQ detainees

Illinois Congressman Mike Quigley in a letter he sent to Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf last week requested ICE release Moreno and all other LGBTQ detainees.

Quigley described the detention of these detainees in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic as “dangerous and irrational.” More than two dozen other members of the U.S. House of Representatives signed his letter.

Quigley last week told the Blade during a telephone interview that he considers this issue a matter of “basic human decency” and says ICE is “ignoring” social distancing and other guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and not “providing protective equipment or hygiene products to detainees.” The Illinois Democrat also said LGBTQ detainees in ICE detention centers “are treated worse under these conditions than the general population, and no one is treated well.”

Moreno told the Blade the South Louisiana ICE Processing Center can house around 1,000 people.

She said around 190 female detainees remain at the facility. Moreno told the Blade that more than 50 of the 72 beds in the dorm where she lives are occupied.

“We are many for such a small room,” said Moreno. “The food is not good, one day a week it improves a little, but it is generally bad.”

“Cleanliness is not very good either,” she added. Now, since there are so few of us, the cleaning supplies have improved, but when I was in the center it was very difficult to get a roll of toilet paper or a shampoo. They don’t give soap here. We have to shower with shampoo and the commissary is very expensive. “

From left: Yanelkys Moreno Agramonte speaks with her partner, Dayana Rodríguez González, from the South Louisiana ICE Processing Center in Basile, La. (Photo courtesy of Dayana Rodríguez González)

Doubossarskaia confirms the detention center in which Moreno lives now has room to promote social distancing, but staff have chosen not to enforce it.

Moreno told the Blade a group of female detainees from different housing units were transferred to her dorm in early May. Moreno said an officer at the detention center said it was to make “better use of space” when someone asked about it.

There were 871 ICE detainees with confirmed coronavirus cases as of deadline. ICE’s website says 7,364 of the 24,713 people who were still in their custody have been tested for the virus.

ICE says it has evaluated its detained population based on the CDC’s guidance for people who may be at increased risk for serious illness as a result of the coronavirus. ICE has released more than 900 people from their custody after evaluating their immigration history, criminal record, potential threat to public safety, flight risk and national security concerns.

Despite the fact there are no confirmed coronavirus cases in her detention center, Moreno says she does not feel safe because the transfer of detainees into the facility has not stopped during the pandemic.

“Not all officers wear masks or gloves,” she said. “They say they do take precautions when they enter the center, but I am not sure. They are the ones that go in and out and do not protect us. We are required to be six feet away from each other and when we go to recreation or to the dining room there are only the detainees from one dorm. We do not mix with the others.”

Moreno also says she has experienced several instances of discrimination at the South Louisiana ICE Processing Center which the GEO Group, a Utah-based company operates, both at the hands of her fellow detainees and staff.

“I went to go to the bathroom twice and they told me that I couldn’t go in because they were sorry to bathe with me,” Moreno told the Blade. “I decided to bathe alone from that moment in order to avoid a problem. It has happened to me with the officers when I ask them, for example, for a paper and they don’t give it to me, but they give it to someone else who is behind me. I feel discriminated against because of things like that.”

Doubossarskaia said she believes ICE does not do enough to protect LGBTQ people at its facilities.

“We have heard many stories of detainees who suffer homophobia after their detention,” she said.

Moreno told the Blade that some of the officers at the South Louisiana ICE Processing Center “insult us, humiliate us.” Moreno also said she never thought she would have been “detained for so long.”

“In fact, my partner and I thought that it would be a maximum of two months and that we could go out, get married, make a life together, but none of this has happened,” she lamented. “We can only talk on the phone, but the separation is hard and very sad. I get depressed and cry a lot. “

The Blade asked what Moreno misses the most and without hesitation she said her freedom, and above all, her partner.

“I want to see her, embrace her …”, she says, followed by a long pause.

“I don’t feel like Yanelkys is well,” Rodríguez told the Blade. “In fact, we are seeking psychological help. She has already had two appointments with a professional because she is very stressed and I find her very downcast (…) and they (ICE) are not interested in her life.”

Michael K. Lavers contributed to this article.

From left: Yanelkys Moreno Agramonte and her partner, Dayana Rodríguez González. (Photo courtesy of Dayana Rodríguez González)
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Georgia

A Georgia Pride Executive Director arrested on drug & gun charges

“We believe that all persons are innocent until proven guilty, including Mr. Hobbs. We offer our support to Mr. Hobbs’ family at this time”

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Photo Credit: Columbus, Georgia Police Department

COLUMBUS, Ga. – The Columbus Georgia Police Department announced on Wednesday that following a months-long investigation, the Columbus Police Department’s Special Operations Unit executed a search warrant at a residence in the 4200 block of 16th Avenue. Jeremy Hobbs, 49, was taken into custody without incident.

