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$600 Million in refunds returned to airline passengers

Airlines were also fined $7.25 Million in civil penalties against six airlines for extreme delays in providing refunds

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U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg left, with flight crew from U.S. Coast Guard Air Station Clearwater during search & rescue operations in the wake of hurricane Ian in Florida, October 2022. (Photo by USCG 7th District Public Affairs/DOT)

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Department of Transportation, (DOT) announced Monday that six U.S. air carriers, targeted by the DOT paid more than half a billion dollars to people who were owed a refund due to a canceled or significantly changed flight.

In a press release, the DOT noted that these fines are part of DOT’s ongoing work to ensure Americans receive the refunds they are owed from airlines. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, DOT has received a flood of complaints from air travelers about airlines’ failures to provide timely refunds after they had their flights canceled or significantly changed. 

“When a flight gets canceled, passengers seeking refunds should be paid back promptly. Whenever that doesn’t happen, we will act to hold airlines accountable on behalf of American travelers and get passengers their money back.” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. “A flight cancellation is frustrating enough, and you shouldn’t also have to haggle or wait months to get your refund.” 

In addition to the more than $600 million in refunds airlines have paid back, the Department announced today that it is assessing more than $7.25 million in civil penalties against six airlines for extreme delays in providing refunds.

With today’s fines, the Department’s Office of Aviation Consumer Protection has assessed $8.1 million in civil penalties in 2022, the largest amount ever issued in a single year by that office. A majority of the assessed fines will be collected in the form of payments to the Treasury Department, with the remainder credited on the basis of payments to passengers beyond the legal requirement.

The Department’s efforts have helped lead to hundreds of thousands of passengers being provided with more than half a billion dollars in required refunds. The Department expects to issue additional orders assessing civil penalties for consumer protection violations this calendar year. 

The fines assessed today and required refunds provided are: 

  • Frontier – $222 million in required refunds paid and a $2.2 million penalty 
  • Air India – $121.5 million in required refunds paid and a $1.4 million penalty 
  • TAP Portugal – $126.5 million in required refunds paid and a $1.1 million penalty 
  • Aeromexico – $13.6 million in required refunds paid and a $900,000 penalty 
  • El Al – $61.9 million in required refunds paid and a $900,000 penalty 
  • Avianca – $76.8 million in required refunds paid and a $750,000 penalty 

Under U.S. law, airlines and ticket agents have a legal obligation to refund consumers if the airline cancels or significantly changes a flight to, from and within the United States, and the passenger does not wish to accept the alternative offered. It is unlawful for an airline to refuse refunds and instead provide vouchers to such consumers.  

The fines announced today are one of the many steps the Department is taking to protect consumers. Below are additional actions DOT has taken: 

  • During the summer, the Department rolled out a new airline customer service dashboard to help consumers determine what they are owed when a flight is cancelled or delayed because of an airline issue. Previously, none of the 10 largest U.S. airlines guaranteed meals or hotels when a delay or cancellation was within the airlines’ control, and only one offered free rebooking. However, after Secretary Buttigieg called on airlines to improve their service and created this dashboard, nine airlines now guarantee meals and hotels when an airline issue causes a cancellation or delay and all 10 guarantee free rebooking. The Department will continue to work to increase transparency so Americans know exactly what the airlines are providing when they have a cancellation or delay. 
     
  • The Department’s proposed rule on Airline Ticket Refunds, if adopted, would: 1) require airlines to proactively inform passengers that they have a right to receive a refund when a flight is canceled or significantly changed, and 2) define a significant change and cancellation that would entitle a consumer to a refund. The rule would also 3) require airlines to provide non-expiring vouchers or travel credits when people can’t travel because they have COVID-19 or other communicable diseases; and 4) require airlines that receive significant government assistance in the future related to a pandemic to issue refunds instead of non-expiring travel credits or vouchers when passengers are unable or advised not to travel because of a serious communicable disease.
     
  • The Department has proposed a rule that would significantly strengthen protections for consumers by ensuring that they have access to certain fee information before they purchase their airline tickets. Under the proposed rule, airlines and travel search websites would have to disclose upfront – the first time an airfare is displayed – any fees charged to sit with your child, for changing or cancelling your flight, and for checked or carry-on baggage. The proposal seeks to provide customers the information they need to choose the best deal. Otherwise, surprise fees can add up quickly and overcome what may look at first to be a cheap fare. DOT encourages members of the public and interested parties to submit comments by December 19, 2022. 

The Department has proposed a rule to refund passengers for services they paid for that aren’t actually provided (e.g., broken WiFi). 

