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LGBTQ asylum seekers closer to a new life but challenges remain

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A volunteer and and an asylum seeker hug at a bus station in Brownsville, Texas, on Feb. 26, 2021. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

MATAMOROS, Mexico — Natasha is a transgender woman from Honduras’ Olancho department.

She arrived in Matamoros, a Mexican border city that is across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, Texas, on Oct. 12, 2019. Natasha, who fled persecution because of her gender identity, asked for asylum in the U.S., but the Trump administration forced her to pursue her case in Mexico under the Migrant Protection Protocols program it implemented in June 2019.

Natasha lived in a migrant camp near the Gateway International Bridge over the Rio Grande that connects Matamoros and Brownsville for 11 months until last November when she moved into a shelter run by Rainbow Bridge Asylum Seekers, a program for LGBTQ asylum seekers and migrants that Resource Center Matamoros, a group that provides assistance to asylum seekers and migrants in the Mexican border city, helped create.

“We can’t live in our countries,” Natasha told the Blade on Feb. 27 during an interview at the Rainbow Bridge shelter, which is less than a mile from the Gateway International Bridge. “That’s why we entered the United States, to ask for refuge, and they sent us here to Mexico.”

Natasha entered the U.S. on March 10. She is now in North Carolina.

Natasha is a transgender woman from Honduras who has asked for asylum in the U.S., in Matamoros, Mexico, on Feb. 27, 2021. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

The Biden administration in January suspended enrollment in MPP.

The first asylum seekers with active MPP cases arrived at ports of entry in Brownsville and El Paso, Texas, and San Ysidro, Calif. on Feb. 25.

Estuardo Cifuentes, a gay asylum seeker from Guatemala who ran the Rainbow Bridge shelter, lived in Matamoros for 19 months under MPP until he entered the U.S. on March 3. Two other asylum seekers who lived at the shelter — including Janeth, a trans woman from Cuba who arrived in Matamoros on May 27, 2019 — are now in the country. Janeth is now living with relatives in Miami.

“Discrimination, transphobia, homophobia, police abuse, police persecution and all these aggressions that are directed toward my community are the reasons that force us to leave,” Janeth told the Blade at the Rainbow Bridge shelter, referring to what prompted her to leave Cuba. “They almost expel us.”

The Biden administration allowed asylum seekers with MPP cases who lived in the Matamoros camp to enter the U.S. at the Brownsville port of entry first.

The process to enter the U.S. begins when an asylum seeker signs up online via a U.N. Refugee Agency website. A UNHCR representative then calls them to verify their personal information and provides them with a time to present themselves at the Gateway International Bridge.

The International Organization for Migration tests asylum seekers for the coronavirus, and they must test negative before they enter the U.S. They then board a bus that brings them to the Brownsville port of entry on the other side of the bridge. U.S. Customs and Border Protection personnel process them before they are brought to Brownsville’s main bus station, which is a couple of blocks away from the CBP station.

Gaby Zavala, a bisexual woman who founded Resource Center Matamoros, and other local activists who include Cindy Candia of Angry Tias and Abuelas, a group that assists migrants and asylum seekers in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, offer the asylum seekers legal advice and help them buy bus tickets once they arrive at the bus station. Michael Benavides, a gay man who co-founded Team Brownsville, and Felicia RangelSamporano, founder of the Sidewalk School for Children Asylum Seekers, which taught children who lived in the Matamoros camp, have also helped the asylum seekers once they entered the U.S.

“It’s surreal to think that it’s actually happening,” Zavala told the Blade on Feb. 26 during an interview at a Mexican restaurant near the Brownsville bus station. “[It is] something that we hoped for.”

Resource Center Matamoros founder Gaby Zavala, right, assists asylum seekers at a bus station in Brownsville, Texas, on Feb. 26, 2021, moments after they arrived in the U.S. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Zavala noted the border “is still closed to new immigration,” even though MPP has been suspended and the Biden administration has begun to allow asylum seekers with active cases under the Trump-era program into the U.S. Zavala on Wednesday acknowledged asylum seekers and migrants will continue to travel to the border, regardless of the policies the U.S. puts in place.

“The border between Brownsville, Texas, and Matamoros, Tamaulipas, has always been a major route for immigrants in search of asylum in the United States of America,” she said. “The service of NGOs, those that sponsor projects like Resource Center Matamoros, is detrimental for asylum seekers as they arrive to the border because we are constantly conforming to ever-changing US immigration policies.”

The Associated Press on Tuesday reported more than 4,000 migrant children are currently in U.S. Border Control custody, as the number of migrants at the Southern border continues to grow.

The Department of Health and Human Services has announced it plans to open shelters in Texas and California in the coming days to allow migrant children to leave ill-equipped Border Patrol stations. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, who was born in Cuba, on Tuesday in a statement acknowledged the Biden administration continues to “expel” most single adults and families “apprehended at the southwest border” under Title 42, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rule that closed the border to most asylum seekers and migrants because of the pandemic.

“We are expelling most single adults and families,” said Mayorkas. “We are not expelling unaccompanied children.”