Hobbs, the Executive Director of the Debra Smith Wellness Center Inc., doing business as Colgay Pride, was charged with:

  • • Possession of Cocaine with Intent to Distribute
  • • Possession of Methamphetamine with Intent to Distribute
  • • Possession of VGCSA Schedule I Drug with Intent to Distribute
  • • Possession of Drug-Related Objects
  • • Possession of a Firearm During the Commission of a Crime

According to Columbus Police, during the search, officers found and seized the following items:

  • 5.4 grams of crack cocaine
  • • 20.7 grams of methamphetamine
  • • 23.8 grams of liquid GHB
  • • An INA .38 revolver

A statement released by Harry Underwood, Vice President of Communications, Colgay Pride and the board of the Debra Smith Wellness Center, Inc. in response to Hobbs’ arrest noted:

“The board of the Debra Smith Wellness Center, Inc., doing business as Colgay Pride, expresses our utmost concern and regret regarding the arrest and charges facing our Executive Director, Jeremy Hobbs. The charges which have been filed against him are serious. The board does not condone the alleged actions and we will cooperate with law enforcement in the coming investigations regarding our operations and finances.

We believe that all persons are innocent until proven guilty, including Mr. Hobbs. We offer our support to Mr. Hobbs’ family at this time.

Our organization will meet to discuss our next steps, including a transition in leadership and strategy in the interim period. Our events and operations are on hold until further notice. With humility, we ask for the understanding and solidarity of the local community in this period. We apologize to our allies, colleagues and partners for the distress caused by these developments.”

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U.S. Federal Courts

Supreme Court rules to preserve access to abortion medication

The suit, Alliance for Hippocratic Medicine v. FDA, was originally filed in the U.S. District Court for the North District of Texas

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The abortifacent drug mifepristone is marketed under the brand name Mifeprex (Photo courtesy of Danco Laboratories)

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Thursday in a much-anticipated decision against efforts by conservative doctors and medical groups challenging access to mifepristone, one of two pharmaceuticals used in medication abortions. As a result of the high court’s decision, access to the drug won’t change.

Associate Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, writing for the court, reversed a lower court decision that would have made it more difficult to obtain the drug, which is used in about two-thirds of U.S. abortions. The ruling however was narrow in scope as it only addressed what is known as legal standing in a case.

SCOTUSblog senior court reporter Amy Howe noted that Kavanaugh acknowledged what he characterized as the challengers’ “sincere legal, moral, ideological, and policy objections” to elective abortion “by others” and to FDA’s 2016 and 2021 changes to the conditions on the use of the drug.

But the challengers had not shown that they would be harmed by the FDA’s mifepristone policies, he explained, and under the Constitution, merely objecting to abortion and the FDA’s policies are not enough to bring a case in federal court. The proper place to voice those objections, he suggested, is in the political or regulatory arena.

“Under Article III of the Constitution, a plaintiff’s desire to make a drug less available for others does not establish standing to sue,” Kavanaugh wrote.

“We are pleased with the Supreme Court’s decision in this incredibly important case. By rejecting the Fifth Circuit’s radical, unprecedented and unsupportable interpretation of who has standing to sue, the justices reaffirmed longstanding basic principles of administrative law,” said Abigail Long, a spokesperson for Danco. “The decision also safeguards access to a drug that has decades of safe and effective use.”

The White House released a statement from President Joe Biden on Supreme Court Decision on FDA v. Alliance for Hippocratic Medicine:

“Today’s decision does not change the fact that the fight for reproductive freedom continues. It does not change the fact that the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade two years ago, and women lost a fundamental freedom. It does not change the fact that the right for a woman to get the treatment she needs is imperiled if not impossible in many states.
 
It does mean that mifepristone, or medication abortion, remains available and approved. Women can continue to access this medication – approved by the FDA as safe and effective more than 20 years ago. 
 
But let’s be clear: attacks on medication abortion are part of Republican elected officials’ extreme and dangerous agenda to ban abortion nationwide. Since the overturning of Roe v. Wade, Republican elected officials have imposed extreme abortion bans in 21 states, some of which include zero exceptions for rape or incest. Women are being turned away from emergency rooms, or forced to go to court to plead for care that their doctor recommended or to travel hundreds of miles for care. Doctors and nurses are being threatened with jail time, including life in prison, for providing the health care they have been trained to provide. And contraception and IVF are under attack.
 
The stakes could not be higher for women across America. Vice President Harris and I stand with the vast majority of Americans who support a woman’s right to make deeply personal health care decisions. We will continue to fight to ensure that women in every state get the health care they need and we will continue to call on Congress to restore the protections of Roe v. Wade in federal law — that is our commitment.”

U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk in Amarillo, Texas, in a ruling a year ago, waved aside decades of scientific approval, ruled that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration improperly approved mifepristone more than 20 years ago in 2000.

Kacsmaryk, appointed to the federal bench by former President Donald Trump, in his 67 page opinion wrote that the FDA’s two-decade-old approval violated a federal rule that allows for accelerated approval for certain drugs and, along with subsequent actions by the agency, was unlawful.