The Department invites the public to submit comment on this rulemaking by December 16, 2022. The Department’s Aviation Consumer Protection Advisory Committee will publicly deliberate on the Department’s proposed rule on Airline Ticket Refunds and decide on recommendations to make to the Department at a virtual meeting on December 9, 2022. To register and attend this virtual meeting, please use this link:

 https://usdot.zoomgov.com/webinar/register/WN_V2zwVF3RQfuoOkyYFVqvdA

For information about airline passenger rights, as well as DOT’s rules, guidance, and orders, the Department’s aviation consumer website can be found at:

https://www.transportation.gov/airconsumer

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Federal Government

FBI: Schools are the third most popular location for hate crimes

The FBI’s annual crime report from 2022 found that anti-LGBTQ hate crimes rose precipitously from the previous year

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FBI Director Christopher Wray (Screenshot/NBC News)

WASHINGTON – Statistics released by the Federal Bureau of Investigation on Monday reveal that schools were the third most popular spot for bias-motivated hate crimes that were reported between 2018-2022.

Primary and secondary schools and university campuses accounted for 10 percent of all hate crimes reported in 2022, while the first and second most common locations were homes and residences and highways, roads and alleyways, the FBI said in its report.

Data comes from the agency’s Uniform Crime Reporting program. The FBI’s annual crime report from 2022, which was released in October, found that anti-LGBTQ hate crimes rose precipitously from the previous year.

Specifically, there with a 13.8 percent increase in crimes motivated by the victim’s sexual orientation and a 32.9 percent increase in crimes motivated by the victim’s gender identity.

In the five years covered in the FBI’s report on Monday, anti-LGBTQ crimes were the third most common, behind those perpetrated against Black or African American victims and those targeting those from certain religious groups, most often Jewish people.

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Federal Government

HHS wins praise for rescinding parts of Trump-era ‘conscience rule’

The final rule released on Tuesday by HHS reverses provisions of the previous policy under which federal funding would be stripped

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U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra at 2023 HHS Pride Summit (Screen capture/YouTube HHS)

WASHINGTON – The National Center for Lesbian Rights on Tuesday issued a statement praising the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for rescinding “the the most harmful aspects” of the Trump-era “conscience rule.”

The policy, which passed in 2019, was blocked by three federal courts and never implemented. It would have allowed healthcare providers to deny care based on religious objections.

“The revised rule,” NCLR Federal Policy Director Julianna Gonen said, “is premised on the recognition that a proper balance must be struck between respecting conscience and ensuring that people get the health care they need.”

Gonen noted the persistence of discrimination against LGBTQ patients, adding “this new rule is a welcome development that will help protect our community.”

The final rule released on Tuesday by HHS reverses provisions of the previous policy under which federal funding would be stripped from facilities that required providers to administer care over which they had religious-based objections.

Namely, this largely meant abortions, contraception, and gender-affirming treatments.

“Some doctors, nurses, and hospitals, for example, object for religious or moral reasons to providing or referring for abortions or assisted suicide, among other procedures,” the agency wrote. “Respecting such objections honors liberty and human dignity.”

Likewise, HHS said, “patients also have rights and health needs, sometimes urgent ones.”

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HHS Secretary meets with LGBTQ leaders and organizations

The discussion concerned efforts to “increase access to health care- increase access to behavioral health for the LGBTQI+ community”

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U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Hubert Humphrey Building. (Photo Credit: GSA)

WASHINGTON – U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra hosted LGBTQ leaders and organizations for a meeting on Monday featuring senior staff at the agency, “to build on the progress made in advancing health and human services equity for the community,” according to a press release.

Specifically, HHS said, the discussion concerned efforts to “increase access to health care, secure non-discrimination protections, and increase access to behavioral health for the LGBTQI+ community.”

Becerra highlighted actions including measures to improve Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI) data collection to better identify disparities; investments in research to address health disparities; support for youth, including through issuance of the new ASPE brief with best practices for “the needs and well-being of LGBTQI+ young people in their programs and communities”; and regulations intended to protect against anti-LGBTQ discrimination.

In attendance on Monday according to HHS were:

  • Secretary Xavier Becerra, HHS
  • ADM Rachel Levine, Assistant Secretary for Health
  • Dr. Melanie Egorin, Assistant Secretary for Legislation
  • Melanie Fontes Rainer, Director, HHS Office for Civil Rights
  • Jess Smith, Acting Director, HHS Office of Intergovernmental and External Affairs
  • Michael Adams, CEO, SAGE USA
  • Carl Baloney Vice President for Public Affairs & Chief Policy Officer, AIDS United
  • Brian Bond, Executive Director, PFLAG
  • Kahlib Barton-Garcon, Chief Program Officer, True Colors United
  • Melanie Willingham-Jaggers, Executive Director, GLSEN
  • Casey Pick, Director of Law and Policy, The Trevor Project
  • Alex Sheldon, Interim Executive Director, GLMA
  • Kelley Robinson, President, Human Rights Campaign (HRC)
  • JoDee Winterhof, Senior Vice-President, Policy and Political Affairs, Human Rights Campaign
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Federal Government

HHS Adm. Levine says anti-LGBTQ hate is ‘a public health threat’

Victims are often made vulnerable by their sexual orientation, gender identity, or HIV status, & targeted not just with physical violence

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(L-R) Jesse M. Ehrenfeld, MD, MPH, President of the American Medical Association; PFLAG National CEO Brian K. Bond; Admiral Rachel L. Levine, MD, the 17th Assistant Secretary for Health (ASH) for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; and Charlotte Clymer, writer, transgender activist, and military veteran attending 2023 PFLAG National Convention (Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images for PFLAG National)

WASHINGTON – Admiral Rachel Levine, assistant secretary for health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, told the Washington Blade in a statement: “We know that hate — whether fueled by homophobia, transphobia, or racism — is a public health threat.”

