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Belarus LGBTQ activist joins anti-government protests

Vika Biran returned to country after disputed election

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Vika Biran is a Belorusian LGBTQ activist who is participating in protests against her country’s president, Alexander Lukashenko, after this month’s disputed election. (Photo courtesy of Vika Biran)

An LGBTQ activist in Belarus on Monday said she remains optimistic that nationwide protests will ultimately oust her country’s authoritarian president.

Vika Biran is originally from Pinsk, a city in southern Belarus that is roughly 180 miles from Minsk, the country’s capital.

Biran, who is a project manager, told the Los Angeles Blade she flew from Berlin to Minsk on Aug 12, three days after President Alexander Lukashenko claimed victory in the country’s presidential election. Biran said she decided to return to Belarus and participate in the anti-government protests after police arrested and beat several of her friends.

“I want to support them and I want to be in this movement as well,” Biran told the Blade.

Biran said she has not been detained, attacked or injured during the protests. Biran told the Blade the worst of the police crackdown against protesters took place before she arrived in Minsk.

“I was really surprised when I was on the main square,” said Biran. “I was sitting in front of soldiers, and their commanders were not informing people that people will be beaten soon … they said just please leave this square clean.”

“That was really surprising,” added Biran. “I was happy and nothing terrible happened to me.”

Belarus is a former Soviet republic that borders Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.

Lukashenko — described as Europe’s “last dictator” — has been Belarus’ president since 1994. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the main opposition candidate who challenged Lukashenko after authorities arrested her husband, fled to Lithuania after the Aug. 9 vote.  

Media reports indicate Lukashenko over the weekend spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Associated Press reported upwards of 200,000 people gathered in Minsk’s Independence Square for what has been described as the largest protest in Belarusian history.

Journalists at state media outlets and workers at government-owned factories have also joined strikes against Lukashenko.

“These events that are happening in Belarus are really unique,” Biran told the Blade. “We have never had anything like that happening before.”

Biran added the protests make her hopeful about her country’s future.

“I don’t want Lukashenka to be president anymore,” said Biran. “I have hope because not only cultural workers or people from NGOs are disappointed and want to show their reaction to everything; but … people from factories, teachers, medical workers, all those people who are receiving their money from the (state) budget are also not happy with what is happening in the country.”

Lukashenko’s last name is spelled Lukashenka in Belarusian.

Belorusian troops deployed in the country’s capital of Minsk. (Photo courtesy of Vika Biran)

European Union Foreign Affairs Minister Josep Borrell in a statement noted hundreds of thousands of people “took to the streets all across Belarus” on Sunday to protest Lukashenko.

“These peaceful demonstrations had clear demands: The release of all unlawfully detained people, the prosecution of those responsible for police brutality, and holding of new presidential elections,” said Borrell.

“The sheer numbers clearly show that the Belarusian population wants change, and wants it now,” he added. “The EU stands by them.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in an Aug. 10 statement described the vote as “not free and fair.” Pompeo also criticized the Belarusian government’s response to protesters.

“We urge the Belarusian government to respect the rights of all Belarusians to participate in peaceful assembly, refrain from use of force, and release those wrongfully detained,” he said. “We strongly condemn ongoing violence against protesters and the detention of opposition supporters, as well as the use of internet shutdowns to hinder the ability of the Belarusian people to share information about the election and the demonstrations.” 

Biran told the Blade she hopes the international community will continue to apply pressure to Lukashenko and his government.

“We really do need a reaction from different countries and different politicians who are making decisions and who can put economic pressure on this government,” said Biran.

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Anti-LGBTQ Colorado baker loses Trans birthday cake court case

Phillips violated Colorado’s ant-discrimination law citing the fact that at issue was a ‘product’ not freedom of speech or expression

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Screenshot via CBSN Denver

DENVER – A Colorado State District Court Judge ruled against the baker who had previously refused to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding and won at the U.S. Supreme Court a partial narrow victory in that case in 2018.

CBSN Denver reported that Denver District Judge A. Bruce Jones order that Jack Phillips violated Colorado’s anti discrimination law Tuesday citing the fact that at issue was a ‘product’ not freedom of speech or expression.

In court documents, Jones said that Phillips refusal to make the plantiff, Autumn Scardina a cake made with blue icing on the outside and pink on the inside to celebrate her gender transition on her birthday because of her transgender status but without a written message, was in violation of the law. Phillips was ordered to pay a $500 fine.

Jones noted in his ruling that Phillips testified during a trial in March that ‘he did not think someone could change their gender’ and he would not celebrate “somebody who thinks that they can.”

