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U.S. State Department

U.S. demands regular access to Brittney Griner in Russia

Out WNBA star detained in Moscow in February.

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MOSCOW — U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan on Tuesday said Russian officials have denied consular visits to detained WNBA star Brittney Griner three times this month.

“For the third time in a month, Russian authorities have denied an embassy visit to detained U.S. citizen Brittney Griner,” said Sullivan in a statement the U.S. Embassy in Moscow posted to its Twitter account. “This is unacceptable. We call on @mfa_russia (Russia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry) to provide timely consular access, in line with Russia’s international and bilateral obligations.”

Griner — a center for the Phoenix Mercury and a two-time Olympic gold medalist who is a lesbian and married to her wife — was taken into custody at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February. Russian officials said customs inspectors found hashish oil in her luggage.

The State Department earlier this month determined Russia “wrongfully detained” Griner. 

A Russian court on May 13 extended her detention for another month. The Women’s National Basketball Players Association, a union that represents WNBA players, has endorsed a Change.org petition that urges the Biden administration to “prioritize” Griner’s release.

State Department spokesperson Ned Price on Tuesday told reporters during his daily press briefing that a consular official “was able to speak with” Griner “on the margins of her court proceedings” on May 13.

“That consular official came away with the impression that Brittney Griner is doing as well as might be expected under conditions that can only be described as exceedingly difficult,” said Price.

“But sporadic contact is not satisfactory,” he added. “It also may not be consistent with the Vienna Convention, to which Russia has subscribed. That is why we continue to urge the Russian government to allow consistent, timely consular access to all U.S. citizens detained in Russia, in line with those very legal obligations, and to allow us to provide consular services for U.S. citizens detained in Russia.”

Price on Tuesday also said Secretary of State Antony Blinken “had an opportunity in recent days to speak with” Griner’s wife.

Blinken spoke with her on May 14.

He conveyed once again the priority we attach to seeing the release of all Americans around the world, including Brittney Griner in the case of Russia, Paul Whelan in the case of Russia — those are Americans who we consider to be wrongfully detained,” said Price.

U.S. State Department

Negotiations to release Griner stalled for now diplomat says

“We have made a serious proposal to free American prisoners. We did not see a serious response from the Russian side to our proposal”

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Elizabeth Rood, the U.S. chargée d’affaires in Moscow (Photo Credit: Embassy of the United States, Russia)

MOSCOW – In remarks published Monday, Elizabeth Rood, the U.S. chargée d’affaires in Moscow, told Russia’s state-owned RIA news agency that talks to free jailed Americans Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan were continuing through the “designated channel.”

During the long ranging interview covering a variety of subjects, Rood was asked if she intended to visit the imprisoned WNBA star who is serving time in a Mordovian prison.

“Of course, we are going to do this as soon as the Russian authorities give us permission to visit Brittney Griner in the new colony where she was recently transferred,” the American diplomat responded and in answer to a follow-up question regarding Griner’s status Rood answered; “As far as we understood from talking to her, she is healthy and doing as well as can be expected in her difficult circumstances.”

RIA then focused on the negotiations asking for some of the details including the possibility of convicted arms dealer Viktor Bout being included in the “exchange list” in the potential prisoner swap deal between the Russian and American authorities.

“I can say that the United States continues to discuss with the Russian authorities through special channels the issue of the release of Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan.  As we have already said, the United States has submitted a serious proposal for consideration. We finalized this proposal and offered alternatives. Unfortunately, the Russian Federation has so far received no serious response to these proposals, ” the U.S. chargée d’affaires answered.

“However, I would like to emphasize that the main concern and the first priority of the US Embassy is to ensure the well-being of the American citizens who are here. And the situation is not limited to the names of those who are mentioned in the media headlines – a number of American citizens are kept in Russian prisons. We are extremely concerned about the condition of each of them, and we continue to follow their affairs very closely and support them in every possible way,” she added.

RIA then asked: “What did you mean by “serious response” from Russia? Moscow has repeatedly stressed that the negotiations are being conducted through professional channels… What does the American side mean by “serious response”?

Rood answered telling RIA; “I mean, we have made a serious proposal that reflects our intention to take action to free American prisoners. We did not see a serious response from the Russian side to our proposal.

By “serious answer” do you mean consent? RIA asked in a follow-up question.