“I look forward to a day in the future where hate-fueled violence, is an unwelcome memory of the past and no longer incites fear amongst LGBTQI+ people, and all people who live in America,” she said, adding, “We all deserve to live in communities safe from violence.”

A pediatrician and four-star officer who serves as the highest-ranking openly transgender official in U.S. history, Levine’s statement came in response to an inquiry about her meeting on Thursday with New York City Anti-Violence Project (AVP) Executive Director Beverly Tillery.

Also in attendance were the assistant secretary’s senior adviser on LGBTQI+ health equity, Adrian Shanker, and Lynn Rosenthal, director of Sexual and Gender-based Violence at the agency.

“We talked about some of the recommendations we have developed specifically for HHS,” Tillery told the Blade during a phone interview on Friday.

These focused on three areas, she said: “more work that will approach hate violence as a public health issue”; incorporating this approach and addressing “the needs of safe spaces on the ground” when implementing the White House LGBTQI+ Community Safety Partnership; and exploring “opportunities for funding and technical assistance for safe spaces.”

Tillery said that “it was a real honor to be able to have a conversation directly with” Levine, adding that during their meeting, the assistant secretary explained she had made a point of visiting LGBTQ spaces in person.

HHS understands that these groups provide and administer the services it funds, like legal aid and referrals to affirming healthcare providers, she said.

The agency “prioritizes those spaces,” with the knowledge that “we’re talking about a really critical infrastructure in our community,” a network of organizations that “holds our community together in terms of physical and mental health,” Tillery said.

Noting the escalation of violence encountered by LGBTQ individuals and spaces, the White House in June announced plans to create an LGBTQI+ Community Safety Partnership led by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in coordination with the U.S. Department of Justice and HHS.

“We are now looking to the beginning of next year, kind of having a plan in place for what we think needs to be happening for next Pride season, really early, and also thinking about the election,” Tillery said. “This is a really critical time where we need to make sure that we get as much information and resources and boots on the ground so they can be actively thinking about safety in a bunch of different ways.”

The White House explained the Partnership will “Provide dedicated safety trainings for LGBTQI+ community organizations and increase federal threat briefings for LGBTQI+ organizations,” “protect health care providers who serve the LGBTQI+ community,” and “support LGBTQI+ communities to report hate crimes and build cross-community partnerships to address hate-fueled violence” — all while working “to build trust between LGBTQI+ organizations and federal law enforcement agencies.”

So far, Tillery said, “the bulk of the work right now that has been done rests in” the Department of Homeland Security, but “I do feel like, right now, they’re ramping up and figuring out [questions like] ‘who is going to be responsible for this thing and what is it going to look like?’”

She added that during Thursday’s meeting, “One of the things that we asked HHS to think about and help us think about is, ‘could there be some very public, regular cadence of meetings between organizations and the agencies specifically about this Partnership’” such that the public might be kept apprised of its progress?

“We are really hoping,” Tillery said, “to make sure that there’s a process for AVP and other organizations to be in regular communication with [the agencies] involved in the White House Community Safety Partnership.”

Tillery said she also talked with Levine and the other officials about ways that HHS, which unlike DHS and DOJ does not represent law enforcement, can contribute — such as by “having them play a role in data collection,” especially provided how the agency is already “paying attention to” data on sexual orientation and gender identity “across the board” and is well positioned to identify gaps.

The full spectrum of hate incidents targeting all types and sizes of LGBTQ spaces

For the past few months, Tillery has met with the White House, HHS, and members of Congress to discuss the first of its kind survey conducted by AVP and its corresponding report published in July, “Under Attack: 2022 LGBTQ+ Safe Spaces National Needs Assessment.”

The document contains feedback from LGBTQ groups of all types and sizes from all 50 states on the hate incidents they have experienced and “the critical needs they have for future safety.”

AVP discovered that nearly nine in 10 LGBTQ community centers experienced hate incidents in person or over the phone. The findings are consistent with the increase, from 2021 to 2022, in hate crimes motivated by bias against the victim’s sexual orientation and, especially, gender identity that were reported by the FBI on Oct. 16.

What distinguishes AVP’s report, Tillery told the Blade during a previous interview on Sept. 13, is that “nobody had really looked at this issue of what’s exactly happening with [LGBTQ] spaces across the country.”

She noted the importance of broadening the focus on anti-LGBTQ hate incidents to include not just acts of violence like last year’s the mass shooting at Club Q, but the full range of ways in which LGBTQ people are targeted or made to feel unsafe, and in all types of community spaces from book stores to bars and beyond.