“The anti-discrimination laws are intended to ensure that members of our society who have historically been treated unfairly, who have been deprived of even the every-day right to access businesses to buy products, are no longer treated as ‘others,‘” the judge wrote.

The Scottsdale, Arizona based Alliance Defending Freedom, an anti-LGBTQ legal group that has been place on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Hate Watch List for spreading propaganda and lies about LGBTQ people, told CBSN that the group would appeal Jones’ ruling.

“Radical activists and government officials are targeting artists like Jack because they won’t promote messages on marriage and sexuality that violate their core convictions,” ADF’s general counsel, Kristen Waggoner, said in a media statement.

The maximum fine for each violation of Colorado’s Anti-Discrimination Act is $500. But it was not clear from the ruling if the fine was for the two attempts that Scardina made to order the cake or just one.

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Supreme Court rules for religious agency rejecting LGBTQ families

A key portion of the Roberts decision that could limit its reach is language specific to Philadelphia’s contract with the city

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Blade file photo by Michael Key

WASHINGTON – In a ruling released Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled decided in favor of a religious-affiliated foster care agency seeking to refuse child placement into LGBTQ homes, determining the City of Philadelphia’s enforcement of a contract with non-discrimination provisions violates freedom of religion under the First Amendment.

In a surprise twist, the ruling was unanimous with nine justices on the court agreeing to the result in favor of Catholic Social Services, with Chief Justice John Roberts writing the opinion. As noted by SCOTUSblog, the court seemed much more divided in oral arguments, although inclined to rule for the foster care agency.

“The refusal of Philadelphia to contract with CSS for the provision of foster care services unless the agency agrees to certify same-sex couples as foster parents cannot survive strict scrutiny and violates the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment,” Roberts writes.

Although Catholic Social Services had also contended a freedom of speech right under the First Amendment to reject same-sex couples, Roberts adds the court didn’t reach a conclusion on that part of the argument.

Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of the Catholic LGBTQ group DignityUSA, condemned the decision in a statement immediately after it was handed down.

“Today, the well-being of our country’s most vulnerable children has been sacrificed to preserve tax-payer funded discrimination for a powerful group of religious institutions,” Duddy-Burke said. “The Supreme Court just decreased the number of homes available to our youth in foster care, making what was already a crisis worse. Same-sex couples are seven times more likely than straight couples to adopt or be foster parents and are more likely to have trans-racial families. This ruling means tens of thousands of children may never have a family to love and support them.”

The Supreme Court reversed and remanded decision of the U.S. Third Circuit of Court of Appeals, which had ruled in favor of City of Philadelphia enforcing its contract with Catholic Social Services. Both the appeals courts and the lower trial court had come to the opposite conclusion of the U.S. Supreme Court.

A key portion of the Roberts decision that could limit its reach is language specific to Philadelphia’s contract with the city allowing for discretion on enforcement, which he says means the measure isn’t generally applicable measure.

“Section 3.21 of the contract requires an agency to provide services defined in the contract to prospective foster parents without regard to their sexual orientation,” Roberts writes. “But section 3.21 also permits exceptions to this requirement at the ‘sole discretion’ of the Commissioner. This inclusion of a mechanism for entirely discretionary exceptions renders the non-discrimination provision not generally applicable.”

David Flugman, a lawyer at the New York-based Selendy & Gay PLLC whose practice includes LGBTQ rights, said in a statement the technical nature of the Fulton is “sure to invite even more litigation.

“Today the Supreme Court held, on narrow, technical grounds, that the City of Philadelphia’s attempt to ensure that Catholic Charities abide by the same non-discrimination provisions applicable to all other city contractors could not withstand Catholic Charities’ religious right to refuse to screen loving same-sex couples to act as foster parents,” Flugman writes. “The Court did not take up Catholic Charities’ invitation to scuttle the 30 year-old test for free exercise claims that was announced in Smith v. Employment Division, which held that a neutral law of general applicability could survive even if it burdens religious practice.”

Notably, although the City of Philadelphia in addition to the contract it struck with Catholic Social Services has in a place LGBTQ non-discrimination ordinance, the Supreme Court determines that measure doesn’t apply in the context of foster care services because it’s limited to the services “made available to the public.”

“Certification is not ‘made available to the public’ in the usual sense of the words,” Roberts writes. “Certification as a foster parent is not readily accessible to the public; the process involves a customized and selective assessment that bears little resemblance to staying in a hotel, eating at a restaurant, or riding a bus.”

Fatima Goss Graves, CEO of the National Women’s Law Center, said in a statement the decision from the Supreme Court is a harmful loss to the children in the foster care system in Philadelphia as well as the countless LGBTQ parents.”