“I mean an answer that would help us come to an agreement,” she answered.

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Kimberly Zieselman named advisor to special U.S. envoy for LGBTQ+, intersex rights

Intersex activist describes appointment as ‘milestone’

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Kimberly Zieselman (Photo courtesy of Kimberly Zieselman)

WASHINGTON — The State Department has named a prominent intersex activist as an advisor to the special U.S. envoy for the promotion of LGBTQ+ and intersex rights abroad.

Kimberly Zieselman on Oct. 16 announced on her Twitter page that she will work with Jessica Stern.

Zieselman is the former executive director of interACT: Advocates for IntersexYouth and author of “XOXY: A Memoir.”

“As an intersex woman, it’s not only an incredible honor to serve this administration and work with Special Envoy Stern, but my appointment isalso a milestone for the intersex community which has been historically marginalized, if not entirely erased across the globe,” Zieselman told the Washington Blade this week in a statement.

President Joe Biden in 2021 signed a memo that committed the U.S. to promoting LGBTQ+ and intersex rights abroad as part of his administration’s overall foreign policy. The State Department earlier this year began to issue passports with an “X” gender marker.

“The Department of State is committed to promoting and protecting the human rights of all individuals, including intersex persons, who often face discrimination, harmful medical practices, violence, and social stigma solely based on their sex characteristics,” a State Department spokesperson told the Blade in response to Zieselman’s appointment. 

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Blinken, Lavrov speak about Brittney Griner

Call took place after public acknowledgment of deal to secure U.S. citizens release

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Secretary of State Antony Blinken (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Friday spoke with his Russian counterpart about efforts to secure the release of WNBA star Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan.

The Associated Press reported Blinken urged Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to accept a deal to obtain the release of Griner and Whelan, an American citizen who is serving a 16-year prison sentence after his conviction for spying. American officials have reportedly expressed a willingness to release Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer who is serving a 25-year prison sentence in the U.S., as part of a prisoner swap.

Blinken, according to the AP, described the call with Lavrov as a “frank and direct conversation.”

“I urged Foreign Minister Lavrov to move forward with that proposal,” said Blinken. “I can’t give you an assessment of whether that is any more or less likely.”

Officials at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February detained Griner — a Phoenix Mercury center and two-time Olympic gold medalist who is a lesbian and married to her wife, Cherelle Griner, — after customs inspectors allegedly found hashish oil in her luggage. The State Department has determined that Russia “wrongfully detained” her.

Brittney Griner’s trial began in Moscow on July 1.

It continues to take place, even though she had pleaded guilty to charges that she smuggled drugs in Russia. Brittney Griner faces up to 10 years in prison if she is convicted.

Friday’s call took place two days after Blinken for the first time publicly acknowledged the U.S. has offered Russia a deal to secure the release of Brittney Griner and Whelan.

“We are determined to bring her home along with Paul (Whelan) and for that matter, any and every American who is being unjustly detained anywhere in the world,” said Blinken on June 15 during a roundtable with LGBTQ+ and intersex journalists in which the Washington Blade participated. “It’s something that I am personally focused on, and I want to leave it at that because it is obviously an ongoing issue. But just know that this is a matter of intense focus for us.”

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U.S. State Department

State Department: Russia ‘wrongfully detained’ Brittney Griner

WNBA star to appear in Moscow court on May 19

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(Screenshot via Russian television)

WASHINGTON — The State Department has determined Russia “wrongfully detained” WNBA star Brittney Griner earlier this year.

Russian authorities in February took Griner — a center for the Phoenix Mercury and a two-time Olympic gold medalist who is a lesbian and married to her wife — into custody at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport. Officials said customs inspectors found hashish oil in her luggage.

Griner is among the WNBA players who play in Russia during the league’s off-season.

“The Department of State has determined that the Russian Federation has wrongfully detained U.S. citizen Brittney Griner,” a State Department spokesperson told the Washington Blade on Tuesday. “The U.S. government will continue to provide appropriate consular support to Ms. Griner.”

The spokesperson said Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens “will lead the interagency team for securing Brittney Griner’s release.”

Russia announced Griner’s detention shortly after it invaded Ukraine.