The suit, Alliance for Hippocratic Medicine v. FDA, was originally filed in the U.S. District Court for the North District of Texas in mid-November by Alliance Defending Freedom, an anti-abortion, anti-LGBTQ+ legal organization.

Applauding Kacsmaryk’s ruling, Erik Baptist, speaking for the Alliance Defending Freedom said in a statement: “By illegally approving dangerous chemical abortion drugs, the FDA put women and girls in harm’s way, and it’s high time the agency is held accountable for its reckless actions.”

Erin Hawley, a senior attorney for the conservative group Alliance Defending Freedom who argued the case at the Supreme Court, said the opinion was “disappointing,” but told reporters in a press gaggle after the ruling that the explicit mention of conscience protections was a victory.

“The Supreme Court was crystal clear that pro life doctors do have federal conscience protections, even in emergency situations,” Hawley said. “So that’s a huge win for the pro-life cause. The Supreme Court clearly said that our doctors are entitled to those federal conscious protections that are based on their religious beliefs.”

Related

The case now returns to the lower courts, and the dispute over access to the drug likely is not over. 

SCOTUSblog also reported that Nancy Northrup, the president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, praised the decision but conceded that the dispute could continue even after Thursday’s ruling. She, too, noted that the three states “could still attempt to keep the case going, including taking it back up to the Supreme Court,” and she warned that access to mifepristone “is still at risk nationwide.”

The Hill notes that for instance, the same district court in Texas that originally ruled against the FDA said a group of three red states—Missouri, Idaho and Kansas— can intervene in the lawsuit.

“I would expect the litigation to continue with those states raising different standing arguments than made by our doctors,” ADF’s Hawley told reporters.

Equality California, the nation’s largest statewide LGBTQ+ civil rights organization, emailed the Blade the following statement from Executive Director Tony Hoang in response to a unanimous ruling by the United States Supreme Court:

“We appreciate today’s unanimous decision to uphold access to the abortion drug mifepristone, authored by a conservative Justice. This ruling reinforces the critical importance of maintaining accessible reproductive healthcare and highlights the necessity of safeguarding these rights from baseless legal attacks.

However, it is imperative to recognize that the Court should never have accepted this case. The so-called Alliance for Hippocratic Medicine lacked the standing to initiate this challenge. Moreover, federal conscience exemptions already exist for healthcare providers who object to offering abortion-related care. 

Medication abortions involving mifepristone constitute the majority of abortions in America, including those sought by LGBTQ+ people. Our community understands the necessity of bodily autonomy and the right to make decisions regarding our own medical care, including reproductive care. Patients deserve access to the medications they need, and providers should be able to deliver that care without unwarranted interference from extremist courts or politicians.   

Attacks on abortion do not end with this decision; millions of people nationwide are still unable to get abortion care and abortion opponents remain focused on their end goal of a nationwide abortion ban. 

Equality California will continue to work with our legislative partners in Sacramento and Washington, D.C., as well as organizational allies, like Planned Parenthood, to help protect and expand access to abortion and reproductive healthcare.”

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U.S. Federal Courts

ACLU of Indiana sues City of Loogootee for blocking Pride

The First Amendment lawsuit calls for the court to enjoin Loogootee’s Special Events Ordinance and allowing plaintiffs to hold PrideFest 2024

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Photo Credit: Loogootee Pride 2024

EVANSVILLE, Ind. — The ACLU of Indiana filed suit in U.S. District Court on Thursday against the City of Loogootee, a community of about 2,600 in the southwestern part of the state, on behalf of the sponsors of PrideFest 2024.

After initially approving a permit for PrideFest 2024 to take place on September 7, the Loogootee City Council has since passed two new ordinances changing the application process for using city property, rescinded its prior approval of PrideFest 2024, and failed to vote on the new application the sponsors properly submitted in February 2024.

The first Loogootee Pride Festival was successfully held in June 2023 at the Public Square, in the center of town. where numerous community events have been held over the years. About 200 people attended the 2023 festival, and organizers had no reason to suspect that the town’s leadership would not approve a permit for a festival in 2024.

Since submitting a new application for PrideFest 2024 in February, the organizers of PrideFest, Patoka Valley AIDS Community Action Group, have attended each subsequent Loogootee City Council meeting.

The PrideFest application has been on the Council’s meeting agenda but Council members never discussed or voted on it. On June 10th, the Council passed the most recently revised ordinance setting up numerous roadblocks to PrideFest.

Another event, Summer Fest, is scheduled to be held in the Public Square next week, apparently without the organizers of that event even applying for a permit.

The First Amendment lawsuit filed today calls for the court to enjoin Loogootee’s Special Events Ordinance and allowing plaintiffs to hold PrideFest 2024 at the Public Square on September 7, 2024.
 
ACLU of Indiana’s Legal Director Ken Falk said:
 
“The City of Loogootee’s revocation of its November 2023 permission to hold PrideFest 2024 and its actions since that time violate the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. The latest city special events ordinance is unconstitutional in many ways. It, and the actions of the City Council, clearly indicate that Councilmembers are trying to deny our plaintiffs the ability to hold their event because they disagree with a celebration of the LGBTQ community..