When discussing the report and its findings in meetings on Capitol Hill, Tillery said “people are surprised” to learn the extent of anti-LGBTQ violence as well as “the range of different kinds of incidents that are happening across the country” and “the way these attacks are happening.”

About half of the surveyed LGBTQ groups said they did not report hate incidents to the police, with many respondents explaining that when their spaces were targeted with anti-LGBTQ protests led by white nationalist groups like the Proud Boys, they felt local law enforcement was more closely allied with or sympathetic to the extremists, Tillery said.

She noted the “overlay of gun violence with this as well,” especially in communities that do not have strong gun safety laws; places where, in many cases, anti-LGBTQ protesters showed up heavily armed.

New York City Anti Violence Project Executive Director Beverly Tillery (Screenshot: CBS New York/YouTube)

What distinguishes AVP’s report, Tillery told the Blade during a previous interview on September 13, is that “nobody had really looked at this issue of what’s exactly happening with [LGBTQ] spaces across the country.”

She noted the importance of broadening the focus on anti-LGBTQ hate incidents to include not just acts of violence like last year’s the mass shooting at Club Q, but the full range of ways in which LGBTQ people are targeted or made to feel unsafe, and in all types of community spaces from book stores to bars and beyond.

When discussing the report and its findings in meetings on Capitol Hill, Tillery said “people are surprised” to learn the extent of anti-LGBTQ violence as well as “the range of different kinds of incidents that are happening across the country” and “the way these attacks are happening.”

About half of the surveyed LGBTQ groups said they did not report hate incidents to the police, with many respondents explaining that when their spaces were targeted with anti-LGBTQ protests led by white nationalist groups like the Proud Boys, they felt local law enforcement was more closely allied with or sympathetic to the extremists, Tillery said.

She noted the “overlay of gun violence with this as well,” especially in communities that do not have strong gun safety laws; places where, in many cases, anti-LGBTQ protestors showed up heavily armed.

Understanding intimate partner violence within the LGBTQ community

Tillery said she was encouraged by how much of her conversation with Levine, Shanker, and Rosenthal concerned issues of intimate partner violence within the LGBTQ community within the context of anti-LGBTQ violence more broadly.

She explained that victims are often made vulnerable by their sexual orientation, gender identity, or HIV status, and targeted not just with physical violence but also other forms of intimate partner abuse such as forced “outing,” blocking access to medication, or isolation from community and support networks.

The problem was exacerbated by the Covid pandemic, Tillery said, which caused many people to be “stuck at home with people who might be causing them harm.” Likewise, she said, LGBTQ youth who do not live in affirming, supportive homes in many cases “had to relive some of the homophobia and transphobia while they were in isolation with family members.”

The conversation about intimate partner violence dovetailed into other matters Tillery discussed with HHS, such as areas in which there is a deficit in data collection, she said.

For example, she pointed to the results of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2021 Youth Risk Behavior Survey that were published in April, which had “great data” about experiences with intimate partner violence among gay and bisexual men and women but very little with respect to transgender and gender nonconforming respondents, Tillery said.

Tillery added that strong data is crucial for the Partnership’s work and beyond, carrying implications “down the road for funding and resources and congressional action.”

Looking ahead to prepare for next year’s Pride and election seasons

Another topic addressed on Thursday, Tillery said, was how best to “get out in front” with the work that must be done on matters of community safety and securing LGBTQ spaces ahead of not just the next Pride season but also the 2024 elections.

She said AVP will continue working with the Biden-Harris administration and other partners on implementing measures to protect the various groups, activists, organizers, and volunteers who will be running voter registration programs, participating in “get out the vote” efforts, and campaigning on behalf of candidates.

“We are now looking to the beginning of next year, kind of having a plan in place for what we think needs to be happening for next Pride season, really early, and also thinking about the election,” Tillery said.

“This is a really critical time where we need to make sure that we get as much information and resources and boots on the ground so they can be actively thinking about safety in a bunch of different ways,” she said.

Tillery added, “Hopefully we can get out in front of it, so that we can provide some groups with some resources and tools before they start doing a lot of those activities as the election season heats up,” she said.

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Sharp increase in anti-LGBTQ hate crimes, FBI finds

HRC declared a state of emergency for LGBTQ people citing, among other factors, the “wave of harmful and discriminatory legislation”

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FBI Director Christopher Wray (Screen capture/NBC News)

WASHINGTON – Compared to 2021 estimates, hate crimes last year that were motivated by bias against the victims’ sexual orientation rose 13.8 percent while those motivated by bias against the victims’ gender identity rose 32.9 percent, according to data from the FBI.

The agency’s numbers come from the Uniform Crime Reporting Program, largely through the National Incident-Based Reporting System and the Summary Reporting System, which the FBI says collectively accounts for 93.5 percent of the U.S. population.

Data shows the increases in anti-LGBTQ hate crimes came despite a decrease, by 6.1 percent, of estimated murder and non-negligent manslaughter cases during this same period.