Trevor Reed, a former U.S. Marine who had been in a Russian custody since 2019, returned to the U.S. last week after the Kremlin released him in exchange for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian citizen who had been in an American prison on drug trafficking charges. Griner is scheduled to appear in a Moscow court on May 19.

“Brittney’s status change is an important moment in the movement to bring her home safely and swiftly,” said National Black Justice Coalition Deputy Executive Director Victoria Kirby York in a statement. “It means there is now a two pronged approach focused on both legal and political strategies.” 

“It has become clear that Brittney’s legal team has acted in good faith to clear her name through Russia’s legal system, and that the Russian government has been actively trying to leverage Brittney’s detainment for political purposes tied to their war on Ukraine,” added York. “This is unfortunate, especially because Griner’s status as a Black, lesbian, woman leaves her vulnerable to increased discrimination and abuse at the hands of the racist and homophobic Russian government. We urge the U.S. government to do all it can to bring her home before she is no longer able to maintain her safety in a nation at war.”

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U.S. State Department

Report details U.S. efforts to promote LGBTQ+ rights abroad

White House policy memo issued in 2021

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Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and other State Department officials help raise the Progress Pride flag over the State Department on June 25, 2021. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

WASHINGTON — The State Department on Thursday released a report on the implementation of President Biden’s memo that committed the U.S. to the promotion of LGBTQ+ rights abroad.

The report notes last June’s appointment of Jessica Stern as the special U.S. envoy for the promotion of LGBTQ+ rights abroad and the issuance of passports with “X” gender markers that began on April 11.

Stern on Thursday told reporters during a conference call the State Department has created the Global LGBTQI+ Inclusive Democracy and Empowerment Initiative “that seeks to ensure democracies are inclusive of LGBTQI+ persons, representative of their communities and families and responsive to their needs and concerns.” Stern also noted roughly 60 percent of Peace Corp posts have implemented “specific LGBTQI+ equity practices within their operations.”

Stern highlighted the U.S. supported the inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity in a resolution in support of “democratization and enhancing periodic and genuine elections” the U.N. General Assembly adopted last November. Stern also noted the U.S. Agency for International Development again tracks how its foreign assistance programs promote LGBTQ+ rights.

Chantale Wong, the U.S. director of the Asian Development Bank who is the first openly lesbian American ambassador, on Wednesday told the Washington Blade during an exclusive interview that she expects the U.S. government will endorse a proposed LGBTQ-specific safeguard for the ADB. Stern on Thursday noted the Department of Homeland Security has issued guidance to recognize informal same-sex marriages for the purposes of obtaining refugee or asylee status, even if they are not officially recognized by officials in countries of origin.”

The report also highlights how the Commerce, Defense, Justice, Labor, Treasury and Health and Human Services have implemented the memo that Biden issued in February 2021.

“This memorandum makes clear that promoting and protecting the human rights of LGBTQI+ persons is a U.S. foreign policy priority,” said Stern. “The report outlines how U.S. government agencies engaged abroad are working to become LGBTQI+ inclusive. It shows that many individual actions across the U.S. government taken as a whole create institutional change and improves the daily lives of LGBTQI+ persons.”  

Secretary of State Antony Blinken in a statement echoed Stern.

“It remains vitally important that we address the violence and discrimination faced by LGBTQI+ persons while acknowledging the effects of the intersections of race and ethnicity, gender, disability, religion and national origin, to name a few,” said Blinken. 

“As the report demonstrates, the U.S. government advances these priorities by supporting efforts to end the criminalization of LGBTQI+ status and conduct, seeking to protect vulnerable LGBTQI+ refugees and asylum seekers, providing foreign assistance to protect the human rights of LGBTQI+ persons and advancing  non-discrimination protections, responding to human rights abuses of LGBTQI+ persons abroad, building coalitions of like-minded nations, and engaging international organizations in the fight against LGBTQI+ discrimination,” added Blinken. “Our collective efforts drive toward the goal of ending violence and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, and sex characteristics. Equality and equity build stronger societies for all.”

USAID Administrator Samantha Power on Thursday said the memo “was a call to action based on a simple premise: That all human beings should be treated with respect and dignity and should be able to live without fear, no matter who they are or whom they love.”

“Over the past year, as today’s report demonstrates, USAID has made important progress toward achieving these ambitions through a commitment to LGBTQI+ inclusive development in our policies and programs that reach millions of people around the world,” said Power.