The complaint can be found here.

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Delaware

Sarah McBride poised to become first trans member of Congress

McBride currently holds a seat in the First State Senate District of Delaware and has used that momentum to mobilize her supporters

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Del. State Senator Sarah McBride (D-1st District) (Washington Blade file photo by Daniel Truitt)

By Joe Reberkenny | WILMINGTON, Del. – Delaware State Sen. Sarah McBride has become the Democratic frontrunner for Congress after her primary opponent dropped out of the race. This sets up McBride to possibly become the first transgender member of Congress if elected in November. 

Eugene Young announced on Wednesday he suspended his campaign for Delaware’s At-Large congressional district, leaving McBride as the only Democratic candidate running for the seat. Young’s announcement leaves Republican challenger Donyale Hall as McBride’s only obstacle to the House of Representatives.

As the new Democratic frontrunner, McBride is slated to win the strongly Democratic state’s sole House seat, which is currently held by Democrat Lisa Blunt Rochester. Blunt Rochester is leaving the House to run for Thomas Carper’s seat in the Senate who will be retiring at the end of the year. 

According to McBride’s campaign, she has raised more than $2 million and does not appear to be slowing down. Not only could McBride become the historic first trans member of Congress, but her campaign has raised record-breaking amounts — more than any candidate for an open congressional seat in state history.

McBride currently holds a seat in the First State Senate District of Delaware and has used that momentum to mobilize her supporters.

LPAC, an organization that works to get LGBTQ+ women and nonbinary candidates elected to public office, has endorsed McBride’s run for Congress as well as her past campaigns. LPAC’s Executive Director Janelle Perez released a statement regarding McBride’s path to the House.

“LPAC is thrilled that Sarah McBride has cleared the Democratic field and is on a clear path to making history in November as the first out trans person ever elected to the U.S. Congress,” Perez wrote in her statement. “This did not happen by accident: Sarah has actively cleared the field by building an undeniably formidable campaign, connecting deeply with voters and out-raising every candidate in the field by a longshot.”

Other candidates have until July 8 to enter the race, although that is unlikely given McBride’s fundraising advantage and growing momentum. 

“It is no surprise to me that Sarah has reached this point — she is a compassionate leader who truly cares for her community and has a tangible impact on everyone around her,” Perez added. “This is a groundbreaking moment for LGBTQ+ representation in our country and I know that Sarah McBride will make an incredible member of Congress.”

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Joseph Reberkenny, is a recent graduate of American University and the Blade Foundation’s seventh recipient of the Elkins fellowship. Reberkenny will cover Delaware politics for the Washington Blade in this summer, 2024.

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Florida

Pulse, a reflection: Eight years ago 49 lives were stolen

Brandon Wolf, a Pulse survivor who now serves as national spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, called for a safer future

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Pulse Nightclub Memorial & mass-shooting site in Orlando, Florida. (Los Angeles Blade/Brody Levesque file photo)

By Jay Waagmeester | ORLANDO, Fla. – Eight years have passed since 49 people were killed and 53 were wounded in a shooting at Pulse, a nightclub in Orlando.

To mark that anniversary on Wednesday, Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered state and national flags flown at half-staff as a “mark of respect for victims, their families, and the many affected by this tragedy.”

DeSantis has made the order each year since taking office and former Gov. Rick Scott did the same in 2017 and 2018. Both are Republicans.

The shooter, who pledged his loyalty to ISIS, opened fire as the gay nightclub in Orlando hosted a Latin night on June 12, 2016.

Florida Rep. Anna Eskamani, a Democrat who represents the area that included Pulse, posted the names and photos of all 49 people who were killed.

The National Democratic Party released a statement criticizing Republicans’ efforts to stop gun reform, including by the NRA, and praised President Joe Biden’s efforts toward gun safety, including the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act.

“This Pride month, as we celebrate love, equality, and inclusion, this anniversary reminds us of the work left to ensure all LGBTQ+ Americans can live their lives without fear of harassment, discrimination, and violence,” the statement reads.

Vice President Kamala Harris posted about the shooting Wednesday.

Brandon Wolf, a survivor of the shooting who now serves as national spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, posted to X calling for a safer future in which young people “know they are loved and valued exactly as they are.”

national memorial was approved by Congress to honor the club in 2021, although work on a physical structure is still in progress. The City of Orlando is filling seats on the newly created Pulse Memorial Advisory Committee after a private effort to build a permanent memorial failed.

Carlos Guillermo Smith, a former member of the Florida House and Democratic candidate for the Florida Senate, posted to X that there is a need for a memorial for the shooting.

“This year’s remembrance has me reflecting on the need to create a respectful Orlando memorial for the 49, and to continue our fight to #HonorThemWithAction by creating a world they’d be proud of — a world where love conquers hate and we can all live free from gun violence.”