“Weakening the government’s ability to protect their civil rights is hardly in their best interest, and we’re committed to ensuring this loophole is not stretched to further justify hatred or prejudice,” Graves added. “We must protect the right of every person to live without fear of discrimination because of who they are or who they love, and we must hold that value particularly close when it comes to the best interest of LGBTQ youth and the families who love them.” 

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U.S. Senate to consider apology for past anti-LGBTQ discrimination

Report shows 70-year history of gov’t persecution, purges of ‘sex deviates’

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Pioneering activist Frank Kameny, who was fired from his government job for being gay, received an apology from the government decades later, but that apology did not extend to the thousands of other LGBT Americans persecuted by their government. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

WASHINGTON – U.S. Sens. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.) and Tim Kaine (D-Va.) are preparing to introduce a first-ever resolution calling on the Senate to acknowledge and apologize for the federal government’s discrimination against LGBTQ federal workers and members of the military over a period of at least 70 years.

The two senators have agreed to introduce the proposed resolution at the request of the Mattachine Society of Washington, D.C., an LGBTQ group that specializes in archival research into the federal government’s decades-long policy of banning LGBTQ people from working in federal jobs and serving in the U.S. military and purging them when found to be in those positions.

The Mattachine Society, in partnership with the international law firm McDermott Will & Emery, prepared a 28-page white paper reporting in extensive detail the U.S. government’s history of what it calls discrimination and persecution of LGBTQ federal workers and LGBTQ military service members.
The white paper is entitled, “America’s Promise of Reconciliation and Redemption: The Need for an Official Acknowledgement and Apology for the Historic Government Assault on LGBT Federal Employees and Military Personnel.”

In a statement, the Mattachine Society says the paper is the product of a two-year research project involving a team of five attorneys with the McDermott Will & Emery firm and Mattachine Society.

“Over many decades, the United States government, led by teams within the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), and nearly every agency and branch of government, began the process of investigating, harassing, interrogating, court-martialing, terminating, hospitalizing, and, in some cases, criminally prosecuting LGBT Americans for no other reason than their sexual orientation or gender expression,” the paper says.

“This wholesale purging left tens of thousands in financial ruin, without jobs, with personal lives destroyed, and, in many cases, completely estranged from their own families,” the paper states.

“A straightforward acknowledgement of the mistreatment of these military and civilian employees and an official apology is overdue,” the paper continues. “Both the Congress and the Executive Branch were complicit in this pervasive mistreatment of LGBT citizens.”

The paper points out that over the past 30 years Congress has officially acknowledged and apologized on six different occasions for U.S. mistreatment of other marginalized groups.

Among the subject areas of those apologies were the enslavement of African Americans, the failure to enforce anti-lynching laws to protect African Americans, the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, the mistreatment of Native Hawaiians, the mistreatment of Native Americans, and government polices of exclusion of Chinese immigrants.

The paper says the time has come for the federal government to issue its own “acknowledgement and apology” to the LGBT community by following the precedent established by Congress with respect to apologies to the other marginalized groups.

Jeff Trammell, a Mattachine Society board member who led the project to prepare the white paper, said Baldwin and Kaine were in the process of lining up other senators to sign on as co-sponsors of the resolution.

Baldwin is the Senate’s only out lesbian member. Kaine is a longtime supporter of LGBTQ rights.
Trammell said Mattachine of Washington considers the Senate resolution the first step in an ongoing effort to obtain a similar resolution in the U.S. House of Representatives and a possible similar statement of acknowledgement and apology from the executive branch, including the Biden administration.

He said he and the resolution’s supporters were hopeful that most senators, including Republicans, would view it as non-controversial and as a nonpartisan measure because it seeks only the acknowledgement of historical facts. Trammell noted that unlike other resolutions of apology pertaining to other minorities approved by Congress in the past, the LGBT apology resolution does not call for any financial reparations.

The eight-page proposed resolution addresses that question by stating, “Nothing in this resolution…authorizes or supports any claim against the United States or serves as a settlement of any claim against the United States.”

Trammell noted that under the Obama administration, John Berry, the director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, issued an official government apology for the firing of D.C. gay rights pioneer Frank Kameny from his government job in the late 1950s. But Trammell said the apology to Kameny, which was considered important and groundbreaking, did not extend to the thousands of other LGBTQ employees fired or harassed in the years before and after Kameny’s firing.

The white paper also points out that at least seven U.S. allied nations have issued apologies for past mistreatment of their own LGBTQ citizens. Among them are Spain, Canada, United Kingdom, Australia, Germany, Brazil, and The Netherlands.

“We believe the time has come to understand and acknowledge the historical animus that LGBT federal employees and military personnel faced for generations from their own government to ensure it can never happen again,” Trammell said.

The white paper can be accessed here.

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