“We are securing our border, executing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) public health authority to safeguard the American public and the migrants themselves, and protecting the children,” he added. “We have more work to do.”

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and 12 other House Republicans on Monday traveled to El Paso, which is across the Rio Grande from Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. The delegation did not include U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas), who represents El Paso.

McCarthy and other Republicans have sharply criticized President Biden for beginning the process to reverse the Trump administration’s hardline immigration policies. Activists who work with LGBTQ asylum seekers and migrants told the Blade on Tuesday the situation on the Southern border remains complex.

“Republicans want this to be scary Brown people about to invade, which it’s not,” said Emem Maurus, a supervising attorney for the Transgender Law Center, told the Blade during a telephone interview from the Mexican border city of Tijuana where he works with LGBTQ asylum seekers. “But you got to figure that Trump effectively blocked migration for upwards of three years and Title 42 has been incredibly successfully in really stopping people, so you have a huge number of people.”

“If there’s a crisis, it was very meticulously created by Stephen Miller,” he added. “It was very intentionally created.”

Maurus told the Blade that two of his gay clients in Tijuana with active MPP cases have been “able to get out, but we’ve got a couple others who really need to and haven’t been called yet.”

“The two that I’m waiting on have just gone through hell,” said Maurus. “They should have been first.”

Maurus highlighted the case of 17 LGBTQ Jamaican asylum seekers in Tijuana whose request to enter the U.S. on humanitarian parole has been denied. Maurus told the Blade that each of them has a sponsor, lawyer and a place to live once they arrive in the country.

“I can bring all of them in with a COVID test,” he said. “All of them are represented. There is no reason they couldn’t be let in tomorrow.”

A portion of the fence that marks the Mexico-U.S. border in Tijuana, Mexico, on Feb. 25, 2020. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Abdiel Echevarría-Cabán, a South Texas-based immigration attorney who is also a human rights law and policy expert, on Tuesday said he welcomes “the end of MPP by the Biden administration.” Echevarría-Cabán nevertheless added “the process has been hectic and there is a lot of confusion among refugees that lost their cases while in MPP who didn’t have access to an attorney or couldn’t gather the evidence they needed to prove their cases living under severe danger and inhumane conditions.”

Echevarría-Cabán said one of his clients, a gay Cuban man, entered the U.S. on the same day the Biden administration announced it had suspended MPP.

Drug cartels, according to Echevarría-Cabán, threatened to kill his client if he didn’t pay them extortion money. Echevarría-Cabán told the Blade that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detained his client for three weeks until they released him under supervision.

“The process of letting them cross after two years has been disorganized and there has been poor communication and coordination between UNHCR, immigrants and attorneys,” he said. “Many refugees that crossed the border out of fear ended in detention and ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) is releasing them under an order of supervision.”

Steve Roth, executive director of the Organization of Refuge, Asylum and Migration, a Minnesota-based organization that works with LGBTQ refugees and migrants around the world, told the Blade the situation on the Southern border is “complicated” and “a bit of a mess.”

“Some of these policies were designed to prevent legitimate asylum seekers from making their claims,” he said, referring to the Trump administration.

“We recognize that it’s going to take some time to undo that,” added Roth. “But at the same time, it’s really important that the process reopens for asylum seekers to be able to present their case at the border.”

Valery, a trans woman from the Honduran city of Comayagua who arrived in Matamoros last March, and other asylum seekers continue to wait for their chance to enter the U.S.

“I am very happy that people are leaving, but what about us,” she told the Blade at the Rainbow Bridge shelter in Matamoros. “Where do we go? Where?”

Joaquin Castro: MPP dangerous for LGBTQ people

Texas Congressman Joaquin Castro last week said the situation for asylum seekers on the U.S.-Mexico border remains perilous, even though President Biden has begun to reverse some of the previous administration’s hardline immigration policies.

“There is a real humanitarian need among the people who are seeking asylum at the southern border,” Castro told the Blade during a telephone interview. “And unfortunately, over the past few years Donald Trump created a bubble of very desperate people who were unable to have their asylum claims processed and now are anxious to have their day in court, to have their asylum cases heard.”

Biden in January suspended enrollments in the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols program.

“MPP is dangerous for many folks … and that includes LGBTQ and trans folks,” said Castro. “These folks have sometimes become targets on the other side of the border.”

The U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 that Democrats introduced in Congress last month would, among other things, create a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants who are in the country.

The Biden administration shortly after it took office directed ICE, CBP and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to stop the deportation of “certain” undocumented immigrants for 100 days, but a federal judge in Texas last month blocked the moratorium. The White House earlier this week announced it would request $4 billion in aid to mitigate the causes of migration from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.

“MPP of course was lifted by the Biden administration, but you still have a lot of people who are in and around the border cities in Mexico,” said Castro. “And for all folks what we are seeking to do is put people on a path to citizenship.”

Castro acknowledged Congress has debated immigration reform for years, but he said, “we finally have an opportunity with this president and this Congress to get it done.” “It’s still going to be tough because of the numbers in the Senate, but I think there is a greater window here now than there has been in a very long time,” he said.