Florida Republican state Rep. Randy Fine took to X with the hashtag, “BombsAway.”

The mass shootings in Orlando and Parkland were a moment of change for gun law in Florida. In 2018, the Legislature approved a law to expand background checks, ban types of guns, and impose a three-day waiting period for handgun purchases. It included “red flag” language allowing authorities to remove firearms from people deemed dangerous.

Editor’s note from the Los Angeles Blade:

Community leaders, first responders and the families of the victims and survivors of the Pulse tragedy gathered together for an annual remembrance ceremony hosted by the City of Orlando. The Remembrance Ceremony allows the Orlando community to come together every year on the evening of June 12 to honor and remember the 49 angels taken, their families, the survivors, first responders, trauma teams and all those impacted by the tragedy.    

The 2024 family and survivor-focused ceremony was held at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts with doors opening at 6 p.m. and the program beginning at 7 p.m. 

On X (formerly Twitter) Former Arizona State Rep. Daniel Hernandez Jr., himself a survivor of another American mass shooting on January 8, 2011, that gravely injured then Arizona U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords and 18 others who were shot during a constituent meeting held in a Safeway supermarket parking lot in Casas Adobes, Arizona, in the Tucson metropolitan area, posted about remarks in remembrance of Pulse at a Pride event hosted in Washington D.C. Wednesday evening by Vice-President Kamala Harris.

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Jay Waagmeester

Jay covers education for the Florida Phoenix. He previously worked for the Iowa Capital Dispatch and the Iowa State Daily. He grew up in Iowa and is a graduate of Iowa State University.

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The preceding article was previously published by The Florida Phoenix and is republished with permission.

The Phoenix is a nonprofit news site that’s free of advertising and free to readers. We cover state government and politics with a staff of five journalists located at the Florida Press Center in downtown Tallahassee.

We’re part of States Newsroom, the nation’s largest state-focused nonprofit news organization.

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Maryland

Beloved gay neighbor remembered by a Maryland neighborhood

The sign was vandalized numerous times last fall, resulting in neighborhood residents taking turns repairing it

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Tony Brown's neighbors help repaint the Pride sign his late partner created in their Silver Spring neighborhood. (Photo courtesy of Molly Chehak)

By Sean Koperek | SILVER SPRING, Md. – Residents of Silver Spring Maryland’s Rosemary Hills neighborhood, in suburban Washington D.C., have come together to rebuild a Pride sign. 

The sign was constructed in June 2020, and was meant to stay in place throughout Pride Month. Neighborhood residents, however, requested it stay up past its intended month-long display, and has remained in place for more than four years. 

The sign spelling LOVE is at the neighborhood’s entrance between Sundale and Richmond Streets. It was made from plywood and the O was painted in the colors of the Pride flag.

“We wanted to take it down, but we just felt it was not ours anymore and belonged to the neighborhood.” Tony Brown told the Washington Blade during a telephone interview. “It was a positive thing for the neighborhood and began to take on a life of its own.” 

Brown and his partner, Mike Heffner, designed the sign and said the Black Lives Matter movement inspired them to create it as a strong symbol of an accepting community.

The sign was vandalized numerous times last fall, resulting in neighborhood residents taking turns repairing it. Brown and his partner could not do the repairs themselves because Heffner was fighting Stage 4 lung cancer.

Heffner passed away on Oct. 6, 2023.

A GoFundMe page was set up to help raise funds for the replacement Pride sign, and it has raised more than $4,000. The replacement sign is more permanent and made of metal.

“I can’t speak for the neighborhood overall, but people who knew Mike I think are happy that we were able to honor his memory with this sign because this sign is so him,” Molly Chehak, a friend who lives next door to Brown, told the Blade. “He (Heffner) was an outgoing super social (person) who just made you feel good the way this sign does. It’s a perfect tribute to him.” 

Chehak and other neighbors created the GoFundMe account.

Heffner’s family and his neighbors are still working to rebuild the Pride sign. It has become a memorial to Heffner.

“We wanted to do one that was clearly a Pride reference,” said Brown, noting the L is a fully painted Pride flag that spirals across the entire letter. 

“For the O we wanted to do something reminiscent of times in the past, a throwback to the 60’s and 70’s so it’s a hippie montage of flowers and butterflies,” he said. 

Brown described the V as being colorful, nonbinary people hugging each other with the idea that love is more than what one may see. 

“During COVID, he had started painting rocks and putting kind and fun messages on them leaving them around places as sort of a pay it forward Karma and so the E is basically that stylized writing and to embrace a bunch of ways we embrace love,” he said. 

The final letter had the phrase “love is love” written repeatedly in various handwritings to pay homage to Heffner and what he did for his neighborhood during the pandemic. Brown’s four daughters — one of whom is a professional artist — and their friends designed it.

The landscape around the sign has also been transformed with rocks that honors Heffner’s love for Rosemary Hills and his passion for rocks.

