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Texas activists rally behind human trafficking victims

Brothers kidnapped in Mexico, brought to U.S.

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The Rio Grande between Matamoros, Mexico, and Brownsville, Texas, on Jan. 14, 2020. LGBTQ activists in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley have rallied behind two brothers who are victims of human trafficking. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

BROWNSVILLE, Texas — LGBTQ activists in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley have rallied behind two brothers who are victims of human trafficking.

The brothers, who fled violence in their country of origin, were kidnapped by human traffickers in Mexico in August.

Cindy Candia, a volunteer with Angry Tias and Abuelas, a group that assists migrants and asylum seekers in the Rio Grande Valley, previously ran a local PFLAG chapter with her husband. She told the Washington Blade on Monday the traffickers brought them and two other men to the Rio Grande and forced them to swim across the river and enter the U.S. Candia said they were then forced into the trunk of a car where they remained for two hours in stifling heat.

The Mexico-U.S. border remains closed to non-essential travel because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Candia said the brothers did not eat anything during the two weeks they were being held.

She told the Blade the the traffickers released the brothers and the two other men on a dirt road outside of Brownsville, which is across the Rio Grande from the Mexican border city of Matamoros. Candia said the older brother was suffering from acute heat stroke after spending two hours in the car’s trunk.

“(The younger brother) dragged his brother to a main street where he flagged somebody down and they drove them to the hospital,” said Candia, who noted the older brother was also suffering from severe malnutrition.

The hospital did not allow the younger brother to stay because of the pandemic. Candia told the Blade the traffickers kidnapped him again at a nearby gas station.

“They picked him up again, and kept him for two weeks,” she said.

Candia told the Blade the traffickers extorted around $10,000 from the brothers’ family.

‘We’re giving them whatever they need’

Sergio Cordova of Team Brownsville, a group founded by two gay men that cooks food for migrants who live in a camp in Matamoros and provides them with sleeping bags and other basic items, learned about the brothers’ plight when a nurse at the hospital where the older brother was being treated called him.

Team Brownsville co-founder Mike Benavides on Tuesday told the Blade during a telephone interview that his group paid for a hotel room for the younger brother and drove him to the hospital each day to visit his brother. Benavides said Team Brownsville volunteers also brought the younger brother food.

“We’re giving them whatever they need,” he said.

The older brother is no longer in the hospital and is currently living with his younger brother. They have asked for asylum in the U.S. because they are human trafficking victims.

The Blade has chosen not to name the brothers, their country of origin or their current location in order to ensure their safety.

Candia told the Blade the older brother still has a feeding tube in his stomach and needs physical, cognitive and occupational therapy to recover. Oscar Raúl Lopez, founder of Poderosos.org, an HIV/AIDS service organization in the Rio Grande Valley, is finalizing a fundraising campaign for the brothers.

“If anybody knows what it’s like to lose your home of origin, your family, to feel displaced, it’s definitely the LGBT Latino community,” Lopez told the Blade on Tuesday when asked why he decided to help the brothers.

Candia became emotional when she talked about the brothers.

“I’m a mom,” said Candia.

Trump policy forces asylum seekers to remain in Mexico

The Blade in January reported from the Rio Grande Valley and Matamoros.

The Trump administration’s “return to Mexico” policy forces asylum seekers to await the outcome of their cases in Mexico. Benavides, Lopez and other activists in the Rio Grande Valley and Matamoros with whom the Blade has spoken say MPP and the White House’s overall immigration policy has placed asylum seekers and migrants even more vulnerable to traffickers.

“The MPP wait has become more than they can bear and they are going to those extremes of risking their lives,” Benavides told the Blade on Tuesday. “People are getting so desperate and it’s our own country’s fault.”

A portion of the migrant camp in the Mexican border city of Matamoros, which is across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, Texas., in January 2020. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Candia said she and other volunteers who work with asylum seekers in the Matamoros camp tell them “not to give up.”