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Federal Government

Lambda Legal praises Biden admin’s finalized Title IX regulations

The new policy also reverses some Trump-era Title IX rules governing how schools must respond to sexual harassment & sexual assault

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U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona (Photo Credit: Office of the U.S. Secretary of Education)

WASHINGTON – The Biden-Harris administration’s revised Title IX policy “protects LGBTQ+ students from discrimination and other abuse,” Lambda Legal said in a statement praising the U.S. Department of Education’s issuance of the final rule on Friday.

Slated to take effect on Aug. 1, the new regulations constitute an expansion of the 1972 Title IX civil rights law, which prohibits sex-based discrimination in education programs that receive federal funding.

Pursuant to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in the landmark 2020 Bostock v. Clayton County case, the department’s revised policy clarifies that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity constitutes sex-based discrimination as defined under the law.

“These regulations make it crystal clear that everyone can access schools that are safe, welcoming and that respect their rights,” Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said during a call with reporters on Thursday.

While the new rule does not provide guidance on whether schools must allow transgender students to play on sports teams corresponding with their gender identity to comply with Title IX, the question is addressed in a separate rule proposed by the agency in April.

The administration’s new policy also reverses some Trump-era Title IX rules governing how schools must respond to reports of sexual harassment and sexual assault, which were widely seen as imbalanced in favor of the accused.

Jennifer Klein, the director of the White House Gender Policy Council, said during Thursday’s call that the department sought to strike a balance with respect to these issues, “reaffirming our longstanding commitment to fundamental fairness.”

“We applaud the Biden administration’s action to rescind the legally unsound, cruel, and dangerous sexual harassment and assault rule of the previous administration,” Lambda Legal Nonbinary and Transgender Rights Project Director Sasha Buchert said in the group’s statement on Friday.

“Today’s rule instead appropriately underscores that Title IX’s civil rights protections clearly cover LGBTQ+ students, as well as survivors and pregnant and parenting students across race and gender identity,” she said. “Schools must be places where students can learn and thrive free of harassment, discrimination, and other abuse.”

Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), a Congressional leader on LGBTQ and education issues, also hailed the finalized rule on Title IX from the Biden Administration:  

The Education Department and Biden Administration showed real courage today, delivering on a long-held promise to ensure that the federal government does more to protect all Americans—especially LGBTQ Americans—from discrimination.  

This groundbreaking rule is a major victory, but we still have much to do. We need to enshrine and expand its protections by passing the Equality Act because for too many Americans, their rights and protections depend on the zip code they live in.   

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Arkansas

Another wound that will never heal; another tragic teen’s death

“Let Ethan’s legacy serve as a beacon of hope and a call to action for a more inclusive and accepting future”

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Ethan (Family photo)

LOS ANGELES, Calif. – The pain was palpable as it radiated from the grief stricken single mother who lost her only child- her beloved son, to suicide this past Sunday as she spoke in the phone call Thursday evening with the Blade.

Ethan was only 15 in fact he had just celebrated his birthday this past month.

Ethan was a bright and compassionate teenager, quick to help his elderly neighbors with lawncare, carrying in the groceries, or just sitting out on their porches listening to them tell stories or chat. “He was such a good boy, so loving, so caring,” his mother said.

Growing up in a small rural community in Arkansas, Ethan loved to hunt, fish, and spend time with Dad and he was a dutiful son to his mother, but that all changed a year ago when Ethan told his parents his truth- he was gay.

His mother was good with it she says, “His Dad left us, just walked away from him. No contact, silence.” His father’s rejection and abandonment left Ethan feeling guilt and despair, struggling to cope with the fallout of his father’s departure and the financial burdens placed on his now single mother.

She explained: “He began to withdraw and late at night he started to hurt himself even to the point to go to the E.R.” Adding to Ethan’s stress “the local farm boys would say hateful things, they’d call him faggot, they’d stay away telling him he was gonna give them AIDS or die from it.,” she said. The rejection and bullying got so bad at the school that staff stepped in and put an end to it. “The school was so supportive, they even gave in-school suspensions, but then those boys, others, went on line and it got worse,” she told the Blade.

Like most teens Ethan kept much of his pain to himself as his despair over loss of the relationship with his father, worry over his single Mom and money as she works in food service and money is scare became too much. “He was fine on Saturday- I mean it was a good day I didn’t see any problems,” she related to the Blade. On Sunday, he was gone- forever.

Now his mother is left with memories and questions that will never be answered. For now, his mother, Connie, asks for privacy during this difficult time as she grapples with the devastating loss of her only child.

After being contacted, Indianapolis-based Rainbow Youth Project USA has stepped in to support Ethan’s grieving mother, providing grief counseling services and assisting with final arrangements.

“In the face of adversity, it is crucial for communities to come together to support LGBTQ+ individuals and their families. Hate and intolerance have no place in a society that values love and acceptance for all. By honoring Ethan’s memory and advocating for inclusivity, we must strive to create a world where every individual is celebrated for who they are,” said Lance Preston CEO and Founder of Rainbow Youth to the Blade.