“The rise in hate crimes against the LGBTQ+ community is both shocking and heartbreaking, yet sadly, not unexpected,” Human Rights Campaign President Kelley Robinson said in a statement responding to the FBI’s report.

“The constant stream of hostile rhetoric from fringe anti-equality figures, alongside the relentless passage of discriminatory bills, particularly those targeting transgender individuals, in state legislatures, created an environment where it was sadly foreseeable that individuals with violent tendencies might respond to this rhetoric,” she said.

“The FBI’s data serves as another alarming indicator of the state of emergency our community finds itself in,” Robinson said, adding, “We also know that this data is incomplete, that too many cities and states are reporting incomplete data, or even no data at all, on hate crimes against the LGBTQ+ community. If we’re going to bring a stop to that violence, we need a full accounting of just how many hate crimes are taking place – and that requires every jurisdiction stepping up.”

HRC reports that more than 20 percent of reported hate crimes are are now motivated by anti-LGBTQ bias, amid a “horrifying wave” of fatal violence against, particularly, Black transgender women.

The group in June declared a state of emergency for LGBTQ people in the U.S., citing, among other factors, the “wave of harmful and discriminatory legislation — some of which was engineered and championed by extremist GOP candidates running for president and their allies — and the concurrent spike in anti-transgender rhetoric and violence.”

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Anti-LGBTQ Libs of TikTok targets Dept. of Interior spokesperson

Raichik has led an online harassment campaign against Out queer Tyler Cherry, deputy comms director for the U.S. Department of the Interior

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Libs of TikTok owner Chaya Raichik with former President Donald Trump during a visit to Mar-A-Lago. (Photo Credit: Libs Of TikTok X/Twitter)

WASHINGTON – A group of anti-LGBTQ right-wing pundits led by Libs of TikTok creator Chaya Raichik have led an online harassment campaign against Out queer Tyler Cherry, principal deputy communications director and senior spokesperson for the U.S. Department of the Interior.

The attacks began on Thursday afternoon, when Raichik shared a post on X featuring a photo of Cherry — which looks like an official headshot — writing, “This is the Communications Director for the Secretary of Interior”.

Conservative news outlet The Blaze followed suit with a nearly identical post.

Hours later, Libs of TikTok shared more photos of Cherry in a post proclaiming, “Meet Tyler Cherry. The queer spokesperson for the @Interior.” The group also highlighted some of their past social media posts and previous employment with a progressive nonprofit.

Raychik has come under fire for promulgating, by proxy, bomb threats against schools and educators that came after they were targeted by her on the Libs of TikTok social media accounts.

Cherry, who held high profile roles for major Democratic consulting firm SKDK and also within the Biden-Harris administration prior to his appointment at Interior, was honored among the Forbes “30 Under 30” list for media professionals.

Cherry did not respond to a request for comment. The FBI, which investigates and prosecutes threats against government officials, also did not immediately return a request for comment.

Human Rights Campaign National Press Secretary Brandon Wolf condemned the harassment of Cherry in a statement to the Washington Blade:

“Last week, Congresswoman Lauren Boebert hurled a transphobic tirade at US Asst. Secretary of Defense for Readiness Shawn Skelly; this week, it’s Libs Of TikTok creator Chaya Raichik targeting Dept. of Interior Spokesperson Tyler Cherry. Simply for being who they are.”

Wolf continued, “This vile harassment is more of the extremist agenda to demonize the LGBTQ+ community and divide the country — and it’s exactly the kind of hateful rhetoric that has led to spiking violence and discrimination against LGBTQ+ people, mounting threats of violence against schools and children’s hospitals, and plunged the community into a state of emergency.”

He added, “Shame on those who peddle hate for clicks and cheap political points. We are grateful for the work of these talented public servants and the inspiration they bring to so many.”

In a statement to The Advocate on Friday, a White House spokesperson said “No one should be targeted simply for being themselves. It is cruel and unacceptable. This is an administration that believes to our core in the principle that out of many we are one — and we are proud that the people who serve in it reflect those values as well.”

The statement continued, “Tyler is an invaluable member of our team who continues to deliver for the Department of Interior and the American people.”

Update: On Monday, October 9, GLAAD President Sarah Kate Ellis shared the following statement with the Washington Blade:

Again and again, extremists reveal just how desperate and unhinged they are about the mere existence of LGBTQ people, and it’s getting more dangerous and outrageous. Recent posts have appeared to lead to bomb threats at elementary schools, libraries and children’s hospitals.

This must stop. Dehumanizing words and targeting of people just for who they are must stop. It’s also pointless- LGBTQ people are not going anywhere. We are in your families, workplaces, schools and government, welcome as we are. Social media bullies need to find something better to do. LGBTQ people will always be out here living with joy and freedom.