“We tell them not to give up and to keep going and we’re here for them and there’s lots of people in this country that want them here because a lot of people are giving up,” she said. “I didn’t want the boys to give up.”

“They’ve been through so much,” added Candia. “They deserve to be here.”

Here is the link to the fundraising campaign.

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Florida

Florida prohibits Medicaid reimbursement for trans healthcare

Lambda Legal tells the LA Blade its “exploring all possible avenues for challenging this discriminatory rulemaking”

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Photo Credit: Equality Florida

TALLAHASSEE – On Thursday, Florida officially joined the roster of conservative states whose Medicaid programs carve out coverage exemptions for transgender related healthcare, including gender-affirming therapies for young people. 

Against the guidance of mainstream medical opinion, the state’s Agency for Health Care Administration (AHCA) ratified new rules prohibiting taxpayer reimbursement for puberty blockers, hormone therapies, or surgical procedures to treat gender dysphoria. 

“We are exploring all possible avenues for challenging this discriminatory rulemaking,” wrote Carl Charles, senior attorney at Lambda Legal, in an emailed statement to The Los Angeles Blade. “Lambda Legal has secured victories on this issue in other states such as Alaska (Being v. Crum), and just this month in our case, Fain v. Crouch, in West Virginia.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and its Florida Chapter (FCAAP) wrote in an emailed statement to The Blade that they were “disheartened” by AHCA’s finalization of rules blocking Medicaid coverage for gender affirming care: 

“The state’s interference with the physician-patient relationship and its prohibition of this vital care will negatively impact Floridians who are trying to live their lives as their true, healthiest selves. As pediatricians, our only goal is to work with families and provide our patients with the best evidence-based care possible. When necessary and appropriate, that includes gender-affirming care. The AAP and FCAAP will continue to stand up in support of all young people, including those who are transgender.”

The U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services did not return a request for comment in time for publication. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

Also on Thursday, Florida’s AHCA inaccurately accused HHS and the AAP of misleading the public about the safety of transgender related healthcare, though it was not the first time the state’s health agency has butted up against its federal counterparts and associations of medical practitioners. 

AHCA previously issued a bulletin in April that prompted rebukes from groups including the Endocrine Society, which accused AHCA of spreading misinformation about healthcare treatments for transgender people, including youth. The bulletin’s contents also conflicted with official positions on these matters held by HHS. 

A coalition of legal advocacy organizations including Lambda Legal immediately condemned the AHCA’s latest move in a joint statement Thursday, writing: “Ignoring thousands of public comments and expert testimony, Florida’s AHCA has finalized a rule that will deny Medicaid coverage for all medically necessary gender-affirming care for both youth and adults. This discriminatory and medically unsound rule will take effect on August 21, 2022, putting transgender people in jeopardy of losing access to critical gender-affirming health care services.”

The statement also took aim at Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis: “AHCA’s actions, at the behest of Governor DeSantis and his political appointees, are morally and legally wrong as well as medically and scientifically unsound. This rule represents a dangerous escalation in Governor DeSantis’s political zeal to persecute LGBTQ+ people in Florida, and particularly transgender youth.”

The Movement Advancement Project publishes a chart tracking state-by-state Medicaid coverage for transgender-related care, which is a patchwork of different exemptions and carveouts that generally maps onto the extent to which each leans conservative. 

Much like with other public health insurance programs like state employee health plans, discriminatory state Medicaid programs have often been the subject of litigation challenging them, in lawsuits that are often successful.

Nikole Parker, Equality Florida’s Director of Transgender Equality in an emailed statement said:

“Just over one week from today, Florida’s Agency for Health Care Administration, at the behest of Governor DeSantis, plans to strip thousands of vulnerable Floridians of their health care. Transgender people have been accessing gender-affirming care through Medicaid for years. That care is now being shut off by a state agency that has been corrupted, weaponized, and stacked with extremists by a governor desperate to fuel his own political ambitions.