“As Connie navigates this overwhelming grief and loss, let us stand united in compassion and solidarity, offering our support and understanding. Let Ethan’s legacy serve as a beacon of hope and a call to action for a more inclusive and accepting future,” Preston added.

Editor’s Note: In consideration of preserving her privacy the Blade has not published Connie’s surname nor her residence’s location in Arkansas.

If you are in a life-threatening situation, please dial 911.

If you are in crisis, please dial 988 or contact Rainbow Youth Project directly at +1 (317) 643-4888

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Pennsylvania

Moms for Liberty member, others block Maulik Pancholy’s speech

“It clearly sends a message to our staff, our students, and our residents that identify as LGBTQ+ that they’re not welcome”

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Maulik Pancholy (Screenshot/YouTube MSNBC)

CUMBERLAND COUNTY, Penn. — On Monday the Cumberland Valley District school board, a large, rural and suburban public school district located in Central Pennsylvania, voted to cancel an appearance and event on anti-bullying by openly gay actor and author Maulik Pancholy.

Pancholy, best known for his work on NBC Television’s 30 Rock and who authored “The Best at It,” a semi-autobiographical debut novel that explores the queer main character’s journey to self-acceptance and self-love in the 7th grade in a small Indiana town, was set to attend an anti-bullying school assembly scheduled for May 22 at Mountain View Middle School in Mechanicsburg, Pa.

Anti-LGBTQ+ activists including newly elected board member Kelly Potteiger, who is a member of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s listed extremist group Moms for Liberty along with board member Bud Shaffner and board chair Greg Rausch in an off agenda discussion brought up the event and strongly objected to Pancholy’s presence.

WPMT Fox 43 reported that Rausch asked Shaffner: “My only question is, do we even have any idea what he’s going to be talking about? I know he’s a homosexual activist and what have you and has written books and things like that but do we even know what he’s going to be talking about?”

Potteiger weighed in: “It’s not discriminating against his lifestyle, that’s his choice, but it’s him speaking about it and it did say that’s not the topic, but that’s what his books are about and he will probably talk about his pathway because he talks about anti-bullying and empathy and inclusion so part of that is his journey as an individual,” said Potteiger. “And as a self-proclaimed activist, that’s where it gets concerning I think.”

“If you research this individual, he labels himself as an activist, he is proud of his lifestyle and I don’t think that should be imposed upon our students at any age,” added Shaffner.

The board ended up in a unanimous 8-0 vote to rescind permission for Pancholy to visit the school.

The result of the vote led one former student, Tony Conte, to publish an open letter to Shaffner on Facebook, recalling his experience as a closeted gay teen and his struggles with suicidal ideation because of it, Entertainment Weekly reported.

On Thursday, Pancholy released a public statement on his Instagram regarding the controversial vote.

“On Monday evening, I learned via social media that the school board of the Cumberland Valley School District in Pennsylvania voted 8-0 to cancel my scheduled author visit with the students of Mountain View Middle School due to concerns about my ‘activism’ and what they called my ‘lifestyle.’ My heart goes out to the entire Mountain View Middle School community, and particularly to the students.” 

His statement continues, addressing his books and growing up without a representation of South Asian-American or LGBTQ+ characters in media. 

“When I visit schools, my ‘activism’ is to let all young people know that they’re seen. To let them know that they matter. When I talk about the characters in my books feeling ‘different,’ I’m always surprised by how many young people raise their hands- regardless of their identities and backgrounds- wanting to share about the ways in which they, to, feel different,” Pancholy continued. 

In a phone interview with Entertainment Weekly, Shaffner denied the claim that Pancholy’s sexual orientation was the reason for the vote.“That’s absolutely unfounded,” he said. “That wasn’t even part of the discussion. We simply voted to uphold the [school] policy of no political speeches, no political activism.”

He added, “We just cannot allow political speeches within our school. And he identified himself as a political activist.”

“I thought it was outrageous and very concerning,” Trisha Comstock, a parent who is behind a petition now circulating online, asking the board to reverse its decision told Fox 43. “It clearly sends a message to our staff, our students, and our residents that identify as LGBTQ+, that part of the community, that they’re not welcome, they’re not seen, they’re not respected.”

The full April 15 school board meeting can be watched here.

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Michigan

Michigan State University investigating alleged hate crime

MSU’s interim vice president and chief safety officer notes that the incident occurred during the school’s LBGTQ Pride Month

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Photo Credit: Michigan State University Police and Public Safety Department/Facebook

EAST LANSING, Mich. – Michigan State University Police and Public Safety officials confirmed that a group of seven suspects assaulted two victims on Monday, April 15, 2024, at the MSU Main Library, potentially selecting the victims because of the perpetrators sexual orientation bias.

According to MSU police, a warning was issued to all MSU students, faculty and staff on Monday, and the suspects were identified on Tuesday. None of the suspects are affiliated with MSU. The investigation into this incident is ongoing.

Once the investigation is completed, it will be submitted to the Ingham County Prosecutor’s Office with a request for charges against the suspects.