Chehak also said Heffner always wanted a bench, and neighbors are looking to install one soon next to the Pride sign.

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Sean Koperek is a senior at Westfield State University in Massachusetts and is majoring in communications. He is interning with the Washington Blade as part of a continued partnership with the Washington Center.

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Vermont

Pride flag goes missing at a Vermont union middle/high school

The school is securing a replacement flag and will once again raise it through the month of June as approved by the HUUSD school board

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The Pride flag flies on the flagpole at Harwood Union Middle/High School on Saturday, June 8. (Photo by Lisa Scagliotti/Waterbury Roundabout)

By Lisa Scagliotti | DUXBURY, Vt. – The Pride flag flying for the past three weeks on the flagpole in front of Harwood Union Middle/High School was stolen over the weekend, Harwood administrators announced on Tuesday.

In a letter to school students, staff and families, Superintendent Mike Leichliter along with Co-Principals Megan McDonough and Laurie Greenberg shared the news of the theft and promised to replace the flag which was to fly through the end of June in observance of Pride Month.

Based on reviewing security camera footage, school officials said they determined that “at 11:57 p.m. on Saturday, June 8, 2024, two unidentified individuals lowered the United States flag and Pride flag from the flagpole at Harwood Union High School. The individuals then immediately raised the U.S. flag again and stole the Pride flag,” school officials said in their communication.

Leichliter said the people involved were wearing clothing with hoods and they could not be identified from the footage. School leaders ask that anyone with information about the incident contact the school administration. The incident also has been reported to Vermont State Police, Leichliter said. The Vermont State Police also has an anonymous tipline where the public may submit information to assist with an investigation.

This is the third year that a Pride flag has flown at Harwood during June in observance of National Pride Month.

The Pride flag flies below the U.S. flag as graduates, family, friends and school staff gather in front of Harwood following Saturday’s commencement.
(Photo by Gordon Miller/Waterbury Roundabout)

“June is Pride Month and dedicated to the celebration and commemoration of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) pride. Since 2022 Harwood students have shown overwhelming support in asking the HUUSD School Board to raise the Pride flag at Harwood to support our LGBTQ+ students as well as in commemoration of the larger LGBTQ+ community,” the letter from the administrators explains.

“The school is securing a replacement flag and will once again raise it through the month of June as approved by the HUUSD school board,” school leaders said.

The Harwood Unified Union School Board last month approved a request from the Harwood High School Gender and Sexuality Alliance club to fly the LGBTQIA+ community pride flag starting May 17 through the end of June.

This year’s request asked that the flag be raised in May to coincide with an event the school club was hosting on May 18, the Outright Vermont Queer & Allied Youth Summit. In reviewing the flag request, the school board also looked over data from a student survey. The district flag policy asks that requests to fly a flag other than the U.S. or Vermont state flag be accompanied by a survey to gauge support in the school community.

This year, the Pride flag request had a survey with 250 responses — 62% in favor and 38% opposed to flying the pride flag. In 2023, a similar survey received 297 responses but found 78% favored the request. School board member Life LeGeros of Duxbury, who chairs the board’s Equity Committee, at the time called the drop in support for the flag display “a very troubling trend.”

On Tuesday, the school co-principals and superintendent expressed disappointment in the hostile act. “It is disappointing to know that individuals in our community would display an openly hostile attitude and disrespect the voice of our student body. These actions are unacceptable and do not represent the values and character of our schools,” they wrote.

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Lisa Scagliotti is an experienced Vermont journalist and editor. She has worked at daily newspapers in Vermont, Alaska, New York and Pennsylvania, including the Burlington Free Press and the Anchorage Daily News. She has reported on local and state government, politics, business and aviation. She worked as managing editor at The Shelburne News and The Citizen weekly newspapers in Chittenden County prior to helping launch the University of Vermont’s Community News Service journalism internship program where Waterbury Roundabout was created in spring 2020.

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The preceding article was previously published by the Waterbury Roundabout and is republished with permission

Waterbury Roundabout is an online news site launched in May 2020. Our mission is to provide readers with news about local government, schools, businesses, community organizations, events and the people who live, work and play in and around the Waterbury region.

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Pennsylvania

Shooter in murder of gay journalist Josh Kruger gets 15-30 in prison

Robert Davis, 20, pleaded guilty to third-degree murder and related offenses in a plea bargain with Philadelphia prosecutors

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Josh Kruger/Facebook

PHILADELPHIA, Penn. – The man responsible for murder of openly gay journalist Josh Kruger, 39, in October of last year was sentenced to 15 to 30 years in prison on Monday.

Robert Davis, 20, who lived the city’s Point Breeze neighborhood, pleaded guilty to third-degree murder and related offenses in a plea bargain worked out with the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office prosecutors.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Davis’ guilty plea before Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge Barbara A. McDermott also included counts of aggravated assault and illegal gun possession for firing a gun at someone on a SEPTA platform in late September.