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Harms of waiving anti-discrimination rules for religious universities

“Once the money stops flowing, they will almost all instantly change their policies and start protecting queer students”

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The Lyndon Baines Johnson Federal Building, Washington D.C., headquarters of the U.S. Department of Education (Photo Credit: GSA/U.S. Dept. of Education)

WASHINGTON – Democratic lawmakers re-introduced the Tyler Clementi Higher Education Anti-Harassment Act on Friday, which marked the 13th anniversary of the 18-year-old New Jersey college student’s death by suicide after he was targeted with homophobic harassment by his peers.

The bill, which establishes cyberbullying as a form of harassment, directing colleges and universities to share anti-harassment policies to current and prospective students and employees, was introduced by U.S. Senators Tammy Baldwin (Wis.) and Patty Murray (Wash.), along with U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan (Wis.), Chair of the Congressional Equality Caucus.

Advocacy groups including the Tyler Clementi Foundation, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and The Trevor Project have endorsed the legislation, which comes as issues concerning anti-LGBTQ+ harassment in institutions of higher education have earned renewed scrutiny on Capitol Hill and beyond.

Earlier this month, the Washington Blade connected with an expert to discuss these and other subjects: Paul Southwick, a Portland, Oregon-based litigation attorney who leads a legal advocacy group focused on religious institutions of higher education and their treatment of LGBTQ+ and other marginalized communities.

On Tuesday, he shared a statement responding to Friday’s reintroduction of the Tyler Clementi bill, stressing the need for equal enforcement of its provisions in light of efforts by conservative Christian schools to avoid oversight and legal liability for certain federal civil rights regulations:

“We are still evaluating the bill regarding how the bill would interact with the religious exemption in Title IX,” Southwick said. “We fully support the expansion of anti-harassment protections for students and corresponding requirements for educational institutions.”

He added, “We also believe that such protections and requirements should extend to students at taxpayer funded, religiously affiliated educational institutions, regardless of whether those institutions claim, or receive, an assurance of religious exemption from Title IX regulations” through the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.

Baylor University’s unprecedented Title IX exemption

In response to a request from Baylor University, a conservative Baptist college located in Waco, Texas, the Education Department in July granted a first of its kind religious-based exemption from federal regulations governing harassment, a form of sex-based discrimination proscribed under Title IX.

Southwick explained that during the Obama administration, the federal government began to understand and recognize discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity as forms of sex-based discrimination covered by the statute. The Biden-Harris administration issued a directive for the Education Department to formalize the LGBTQ+ inclusive definitions under Title IX, with a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that is now underway at the agency.

Beginning with the Department’s 2010 “dear colleague” letter clarifying the administration’s view that discrimination against LGBTQ+ people constitutes sex-based discrimination under the law, Southwick said the pushback from religious schools was immediate. In the years since, many have successfully petitioned the Education Department for “exemptions so they can discriminate against queer, trans and non-binary people,” but these carveouts were limited “to things like admissions, housing, athletics.”

No one had argued that “federally funded educational institutions [should] have no regulation by the federal government as to whether they’re protecting their students from harassment,” he remarked – at least not until the Baylor case.

Addressing the unprecedented move in a letter to the Department on September 5, U.S. Reps. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), Greg Casar (D-Texas), Joaquin Castro (D-Texas), and Veronica Escobar (D-Texas) urged the agency to “clarify the narrow scope of this exemption and assure students at religious institutions that they continue to have protections against sex-based harassment.”

Southwick told the Blade other members of Congress have expressed an interest in the matter, as have some progressive nonprofit groups.

Asked for comment, a spokesperson for the Department confirmed receipt of the lawmakers’ letter and said the agency will respond to the members.

The Department’s issuance of the exemption to Baylor came despite an open investigation into the university by its Office of Civil Rights over a Title IX complaint brought in 2021 by Southwick’s organization, the Religious Exemption Accountability Project (REAP), on behalf of a queer student who claimed she was subjected to homophobic abuse from other students while university officials to whom she reported the harassment failed to intervene.

It is not yet clear whether the agency will close its investigation as a result of its decision to exempt Baylor from Title IX’s harassment rules.

Veronica Bonifacio Penales, the student behind the complaint against Baylor, is also a plaintiff in REAP’s separate class action lawsuit challenging the Education Department’s practice of waving Title IX rules for faith-based colleges and universities – which, the plaintiffs argue, facilitates anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination in violation of the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause.

The case, Hunter v. U.S. Department of Education, is on appeal before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.

Other religious schools are likely to follow Baylor’s lead

Southwick said the agency’s decision in the Baylor case “puts students at risk of harassment without a civil remedy against their school’s failures to properly address harassment,” adding, “Taxpayer funded educational institutions, whether religious or secular, should never be permitted to escape oversight from OCR in how they handle anti-harassment claims from LGBTQIA+ or other students protected by federal non-discrimination law.”

Buoyed by Baylor’s successful effort, requesting exemptions to Title IX rules for purposes of allowing the harassment of LGBTQ+ students, faculty, and staff is likely to become routine practice for many of America’s conservative institutions of higher education, Southwick said.