MSU Vice President and Spokesperson Emily Guerrant said two MSU students were followed into the library by seven non-MSU students who appeared to be of high school age, the Lansing State Journal reports. The suspects continued to follow the two MSU students to the third-floor study area. A video posted to an anonymous messaging board shows a physical altercation ensued.

Fox 47 News in Lansing reported that a student at MSU and a member of a group dedicated to advocating for transgender and non-binary students told the station: “I was shocked and appalled to see that happened on this campus,” said Lyra who asked that only her first name was used.

MSU’s Gender and Sexuality Campus Center is offering online and in-person support for students following the incident.

“It is important to recognize that crimes are never the fault of a victim,” the school wrote in a statement. “Anyone who believes they have been discriminated against or harassed is encouraged to report the incident(s) to the MSU Office of Institutional Equity.”

Doug Monette, MSU’s interim vice president and chief safety officer, and Vennie Gore, the senior vice president for the school’s student life and engagement department, addressed students and faculty in a separate statement on Tuesday, according to NBC News. The statement notes that the incident occurred during the school’s LBGTQ Pride Month and that it was also based on the students’ “racial identities” in addition to their sexualities.

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Arizona

Arizona Governor vetoes anti-trans, Ten Commandments bills

In a statement, the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Anthony Kern, R-Glendale, accused Hobbs of “abandoning God” with her veto

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Governor Katie Hobbs speaking with reporters at a April 8, 2024 press conference. (Photo Credit: Office of the Governor of Arizona/Facebook)

By Caitlin Sievers | PHOENIX, Ariz. – A slew of Republican bills, including those that would have allowed discrimination against transgender people and would have given public school teachers a green light to post the Ten Commandments in their classrooms, were vetoed by Gov. Katie Hobbs on Tuesday. 

Hobbs, who has made it clear that she’ll use her veto power on any bills that don’t have bipartisan support — and especially ones that discriminate against the LGBTQ community — vetoed 13 bills, bringing her count for this year to 42.

Republicans responded with obvious outrage to Hobbs’ veto of their “Arizona Women’s Bill of Rights,” which would have eliminated any mention of gender in state law, replacing it with a strict and inflexible definition of biological sex. The bill would have called for the separation of sports teams, locker rooms, bathrooms and even domestic violence shelters and sexual assault crisis centers by biological sex, not gender identity, green-lighting discrimination against transgender Arizonans.

“As I have said time and again, I will not sign legislation that attacks Arizonans,” Hobbs wrote in a brief letter explaining why she vetoed Senate Bill 1628

The Arizona Senate Republicans’ response to the veto was filled with discriminatory language about trans people and accused them of merely pretending to be a gender different than they were assigned at birth. 

“With the radical Left attempting to force upon society the notion that science doesn’t matter, and biological males can be considered females if they ‘feel’ like they are, Katie Hobbs and Democrats at the Arizona State Legislature are showing their irresponsible disregard for the safety and well-being of women and girls in our state by killing the Arizona Women’s Bill of Rights,” Senate Republicans wrote in a statement. 

The Senate Republicans went on to accuse the Democrats who voted against the bill of endangering women. 

“Instead of helping these confused boys and men, Democrats are only fueling the dysfunction by pretending biological sex doesn’t matter,” Senate President Warren Petersen said in the statement. “Our daughters, granddaughters, nieces, and neighbors are growing up in a dangerous time where they are living with an increased risk of being victimized in public bathrooms, showers, and locker rooms because Democrats are now welcoming biological males into what used to be traditionally safe, single-sex spaces.”

But transgender advocates say, and at least one study has found, that there’s no evidence allowing transgender people to use the bathroom that aligns with their identity makes those spaces less safe for everyone else who uses them. 

In the statement, the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Sine Kerr, R-Buckeye, claimed that the bill would have stopped transgender girls from competing in girls sports, something she said gives them an unfair advantage. But Republicans already passed a law to do just that in 2022, when Republican Gov. Doug Ducey was still in office, though that law is not currently being enforced amidst a court challenge filed by two transgender athletes. 

Republicans also clapped back at Hobbs’ veto of Senate Bill 1151, which would have allowed teachers or administrators to teach or post the Ten Commandments in public school classrooms, a measure that some Republicans even questioned as possibly unconstitutional. 

In a statement, the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Anthony Kern, R-Glendale, accused Hobbs of “abandoning God” with her veto. 

“As society increasingly strays away from God and the moral principles our nation was founded upon, Katie Hobbs is contributing to the cultural degradation within Arizona by vetoing legislation today that would have allowed public schools to include the Ten Commandments in classrooms,” Kern said in the statement. 

In her veto letter, Hobbs said she questioned the constitutionality of the bill, and also called it unnecessary. During discussion of the bill in March, several critics pointed out that posting the Ten Commandments in public school classrooms, tenets of Judeo-Christian religions, might make children whose families practice other religions feel uncomfortable. 

“Sadly, Katie Hobbs’ veto is a prime example of Democrats’ efforts to push state-sponsored atheism while robbing Arizona’s children of the opportunity to flourish with a healthy moral compass,” Kern said. 