The full report can be read here.

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State Dept. urged to pressure countries to recognize diplomats’ same-sex spouses

Democratic lawmakers wrote Secretary of State Antony Blinken on April 18

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Harry S. Truman State Department Building (Photo: Library of Congress)

WASHINGTON — A group of Democratic lawmakers have urged the State Department to do more to ensure countries recognize the same-sex partners of U.S. diplomats.

“We write regarding the continued challenges surrounding diplomatic accreditation faced by LGBTQI+ Department of State employees and their spouses,” reads an April 18 letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken that U.S. Reps. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), Joaquin Castro (D-Texas), Dina Titus (D-Nev.) and Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) spearheaded. “This issue should be proactively raised in all relevant bilateral meetings by department leaders, especially at the chief of mission level abroad and at the front office or higher level domestically.”

The letter specifically notes upwards of 70 countries around the world “continue to deny visas to same-sex spouses.”

“This effectively renders a vast swath of overseas assignments unbiddable to many Foreign Service families,” reads the letter. “We are concerned that the Department of State has left this issue unresolved for too long, utilizing ‘workarounds’ instead of addressing the problem. We urge you to prioritize raising diplomatic accreditation for same-sex partners at the highest levels in all interactions internally and externally.”

The letter that more than 40 members of the U.S. House of Representatives signed indicates “several additional countries” in the Western Hemisphere, the Middle East and North Africa “are finalizing agreements to soon begin accrediting spouses of the same sex.”

“We understand that the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, through the leadership of Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Joey Hood, has been at the forefront of developing successful strategies for engagement on this issue with countries in their region,” reads the letter. “We hope that you will promote and employ the tactics developed by the NEA (Near Eastern Affairs) Bureau, such as raising the issue of diplomatic accreditation at the ambassadorial level in addition to management counselors and other working level officials, as well as encourage other regional, and where appropriate functional, bureaus to replicate this model.”

“We further urge you to promote equal diplomatic accreditation for LGBTQI+ spouses as a chief of mission priority in Integrated Country Strategies in countries where same-sex couples are currently denied full privileges and immunities and in other high-level department strategic planning,” it continues. “By including diplomatic accreditation as a mission priority, department leadership ensures that attention and resources are dedicated to advancing change. Additionally, we encourage you to develop a robust reporting mechanism that allows ambassadors and chiefs of mission to easily share feedback on successful or unsuccessful strategies, which can be used to the advantage of missions in similar situations.”

The letter also notes the Vienna Convention ensures “our diplomats and their family members should be accredited and receive full diplomatic protections and immunities in the countries to which they are assigned, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.”

Former U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam Ted Osius, who co-founded LGBT+ Pride in Foreign Affairs Agencies (GLIFAA) in 1992, is among those who expressed support for the lawmakers’ call.

“This initiative could put the United States in the lead when it comes to encouraging equal treatment for all families,” said Osius in a press release that announced the letter. “Inclusivity benefits everyone.”

The Obama administration in 2009 implemented a policy that asked countries to accredit same-sex partners of U.S. Foreign Service personnel on a “reciprocal basis” in order to receive diplomatic visas. The Biden White House last year issued a memorandum that committed the U.S. to promoting LGBTQ+ rights abroad.

“We have made and continue to make strong efforts to engage foreign governments on the issue of same-sex spouse accreditation,” a State Department spokesperson told the Washington Blade on Wednesday.

The spokesperson did not specifically comment on the letter, but stressed “fostering diversity and inclusion in the department is a top priority.”

“The State Department is striving to recruit and retain a workforce of talented people that reflects the true diversity of our country, including in our appointments at the most senior levels,” said the spokesperson.

The spokesperson noted Blinken appointed former U.S. Ambassador to Malta Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley as the State Department’s first-ever chief diversity and inclusion officer. Jessica Stern, the special U.S. envoy for the promotion of LGBTQ+ rights abroad, assumed her position last September.

“Globally, the United States advances the human rights of LGBTQI+ persons through bilateral and multilateral channels, raising official concerns with governments both publicly and privately, coordinating our response with like-minded countries, and offering emergency assistance to LGBTQI+ persons and groups at risk,” said the spokesperson. “ Through our foreign assistance programming, we support civil society by providing LGBTQI+ individuals and communities with the tools and resources to prevent, mitigate and recover from violence, discrimination, stigma, and other abuses.  We also provide support for programs that empower local LGBTQI+ movements and work to eliminate laws that criminalize LGBTQI+ status and/or conduct.”