The nonprofit group Campus Pride maintains a list of America’s “absolute worst, most unsafe campuses for LGBTQ+ youth,” schools that “received and/or applied for a Title IX exemption to discriminate against LGBTQ+ youth, and/or demonstrated past history and track record of anti-LGBTQ+ actions, programs and practices.”

193 colleges and universities have met the criteria.

Many of the thousands of LGBTQ+ students enrolled in these institutions often have insufficient support, Southwick said, in part because “a lot of the larger civil rights organizations and queer rights organizations are very occupied, and rightly so, with pushing back against anti-trans legislation in the public sphere.”

Regardless, even in America’s most conservative schools like Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina, Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, and Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan, Southwick noted that pro-equality students, faculty, and staff have pushed for change.

He added that while there are, no doubt, young people who harbor anti-LGBTQ+ views, “they often become much more progressive the longer they’re in school, because there’s just queer people coming out everywhere, you know, and it’s hard to hate people who are your friends.”

The powerful influence and role of financial incentives  

Southwick said meaningful reform at the institutional level is made more difficult by the reality that “financial incentives from the government and from the market are aligned to favor the continuation of discrimination.”

“Once the money stops flowing, they will almost all instantly change their policies and start protecting queer students,” he said, but added that colleges and universities have little reason to change without the risk that discriminatory policies and practices will incur meaningful consequences, like the loss of government funding and accreditation.

Another challenge, Southwick said, is the tendency of institutions of higher education to often prioritize the wishes and interests of moneyed alumni networks, boards of trustees, and donors, groups that generally skew older and tend to be more conservative.

Southwick said when he and his colleagues at REAP discuss proposed pro-LGBTQ+ reforms with contacts at conservative religious universities, they are warned “over and over again,” that “donors will be angry.”

Following the establishment of nationwide prohibitions against segregation and other forms of racial discrimination with passage of the federal 1964 Civil Rights Act and the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which applied to public schools, and Runyon v. McCrary (1976), which covered private schools, Southwick noted that “A lot of Christian schools and college colleges continued to deny admission to black students.”

One by one, however, the so-called “segregation academies” would permanently close their doors or agree to racial integration, Southwick said – buckling under pressure from the U.S. government’s categorical denial of federal funding to these institutions, coupled with other factors like the decision of many professional associations to deny membership to their professors and academics.

Another important distinction, Southwick added: unlike Title IX, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 “does not have a religious exemption.”

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Barbara Lee: PEPFAR is ‘more in peril’ than ever

Congress has yet to reauthorize funding for Bush-era HIV/AIDS program

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U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) speaks about the future of PEPFAR at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation's Annual Legislative Conference in D.C. on Sept. 22, 2023. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

WASHINGTON — California Congresswoman Barbara Lee on Sept. 22 said the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief is “more in peril” now than at any point since its launch two decades ago.

“This program is reauthorized every five years, but it’s always on a bipartisan basis,” said Lee during a panel at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Annual Legislative Conference that took place at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in D.C. “As we approach the benchmark of an AIDS-free generation by 2023, it is unfortunately more in peril now than ever before.”

Then-President George W. Bush in 2003 signed legislation that created PEPFAR.

Lee noted PEPFAR as of 2020 has provided nearly $100 billion in “cumulative funding for HIV and AIDS treatment, prevention and research.” She said PEPFAR is the largest global funding program for a single disease outside of COVID-19.

New PEPFAR strategy includes ‘targeted programming’ for marginalized groups

The panel took place amid the continued push for Congress to reauthorize PEPFAR for another five years. The federal government will shut down on Oct. 1 if Congress does not pass an appropriations bill.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken last December at a World AIDS Day event in D.C. acknowledged HIV/AIDS continues to disproportionately impact LGBTQ+ and intersex people and other marginalized groups. A new PEPFAR strategy the Biden-Harris administration announced that seeks to “fill those gaps” over the next five years includes the following points:

• Targeted programming to help reduce inequalities among LGBTQ+ and intersex people, women and girls and other marginalized groups

• Partnerships with local organizations to help reach “hard-to-reach” communities.

• Economic development and increased access to financial markets to allow countries to manufacture their own antiretroviral drugs, tests and personal protective gear to give them “the capacity to meet their own challenges so that they’re not dependent on anyone else.”

The Family Research Council Action in an email to supporters urged them to tell Congress to “stop Biden from hijacking PEPFAR to promote its radical social policies overseas.” Family Watch International has said PEPFAR “has been hijacked to advance a radical sexual agenda.”

“Please sign the petition to tell the U.S. Congress to ensure that no U.S. funds go to organizations that promote abortion, LGBT ideology, or ‘comprehensive sexuality education,'” said the group in an email to its supporters. 

A group of lawmakers and religious leaders from Kenya and other African countries in a letter they wrote to members of Congress in June said PEPFAR, in their view, no longer serves its original purposes of fighting HIV/AIDS because it champions homosexuality and abortion.