Another Republican proposal on Hobbs’ veto list was Senate Bill 1097, which would have made school board candidates declare a party affiliation. School board races in Arizona are currently nonpartisan. 

“This bill will further the politicization and polarization of Arizona’s school district governing boards whose focus should remain on making the best decisions for students,” Hobbs wrote in her veto letter. “Partisan politics do not belong in Arizona’s schools.”

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Caitlin Sievers

Caitlin joined the Arizona Mirror in 2022 with almost 10 years of experience as a reporter and editor, holding local government leaders accountable from newsrooms across the West and Midwest. She’s won statewide awards in Nebraska, Indiana and Wisconsin for reporting, photography and commentary.

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The preceding piece was previously published by the Arizona Mirror and is republished with permission.

Amplifying the voices of Arizonans whose stories are unheard; shining a light on the relationships between people, power and policy; and holding public officials to account.

Arizona Mirror is part of States Newsroom, the nation’s largest state-focused nonprofit news organization.

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Virginia

Norfolk, Virginia transgender resource center vandalized

“This is a place you can come to get away from that, but to see that sprayed over the window. It’s kind of like you are walking into hell”

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Southeastern Transgender Resource Center (Photo Credit: Google Earth screen capture)

NORFOLK, Va. – The Norfolk Virginia Police Department is investigating the vandalism of a transgender resource center’s building.

Tarena Williams, founder of the Southeastern Transgender Resource Center, told WAVY that someone spraypainted anti-trans graffiti on the windows of her organization’s offices on Sunday or Monday morning. Williams told the Hampton Roads television station that seeing the messages was like “walking into hell.”

“I opened up STRC, even the Lamina House,” she told WAVY. “I opened up that to get away from those types of words. This is a place you can come to get away from that, but to see that sprayed over the window. It’s kind of like you are walking into hell. … To be honest, I was like in shock.”

Authorities are investigating the vandalism.

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Indiana

Drag queen announces bid for mayor’s job in Fort Wayne, Indiana

The late Mayor Tom Henry was diagnosed with late-stage stomach cancer & experienced an emergency hospitalization, he died shortly after

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Branden Blaettner being interviewed in Pride month 2023 by CBS News affiliate WANE 15 in Ft. Wayne, Ind. (Screenshot/WANE CBS 15 News)

FORT WAYNE, Ind. – In a Facebook post Tuesday, a local drag personality announced he was running for the office of mayor once held by the late Fort Wayne Mayor Tom Henry, who died last month just a few months into his fifth term.

Henry was recently diagnosed with late-stage stomach cancer and experienced an emergency that landed him in hospice care. He died shortly after.

ABC, NBC, and MyNetworkTV affiliate WPTA 21 reported that Fort Wayne resident Branden Blaettne, whose drag name is Della Licious, confirmed he filed paperwork to be one of the candidates seeking to finish out the fifth term of the late mayor.

Blaettner, who is a community organizer, told WPTA 21 he doesn’t want to “get Fort Wayne back on track,” but rather keep the momentum started by Henry going while giving a platform to the disenfranchised groups in the community. Blaettner said he doesn’t think his local fame as a drag queen will hold him back.

“It’s easy to have a platform when you wear platform heels,” Blaettner told WPTA 21. “The status quo has left a lot of people out in the cold – both figuratively and literally,” Blaettner added.

The Indiana Capital Chronicle reported that Rep. Phil GiaQuinta, who has led the Indiana House Democratic caucus since 2018, has added his name to a growing list of Fort Wayne politicos who want to be the city’s next mayor. A caucus of precinct committee persons will choose the new mayor.

According to the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, the deadline for residents to file candidacy is at 10:30 a.m. April 17. A town hall with the candidates is scheduled for 6 p.m. April 18 at Franklin School Park. The caucus is set for 10:30 a.m. April 20 at the Lincoln Financial Event Center at Parkview Field.

At least six candidates so far have announced they will run in the caucus. They include Branden Blaettne, GiaQuinta, City Councilwoman Michelle Chambers, City Councilwoman Sharon Tucker, former city- and county-council candidate Palermo Galindo and 2023 Democratic primary mayoral candidate Jorge Fernandez.

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Michigan

Michigan Democrats spar over LGBTQ+ inclusive hate crime law

Michigan could soon become the latest state to pass an LGBTQ-inclusive hate crime law but lawmakers disagree on just what kind of law to pass

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Members of the Michigan House Democrats gather to celebrate Pride 2023 in the Capitol building. (Photo Credit: Michigan House Democrats)

By Rob Salerno | LANSING, Mich. – Michigan could soon become the latest state to pass an LGBTQ-inclusive hate crime law, but the state’s Democratic lawmakers disagree on just what kind of law they should pass.

Currently, Michigan’s Ethnic Intimidation Act only offers limited protections to victims of crime motivated by their “race, color, religion, gender, or national origin.” Bills proposed by Democratic lawmakers expand the list to include “actual or perceived race, color, religion, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, ethnicity, physical or mental disability, age, national origin, or association or affiliation with any such individuals.” 

Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer and Attorney-General Dana Nessel have both advocated for a hate crime law, but house and senate Democrats have each passed different hate crimes packages, and Nessel has blasted both as being too weak.

Under the house proposal that passed last year (HB 4474), a first offence would be punishable with a $2000 fine, up to 2 years in prison, or both. Penalties double for a second offense, and if a gun or other dangerous weapons is involved, the maximum penalty is 6 years in prison and a fine of $7500. 

But that proposal stalled when it reached the senate, after far-right news outlets and Fox News reported misinformation that the bill only protected LGBTQ people and would make misgendering a trans person a crime. Bill sponsor Rep. Noah Arbit was also made the subject of a recall effort, which ultimately failed.

Arbit submitted a new version of the bill (HB 5288) that added sections clarifying that misgendering a person, “intentionally or unintentionally” is not a hate crime, although the latest version (HB 5400) of the bill omits this language.

That bill has since stalled in a house committee, in part because the Democrats lost their house majority last November, when two Democratic representatives resigned after being elected mayors. The Democrats regained their house majority last night by winning two special elections.

Meanwhile, the senate passed a different package of hate crime bills sponsored by Sen. Sylvia Santana (SB 600) in March that include much lighter sentences, as well as a clause ensuring that misgendering a person is not a hate crime. 

Under the senate bill, if the first offense is only a threat, it would be a misdemeanor punishable by 1 year in prison and up to $1,000 fine. A subsequent offense or first violent hate crime, including stalking, would be a felony that attracts double the punishment.

Multiple calls and emails from The Blade to both Rep. Arbit and Sen. Santana requesting comment on the bills for this story went unanswered.

The Attorney-General’s office sent a statement to The Blade supporting stronger hate crime legislation.

“As a career prosecutor, [Nessel] has seen firsthand how the state’s weak Ethnic Intimidation Act (not updated since the late 1980’s) does not allow for meaningful law enforcement and court intervention before threats become violent and deadly, nor does it consider significant bases for bias.  It is our hope that the legislature will pass robust, much-needed updates to this statute,” the statement says.

But Nessel, who has herself been the victim of racially motivated threats, has also blasted all of the bills presented by Democrats as not going far enough.

“Two years is nothing … Why not just give them a parking ticket?” Nessel told Bridge Michigan.

Nessel blames a bizarre alliance far-right and far-left forces that have doomed tougher laws.

“You have this confluence of forces on the far right … this insistence that the First Amendment protects this language, or that the Second Amendment protects the ability to possess firearms under almost any and all circumstances,” Nessel said. “But then you also have the far left that argues basically no one should go to jail or prison for any offense ever.”

The legislature did manage to pass an “institutional desecration” law last year that penalizes hate-motivated vandalism to churches, schools, museums, and community centers, and is LGBT-inclusive.

According to data from the U.S. Department of Justice, reported hate crime incidents have been skyrocketing, with attacks motivated by sexual orientation surging by 70% from 2020 to 2022, the last year for which data is available. 

Twenty-two states, DC, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands have passed LGBTQ-inclusive hate crime laws. Another 11 states have hate crime laws that include protections for “sexual orientation” but not “gender identity.”

Michigan Democrats have advanced several key LGBTQ rights priorities since they took unified control of the legislature in 2023. A long-stalled comprehensive anti-discrimination law was passed last year, as did a conversion therapy ban. Last month the legislature updated family law to make surrogacy easier for all couples, including same-sex couples. 

A bill to ban the “gay panic” defense has passed the state house and is due for a senate committee hearing April 17.

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Rob Salerno is a writer and journalist based in Los Angeles, California, and Toronto, Canada.

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Federal Government

Guatemalan LGBTQ+ activist granted asylum in US

Estuardo Cifuentes fled country in 2019

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Estuardo Cifuentes outside a port of entry in Brownsville, Texas, on March 3, 2021, shortly after he entered the U.S. (Photo courtesy of Estuardo Cifuentes)

WASHINGTON — The U.S. has granted asylum to a Guatemalan LGBTQ+ activist who fled his country in 2019.

Estuardo Cifuentes and his partner ran a digital marketing and advertising business in Guatemala City. 

He previously told the Washington Blade that gang members extorted from them. Cifuentes said they closed their business after they attacked them.

Cifuentes told the Blade that Guatemalan police officers attacked him in front of their home when he tried to kiss his partner. Cifuentes said the officers tried to kidnap him and one of them shot at him. He told the Blade that authorities placed him under surveillance after the incident and private cars drove past his home.

Cifuentes arrived in Matamoros, a Mexican border city that is across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, Texas, in June 2019. He asked for asylum in the U.S. based on the persecution he suffered in Guatemala because of his sexual orientation.

The Trump administration forced Cifuentes to pursue his asylum case from Mexico under its Migrant Protection Protocols program that became known as the “remain in Mexico” policy.

Cifuentes while in Matamoros ran Rainbow Bridge Asylum Seekers, a program for LGBTQ+ asylum seekers and migrants that the Resource Center Matamoros, a group that provides assistance to asylum seekers and migrants in the Mexican border city, helped create.