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State Department releases annual human rights report

Anti-LGBTQ persecution, violence remains commonplace around the world

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Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks to reporters on April 12, 2022, after the State Department released its annual human rights report. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

WASHINGTON — The State Department’s annual human rights report that was released on Tuesday notes anti-LGBTQ+ persecution and violence remains commonplace in many countries around the world.

The report notes consensual same-sex sexual relations remain criminalized in Jamaica and dozens of other countries. Iran and Afghanistan are two of the handful of nations in which homosexuality is punishable by death.

The report specifically cites the case of Alireza Fazeli Monfared, an Iranian man whose relatives killed in in May 2021 after they discovered he was gay and non-binary. The report also notes the Taliban regaining control of Afghanistan in August 2021 “increased fears of repression and violence among LGBTQI+ persons, with many individuals going into hiding to avoid being captured by the Taliban.”

“Many fled the country after the takeover,” reads the report. “After the takeover, LGBTQI+ persons faced increased threats, attacks, sexual assaults, and discrimination from Taliban members, strangers, neighbors and family members.”

The report includes statistics from Associação Nacional de Travestis e Transexuais, a Brazilian Transgender rights group, that indicate 80 trans people — most of whom were Brazilians of African descent who were younger than 35 — were reported killed in the first six months of 2021. The report also cites Cattrachas, a lesbian feminist human rights group in Honduras that noted 17 “violent deaths of LGBTQI+ persons” in the country between January and August 2021.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken pointed out to reporters there are more than 1 million political prisoners in 65 countries. These include Yoav de la Cruz, a gay Cuban man who was sentenced to six years in prison last month after he livestreamed the first anti-government protest that took place on the island on July 11, 2021.

The report notes Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s continued efforts to rollback LGBTQ+ rights, which include a decree his government issued on Aug. 6, 2021, that restricted the sale of children’s books with LGBTQ-specific themes. The report also includes incidents of anti-LGBTQ+ violence, discrimination and hate speech in Poland.

This report focuses on 2021, and does not include details of human rights abuses that Russian forces have carried out against Ukrainian civilians during the ongoing war in their country. Blinken nevertheless criticized Russia throughout his remarks.

“In many years running, we have seen an alarming recession in democracy, in rule of law, respect for human rights in many parts of the world,” said Blinken. “In the time since releasing our previous report, that backsliding has, unfortunately, continued. In few places have the human consequences of this decline have been as stark as they are in the Russian government’s brutal war on Ukraine.”

Blinken also described human rights as “universal.”

“People of every nationality, race, gender, disability and age are entitled to these rights, no matter what they believe, who they love, or any other characteristics,” he said. “This is especially important as a number of governments continue to claim, falsely, that human rights need to be applied based on global context. It’s no coincidence that many of the same governments are among the worst abusers of human rights.”

The report also notes LGBTQ+ rights advances around the world.

The Botswana Court of Appeals in November 2021 upheld a previous ruling that decriminalized homosexuality in the country. The report also notes the European Commission sanctioned Hungary over its efforts to curtail LGBTQ+ rights and Poland in response to so-called “LGBT-free zones.”

‘We do not claim a moral high ground’

President Biden in 2021 released a memorandum that committed the U.S. to promoting LGBTQ rights abroad.

The White House last June named then-OutRight Action International Executive Director Jessica Stern as the next special U.S. envoy for the promotion of LGBTQ+ rights abroad. The State Department on Monday began to issue passports with “X” gender markers.

The State Department released its report less than a month after Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law his state’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill. Lawmakers in dozens of other states across the U.S. have introduced similar measures and others that specifically target transgender children.

“We’re not trying to pretend that these are not issues that we are grappling with here in the United States,” said Acting Assistant Secretary of the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Lisa Peterson in response to the Washington Blade’s question about the release of the report against the backdrop of anti-LGBTQ+ measures in the U.S. “This report, because it is very clearly focused on the rest of the world, we do dig in on other countries. We do not have a mandate to do a report on our own circumstances.”