Davis’ lawyer Andrea Konow could not be reached for comment.

A spokesperson for Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner acknowledged Davis’ sentencing, but declined further comment.

Lt. Hamilton Marshmond of the Philadelphia police Homicide Unit at the time of the shooting told reporters that the 39-year-old Josh Kruger, was found lying in the street outside his Point Breeze home suffering from seven gunshot wounds. Responding officers rushed Kruger to a nearby hospital where he succumbed to his injuries.

Davis’ older brother Jaylin Reason, told the Inquirer his brother appeared to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol and was acting erratically. While trying to calm Davis down, Reason said, they got into a fight. He realized, he said, that the best assistance he could offer his brother was helping him surrender to police.

“I didn’t want him to keep living outside and going around and doing something to put himself in a deeper hole,” he added. Reason told the paper that he calmed Davis down, and then asked his other brother to call the police. Together, they went outside, sat on the steps, and waited for 17th District officers to arrive. Davis surrendered and was taken into custody.

In a series of interviews in early October with the Inquirer, Davis’ family told the paper that a years-long sexual relationship involving drugs factored into the murder. Davis’ mother and older brother are alleging Kruger commenced a sexual and drug relationship with the teenager four years ago when Davis was 15.

Robert Davis, 20, booking photo. (Photo Credit: Philadelphia Police Department)

Kruger wrote for publications like The Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia Magazine, the Philadelphia Citizen, and the Philly Voice about LGBT rights, addiction, AIDS, and homelessness. He worked for the city of Philadelphia including the Office of Homeless Services, for five years.

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U.S. Federal Courts

Federal judge blocks expanding Title IX rules for LGBTQ+ students

Federal Judge Reed O’Connor said Biden admin didn’t have the authority to make changes, which would expand anti-discrimination protections

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A protester waves a transgender pride flag during a protest at the University of North Texas in Denton on March 23, 2022. (Photo Credit: Emil Lippe/The Texas Tribune)

By Juan Salinas II | DALLAS, Texas – A Texas federal judge blocked the Biden administration’s efforts to extend federal anti-discrimination protections to LGBTQ+ students.

In his ruling Tuesday, Judge Reed O’Connor said the Biden administration lacked the authority to make the changes and accused it of pushing “an agenda wholly divorced from the text, structure, and contemporary context of Title IX.” Title IX is the 1972 law that prohibits discrimination based on sex in educational settings.

“To allow [the Biden administration’s] unlawful action to stand would be to functionally rewrite Title IX in a way that shockingly transforms American education and usurps a major question from Congress,” wrote O’Connor, a President George W. Bush appointee. “That is not how our democratic system functions.”

The Biden administration’s new guidelines, issued in April, expanded Title IX to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The changes would make schools and universities responsible for investigating a wider range of discrimination complaints. The rule changes came as several states, including Texas, have approved laws in recent years barring transgender student-athletes from participating in sports teams that correspond to their gender identity. The Biden administration hasn’t clarified whether the new guidance would apply in those cases.

Texas and several other states have sued the Biden administration over the new rule. Carroll ISD also filed a separate suit over the change. A month after the guidelines were released, Gov. Greg Abbott called on school districts and universities to ignore them.

“Threatening to withhold education funding by forcing states to accept ‘transgender’ policies that put women in danger was plainly illegal,” said Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton in a statement applauding Tuesday’s ruling. “Texas has prevailed on behalf of the entire Nation.”

An U.S. Education Department said in a statement it stands by its revised guidelines.

“Every student deserves the right to feel safe in school,” the statement reads.

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Juan Salinas II’s staff photo

Juan Salinas II is a reporting fellow based in Arlington. He is a senior at the University of Texas at Arlington majoring in journalism and a transfer student from Tarrant County College, where he worked at the student newspaper, The Collegian. As an intern at public radio station KERA, he covered state politics and local governments, and he was a year-long reporting fellow at the Fort Worth Report. Juan was born and raised in the North Side neighborhood of Fort Worth.

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

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U.S. Federal Courts

Court hears arguments on injunction blocking Iowa school book law

The law was blocked before enforcement began, but, a significant number of books were removed from Iowa K-12 public schools due to the law

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Gender Queer, a graphic memoir by Maia Kobabe, was the most challenged book in America in 2022, according to the American Library Association. (Photo by New Jersey Monitor)


By Robin Opsahl | ST. PAUL, Minn. – Attorneys for the state of Iowa and civil liberties groups clashed in court Tuesday over an injunction blocking enforcement of a law that restricts school libraries from carrying books with material related to sex acts, sexuality and gender.

The injunction was imposed by U.S. District Court Judge Stephen Locher in December 2023, days before enforcement of the law was expected to begin. It was issued after Penguin Random House Books and the Iowa State Education Association sought an injunction in one of the two lawsuits now challenging the measure, with the other lawsuit filed by American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa and Lambda Legal.