The Biden-Harris administration in January 2021 suspended enrollment in MPP. Cifuentes entered the U.S. on March 3, 2021.

“We are profoundly relieved and grateful that my husband and I have been officially recognized as asylees in the United States,” Cifuentes told the Blade on Monday in an email. “This result marks the end of a long and painful fight against the persecution that we faced in Guatemala because of our sexual orientation.”

Vice President Kamala Harris is among those who have said discrimination and violence based on sexual orientation are among the root causes of migration from Guatemala and other countries in Central America.

Cifuentes is now the client services manager for Lawyers for Good Government’s Project Corazón, a campaign that works “hard to reunite and defend the rights of families impacted by inhumane immigration policies.” He told the Blade he will continue to help LGBTQ+ asylum seekers and migrants.

“In this new chapter of our lives, we pledge to work hard to support others in similar situations and to contribute to the broader fight for the rights and acceptance of the LGBTQ+ migrant community,” said Cifuentes. “We are hopeful that our story will serve as a call to action to confront and end persecution based on gender identity and sexual orientation.”

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Ohio

Ohio court temporarily blocks gender-affirming care ban

“Today’s ruling is a victory for transgender Ohioans & their families. The ban is an openly discriminatory breach of rights of trans youth”

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The Franklin County Court of Common Pleas in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo Credit: Franklin County Court of Common Pleas)

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Today, the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas issued a temporary restraining order to prevent the ban on gender-affirming care for transgender youth from taking immediate effect.

new lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Ohio alleges that the ban on gender-affirming care, passed into law earlier this year, violates multiple provisions of the Ohio state Constitution.

This action comes in the wake of a decision by the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, under which Ohio falls, that dismissed federal constitutional concerns regarding bans on gender-affirming care for transgender youth. This latest legal challenge, however, focuses on the Ohio state Constitution and is filed in the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas.

According to the recently released filing, attorneys argue that a state constitutional amendmentpassed by Republicans in 2011 to prevent the implementation of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), may, in fact, make the ban on gender-affirming care for transgender youth unconstitutional.

In 2011, Republicans in Ohio voiced concerns that the Affordable Care Act would limit healthcare choices. Misinformation about “death panels” became widespread nationally. At the same time, there was controversy over whether individuals could retain their doctors under the new federal healthcare program. In reaction, Ohio Republicans and the local Tea Party, a then-active anti-Obamacare movement within the Republican Party, advocated for a constitutional amendment to prohibit penalties related to the purchase of healthcare or health insurance. The amendment was approved by popular vote and took effect shortly thereafter.

The amendment reads as follows:

(B) No federal, state, or local law or rule shall prohibit the purchase or sale of health care or health insurance.

(C) No federal, state, or local law or rule shall impose a penalty or fine for the sale or purchase of health care or health insurance.

Now, in the latest lawsuit filed by the ACLU, attorneys argue that the new gender affirming care ban for transgender youth set to go into effect on April 24th violates these constitutional protections in the state. In the lawsuit, attorneys argue that “gender-affirming care, including the prescription of puberty-delaying medication and/or hormone therapy to minor patients where appropriate in the judgment of a physician, is ‘health care’ within the meaning of Article I, Section 21.” They argue that the law imposes penalties and prohibits the purchase of health care, rendering it unconstitutional.

The plaintiffs, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Ohio, and the global law firm Goodwin Procter, successfully argued that the plaintiffs are likely to win their claim that House Bill 68 violates the Ohio Constitution because it covers more than one single subject.

The Court enjoined the Health Care Ban as well as a ban on transgender girls participating on girls or women’s sports teams that was also contained within House Bill 68.

In a statement the ACLU said that the group will continue the litigation to ultimately obtain a permanent injunction on behalf of  Ohio families whose children are at risk of losing critical life-saving medical care.

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The temporary restraining order is in effect for 14 days or until the hearing of plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction, whichever is sooner. HB 68 was originally set to take effect on April 24.

“We are thrilled and relieved that Ohio’s ban on gender-affirming health care has been halted and that transgender youth can continue, for the near term at least,  to access medically necessary healthcare,” Freda Levenson, Legal Director for the ACLU of Ohio, said. “Our legal battle will continue until, we hope, this cruel restriction is permanently blocked. Ohio families have a constitutional right to make personal healthcare decisions without government intrusion.”

Harper Seldin, an ACLU Staff Attorney noted:

“Today’s ruling is a victory for transgender Ohioans and their families. Ohio’s ban is an openly discriminatory breach of the rights of transgender youth and their parents alike and presents a real danger to the same young people it claims to protect. We are committed to opposing this law until it is permanently overturned, making Ohio a safer place to raise every family.”

Allison DeLaurentis and Miranda Hooker, Complex Litigation & Dispute Resolution Partners, for the law firm of Goodwin Procter said:

“Today’s ruling not only upholds the rights of transgender individuals but also champions the principle that healthcare should be accessible, and above all, inclusive.”

Additional reporting by Erin Reed

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