Today, more than 9,000 transgender Floridians access care through Medicaid. On August 21, the state government will put  that care on the chopping block. As further evidence for his complete disregard for the health and well being of transgender Floridians, the DeSantis Administration has done nothing to quantify or assess the terrible impact this rule would have on the thousands of transgender people who rely on Medicaid for their care. The transgender community, like all people, shouldn’t have necessary, life-saving care stripped away by extremist politicians working overtime to stoke right-wing fervor. This brazen, politically-motivated attack is cruel, dangerous and puts the health of thousands at risk.”

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Virginia

Virginia’s Gov. Youngkin will force teachers to out their LGBTQ+ students

“I firmly believe that teachers and schools have an obligation to make sure that parents are well informed”

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Virginia Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin (Screenshot/YouTube CBS News)

RICHMOND – Virginia Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin affirmed his support on Tuesday for measures that would require teachers to notify parents of their children’s sexual orientation or gender identity, regardless of the students’ consent. 

The move was justified under the pretext of protecting “parental rights,” a specious argument that has given cover to policies enacted by conservative legislatures across the country that target LGBTQ+ people, including students, in public schools. 

“With regards to informing parents with most important decisions about their children…Parents should be at the forefront of all of these discussions,” Youngkin told WJLA News. “And I firmly believe that teachers and schools have an obligation to make sure that parents are well informed about what’s happening in their kids’ lives.”

Critics, however, charge that coming out is an intensely personal act, that taking away a student’s ability to do so on their own terms can be psychologically damaging, intrusive, and hurtful. In some cases, for students whose parents or guardians might harbor anti-LGBTQ+ views, it can be dangerous. 

Lambda Legal reports between 20 and 40% of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ+ and are “frequently rejected by their families or fleeing abusive long-term placements.” Forcibly outing young LGBTQ+ people can mean they will be forced to live on the streets. 

Notwithstanding Youngkin’s efforts to portray himself as a moderate when campaigning for governor, Tuesday’s statement follows a series of extreme rightward moves he has made with respect to education policies in the state that concern LGBTQ+ youth and subject matter. 

Florida’s controversial “Parental Rights in Education” bill, which critics termed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, was similarly premised on the right of parents to control the material to which their children will have access in school. 

In reality, the overbroad legislation prohibits any classroom discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity for students in certain grades, which could potentially lead to disciplinary action against a teacher who mentions their same-sex spouse. 

Youngkin has similarly taken aim at educational materials in public schools, such as by signing into law SB656, which requires parental notification of nebulously defined “sexually explicit content.” 

Just after taking office in January, he set up a “tip line” to solicit comments from Virginia parents on “divisive practices” or the inclusion of curricula and materials they may consider objectionable. 

Plaintiffs in multiple lawsuits, the most recent of which was filed on Monday, accuse Youngkin of violating public records laws by his refusal to share “tip line” emails with news media organizations.

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Vermont

Out Vermont state senator wins Democratic primary in U.S. House race

Tuesday’s victory makes her likely to become the first woman and openly LGBTQ+ person to represent the heavily Democratic state in Congress

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Screenshot via Becca Balint for Congress

MONTPELIER – The Green Mountain State’s state Senate president pro tempore has won the Democratic nomination for the state’s at-large congressional seat, the state’s lone seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Becca Balin is running to succeed U.S. Rep. Peter Welch and Tuesday’s victory makes her likely to become the first woman and openly LGBTQ+ person to represent the heavily Democratic state in Congress if elected in November. Vermont is the only state that has never had a female member of its congressional delegation.

The VTDigger, a statewide news website, reported; “Balint, 53, is the first openly gay woman elected to the Vermont Senate and the first woman to serve as its president. The former middle school teacher and stay-at-home mother won her first political contest in a race for her southeastern Vermont Senate seat in 2014

She rose quickly through the ranks of the Democrat-controlled chamber, becoming majority leader in 2017, at the start of her second term. Four years later, in 2021, she was elected pro tem — the top position in the Senate.”

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