The lawsuit filed by Penguin Random House in conjunction with the ISEA, educators and authors argues that Iowa students’ constitutional rights of free speech and equal protection are restricted by the law, as the measure unreasonably limits their ability to freely access and share ideas.

Books removed from schools due to the law include classics like “Brave New World” and “Ulysses,” but also include several books focused on LGBTQ+ and race issues, including “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” and “Gender Queer.”

Books related to sexual assault and rape have also been removed from several Iowa school library shelves. Laurie Halse Anderson, author of “Speak” and “Shout” and one of the plaintiffs in the case, told reporters in November that restrictions on books like hers on sexual assault and violence could isolate and harm students looking for support in the aftermath of traumatic incidents.

During Tuesday’s hearing before a three-judge panel of U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, Eric Wessan of the Iowa Attorney General’s Office told the judges the law is not violating constitutional free speech protections, as these books can still be found and obtained at a bookstore. The law’s restriction of materials in public-school libraries is a regulation of government speech, not private speech, he argued.

“The government’s interest in ensuring an education suitable to students’ age and in preventing minor students’ exposure to inappropriate material is a legitimate, compelling, even substantial one,” Wessan wrote in his brief on the case. “And removing from school library shelves books that describe or depict ‘sex acts’ is reasonably related to that legitimate interest.”

Christy Hickman, ISEA chief legal counsel, said in a news conference that U.S. Supreme Court precedent has not favored arguments that books can still be found by students outside of school libraries as a reason for allowing the removal of books from the schools’ shelves.

“Public school libraries are intended to provide access to books to all children, regardless of whether or not they can buy it at the bookstore,” Hickman said. “So such an argument, while it might make sense in other contexts, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense in the context of our K-12 public schools, because some of our kids can’t afford to go across the street … to the bookstore and buy it. That’s the purpose of our public school libraries.”

The ACLU and Lambda Legal lawsuit, filed on behalf of Iowa Safe Schools and seven students and families in the state, similarly argues that the Iowa law violates the U.S. Constitution. Wessan argued that the student plaintiffs did not have standing in the lawsuit, because the law is enforced against school districts and school employees, not students.

While the law was blocked before enforcement began, there have been a significant number of books removed from Iowa K-12 public schools due to the law and potential violations. The Des Moines Register found school districts across the state have removed nearly 3,400 books from their libraries. While the state has repeatedly argued that not all of the books were removed correctly or would count as violations of the law, education advocates have said that ambiguity about the law’s scope have caused school districts and teachers to err on the side of caution.

In August 2023, the Iowa Department of Education chose not to release any guidance on schools should proceed in light of the law, despite requests from educators for more information to ensure compliance.

Bird calls book ban a ‘common sense’ law

During Tuesday’s court arguments, a judge said that school districts could be sued on an individual basis for removing books that do not fall under the law’s restrictions as a means to address inappropriate removals. But Hickman, the ISEA attorney, said the lawsuit against the state is the appropriate action, as individual school districts are trying their best with current resources to follow the law as intended.

“If we had to start all over and start suing individual school districts — think about the court and school and public resources that go in into that,” Hickman said. “I hope that that is not where we end up. What the education community needs, what our members need, is some guidance in how to implement this law.”

Another judge expressed concerns about questioning the law’s constitutionality before it has been implemented, an argument presented by Wessan. The law was created to help address the way Iowa students learn, he said, and the injunction against portions of the law has “stymied that” objective.

“The state believes that if this injunction is vacated, the school districts, the schools and the students will understand what the law means,” he said. “And as time moves forward, this will become an integral part of Iowa’s educational landscape.”

Iowa Attorney General Brenna Bird said in a statement that her office is defending a “common sense” law that she said “protects kids, families, and parental rights.”

“Inappropriate books do not belong in the hands of school children,” Bird said. “As a mom, I know how important it is for parents to have a say in what books and materials their kids have access to.”

Attorney Thomas Story with the ACLU said that the law has already had a negative impact on Iowa schools and students.

“It restricts expression in terms that are so vague and overbroad that no two schools seem to agree on what they mean,” Story said in a news conference. “But the fact is that over 3,000 books were removed, student (gay-straight alliances) were closed, and LGBTQ+ students across the state were forced into silence. That is unconstitutional and we will continue to defend the rights of Iowa students as this case moves forward.”

The Eighth Circuit appeals panel did not provide a timeline as to when it might issue a ruling.

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Robin Opsahl

Robin Opsahl is an Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter covering the state Legislature and politics. They have experience covering government, elections and more at media organizations including Roll Call, the Sacramento Bee and the Wausau Daily Herald.

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The preceding article was previously published by The Iowa Capital Dispatch and is republished with permission.

Iowans value integrity in their government. Free and independent journalism is what keeps our public servants accountable and responsive to the people. That’s why Iowa Capital Dispatch, a nonprofit, independent source for quality journalism, is working every day to keep you informed about what government officials are doing with your money, your freedom and your safety.

We’re part of States Newsroom, the nation’s largest state-focused nonprofit news organization.

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