“The universal nature of human rights also means that we have to hold ourselves accountable to the same standards,” said Blinken. “Even as this report looks outward at countries around the world, we’ve acknowledged from day one of this administration that we have challenges here in the United States.”

“We take seriously our responsibility to address these shortcomings and we know that the way we do it matters; together with citizens and communities, out in the open, transparent, not trying to pretend problems don’t exist, or sweeping them under a rug,” he added.

Peterson echoed Blinken before she took reporters’ questions.

“We can’t be credible advocates for human rights abroad if we don’t live up to the same principles at home,” said Peterson. “We do not claim a moral high ground, but we do, in the words of our Constitution, resolve to form a more perfect union, which means that we must continue to address the many human rights challenges in our own country.”

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USAID & PEPFAR send life-saving antiretroviral drugs to Ukraine

NGO in war-torn country received shipment

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Shipment of antiretroviral drugs to people living w/ HIV in Ukraine (Samantha Powers/TWITTER)

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Agency for International Development and the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief on Wednesday announced they delivered more than 18 million doses of antiretroviral drugs for Ukrainians with HIV/AIDS.

USAID Administrator Samantha Power posted a picture of the shipment on Twitter. She said it is “part of a broader U.S. effort to maintain continuity of life-saving treatments for chronic illnesses during Russia’s war.”

A USAID spokesperson told the Washington Blade that “USAID delivered the PEPFAR-funded antiretroviral drugs to a Ukrainian non-profit organization that provides health services to people living with HIV.”

“The organization is distributing the antiretroviral drugs to different regions within Ukraine based on need and logistical feasibility,” said the spokesperson.

The spokesperson did not identify the Ukrainian organization that received the drugs.

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U.S. State Department

Passports with ‘X’ gender markers to become available on April 11

Secretary of State Antony Blinken made announcement Thursday

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(Bigstock photo)

WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday announced passports with an “X” gender marker will be available on April 11.

Blinken last June announced the State Department will allow passport applicants to “self-select their gender as ‘M’ or ‘F’”

Dana Zzyym, an intersex U.S. Navy veteran who identifies as non-binary, in 2015 filed a federal lawsuit against the State Department after it denied their application for a passport with an “X” gender marker. Zzyym last October received the first gender-neutral American passport.

“The Department of State has reached another milestone in our work to better serve all U.S. citizens, regardless of their gender identity,” said Blinken on Thursday in a statement. ”In June, I announced that U.S. passport applicants could self-select their gender and were no longer required to submit any medical documentation, even if their selected gender differed from their other citizenship or identity documents.” 

“Starting on April 11, U.S. citizens will be able to select an ‘X’ as their gender marker on their U.S. passport application, and the option will become available for other forms of documentation next year,” he added.

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U.S. provides support to LGBTQ+ groups in Ukraine, surrounding countries

Special envoy in regular contact with activists, groups

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Jessica Stern, the special U.S. envoy for the promotion of LGBTQ+ rights abroad, spoke with the Washington Blade on March 18 about Russia's invasion in Ukraine and its impact on the country's LGBTQ community. (Photo courtesy of OutRight Action International)

WASHINGTON — The special U.S. envoy for the promotion of LGBTQ+ rights abroad on Friday said she and her office continue to provide support to advocacy groups in Ukraine and in countries that border it.

Jessica Stern told the Washington Blade during a telephone interview that she has held “multiple roundtables” with Ukrainian activists and organizations “to make sure that my office and I both have the relationships and then getting information directly from people on the frontlines.” Stern also noted she has also spoken with LGBTQ+ rights organizations in Poland, Hungary and other countries that “would be receiving LGBTQI Ukrainian refugees” and regional and international groups “that are closely monitoring and supporting LGBTQI Ukrainians in this incredibly difficult time.”

“The first and most important thing that the U.S. has been doing has been establishing contact with people who are advocating for and servicing LGBTQI Ukrainians, and then in all instances, trying to find ways to support them,” said Stern. “One of the things that’s been really important has been to identify the sort of patterns of human rights abuses, violations and vulnerability that they’re tracking that we need to be aware of.”

Stern said the State Department has “activated” its grant mechanisms to provide financial support to LGBTQ+ organizations in Ukraine and in surrounding countries.

“One of the things we’ve been focused on has been ensuring that LGBTQI Ukrainian organizations and LGBTQI organizations in the surrounding countries have the financial resources to provide emergency support to this population that finds itself facing double and triple discrimination,” she said.

Stern told the Blade a “top priority” is to ensure that humanitarian assistance to Ukraine “is distributed without discrimination.”

“One of the message that my office has been conveying and with working with others at the State Department to convey is that LGBTQI Ukrainian refugees are at heightened risk and that they should be supported and that anyone providing humanitarian assistance should actually be on the watch for instances of discrimination or violence they may be subjected to.”

Stern said her office has not received “too many stories of (discrimination) incidents, but we have to been able to sound the alarm.”

“The institutions and partners, we work with have been taking that seriously,” she said.

Russian airstrike kills Kharkiv activist

Stern spoke with the Blade less than a month after Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine.

A Russian airstrike in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city that is less than 30 miles from the Russian border in the eastern part of the country, on March 1 killed Elvira Schemur, a 21-year-old law student who was a volunteer for Kharkiv Pride and Kyiv Pride. A group of “bandits” on the same day broke into the Kyiv offices of Nash Mir, an LGBTQ+ rights group, and attacked four activists who were inside.

“The case of Nash Mir was really horrific and really demonstrated the kind of opportunistic violence that LGBTQI persons, human rights defenders and organizations can be subject to right now by both state and non-state actors,” said Stern.

Stern told the Blade that activists have also said many Transgender and gender non-conforming Ukrainians have decided to remain in the country because they cannot exempt themselves from military conscription.

“What I’ve been told is that many Trans and gender non-conforming Ukrainians are sheltering in place, and even in some cases staying in places where they are at risk of being attacked by missiles and bombs and definitely in harm’s way simply because they’re concerned that they don’t have a way of being exempted from military conscription,” she said.

Stern cited the case of a Trans man who tried to leave Ukraine and “in an effort to prove who he was, who he said he was, he was actually forced to remove his shirt and show his chest” at the border.   

“Unfortunately, that’s not the only humiliating and potentially violent incident that I’m hearing us,” she said.

Stern expressed concern about safety of gay men who are conscripted into the Ukrainian armed forces. Stern also noted “all women are at risk in times of war and conflict.”

“There’s absolutely a concern about the safety and well-being of lesbian and bisexual and Trans and intersex women,” she said.

Challenges for LGBTQ+ Ukrainians ‘will be enormous’

Stern told the Blade the State Department is “working to provide as much support as possible for all Ukrainians that want to leave the country.”

She noted many LGBTQ+ activists in Ukraine with whom she spoke immediately after the invasion began said they did not want to leave. Stern acknowledged some of them have now fled the country.

“The invasion has just been so violent that even the most committed activists that people we both know have had to change their strategy,” said Stern. “So, in every instance where I’m hearing of an individual or a group that is at risk and wants to leave, we’re doing everything we can to help give them the support they need.”

“Most people do not become refugees,” she added. “You know, most people cannot leave … the global community should do everything we possibly can to affirm the human rights and provide support for Ukrainian refugees.”

President Biden shortly after he took office issued a memorandum that committed the U.S. to promoting LGBTQ+ rights around the world.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy last November pledged his country would continue to fight discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity after he met with Biden at the White House.

Letters that Congressional LGBTQ+ Equality and Ukraine Caucuses sent to Secretary of State Antony Blinken on the eve of the invasion noted Ukraine in recent years “has made great strides towards securing equality for LGBTQ people within its borders and is a regional leader in LGBTQ rights.” These advances include a ban on workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity and efforts to protect Pride parades.

Stern reiterated the challenges for LGBTQ+ people inside Ukraine “will be enormous” as the conflict drags on.

“In all war and conflict, anyone who is vulnerable and vulnerable before the conflict remains at heightened risk and even becomes at greater risk,” she said. “Where people have access to weapons and LGBTQI people are unsafe. In a context where the rule of law is weak, LGBTQI people are at risk as the Nash Mir case showed us immediately.”

“I’m very worried that discrimination and violence will rise for LGBTQI people in Ukraine,” added Stern. “I’m extremely concerned that the track record from the Russian government on these issues is a harbinger of danger for LGBTQI Ukrainians in Russian occupied parts of the country.”

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