“We wrote that letter to the U.S. Congress not to stop PEPFAR funding to Kenya, but to demand the initiative to revert to its original mission without conditioning it to also supporting LGBTQ as human rights,” it reads.

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.

American officials earlier this year postponed a meeting on PEPFAR’s work in Uganda in order to assess the potential impact the country’s Anti-Homosexuality Act will have on it. The law, which Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni signed on May 29, contains a death penalty provision for “aggravated homosexuality.”

Biden in his U.N. General Assembly speech last week noted LGBTQ+ and intersex rights and highlighted PEPFAR. Family Watch International in its email to supporters included a link to the letter from the African lawmakers and religious leaders.  

The Southern Poverty Law Center has designated both the FRC and Family Watch International as anti-LGBTQ+ hate groups.

“[PEPFAR is] not about abortions,” said Lee.

HIV/AIDS activists protest inside house speaker kevin mccarthy (r-calif.)’s office in d.c. on sept. 11, 2023. (washington blade video by michael k. lavers)

U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Samantha Power during the panel referenced Bush’s recent op-ed in the Washington Post that urged lawmakers to reauthorize PEPFAR.

“The way he put it is no program is more pro-life [than] one that has saved more than 25 million lives,” said Power.

Power referenced the “manufactured controversy that is making it difficult to get this reauthorization.” U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator Dr. John Knengasong said a failure to reauthorize PEPFAR would weaken “our own foreign policy and diplomacy.”

“Once again the United States will be missing in action,” stressed Lee.

Assistant Health and Human Services Secretary for Legislation Melanie Egorin and Kenny Kamson, a Nigerian HIV/AIDS activist, also spoke on the panel that MSNBC host Jonathan Capehart moderated. 

From left: U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator Dr. John Nkengasong and U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Samantha Power discuss the future of PEPFAR at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Annual Legislative Conference in D.C. on Sept. 22, 2023. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)
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Census Bureau asks to test questions on LGBTQ+ issues

Census Bureau plans to test questions on sexual orientation and gender identity for respondents aged 15 and older

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U.S. Census Bureau Headquarters – Suitland, Maryland (Photo Credit: GSA)

SUITLAND, Md. – The U.S. Census Bureau on Tuesday asked the Biden administration to sign off on plans to test questions on sexual orientation and gender identity for respondents aged 15 and older on the agency’s annual American Community Survey.

Data on these metrics will help inform civil rights and equal employment enforcement, the Census Bureau said in a notice published on the Federal Register.

Testing will help the agency determine wording, response categories and placement of the questions on the survey — its most comprehensive, covering 3.5 million households each year.

A key unknown will be how answers will be provided by proxies such as parents, spouses or others in a household who isn’t the person about whom the question is asked.

“Younger LGBT people might not yet be out to their parents or others who are answering these questions as a proxy reporter, so the quality of the data might not be as good for younger people,” M. V. Lee Badgett, an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, told PBS News.

Currently, the Census Bureau and its annual American Community Survey only ask questions about same-sex couples who are married or cohabitating.

“We anticipate having much more info about the LGBT people than is currently available — including about the demographic and socioeconomic status of LGBT people who aren’t in same-sex couple households, including occupational status, industry and wages, and about LGBT people who were born outside the U.S. and LGBT people with disabilities, and their families,” Kerith Conron, research director of the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law, told the Associated Press.

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Older Americans Act updates targets LGBTQ seniors living with HIV

These populations experience “higher rates of social isolation” & “higher rates of poverty” & are “less likely to be partnered

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SAGE/Los Angeles Blade photo & graphic

BALTIMORE – Ahead of Monday’s National HIV/AIDS and Aging Awareness Day, the Washington Blade spoke with Aaron Tax, director of federal government relations for SAGE, to discuss what proposed updates to the Older Americans Act might mean for LGBTQ elders and older adults living with HIV.

The conversation followed the conclusion of the public comment period for a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking filed by the Administration for Community Living, a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services agency that is responsible for administering the statute.

An HHS spokesperson told the Blade a final rule is expected “early next year.”

“We’ve looked at the many challenges facing LGBT older people and older people living with HIV,” said Tax, whose organization, Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders, is the country’s largest group focused on the needs of LGBTQ seniors.

These populations experience “higher rates of social isolation” and “higher rates of poverty” and are “less likely to be partnered, less likely to have children, [and are] more culturally and socially isolated from mainstream institutions,” he said.

Therefore, they “seem to fit the definition of greatest social need quite well,” Tax said, referring to a distinction in the legislation that SAGE has sought to effectuate for LGBTQ elders and older adults with HIV, coming “quite close” in the law’s 2020 reauthorization.

Tax explained, “what we got at the end of the day is some language that requires every state unit on aging in the country and every area agency on aging in the country — which are basically state departments of aging and local departments of aging — to do three things.

“One,” he said, “engage in outreach to LGBT older people; two, to collect data on their needs; and three, to collect data on whether they are meeting their needs.”

SAGE is now working with these state and local entities to ensure “they’re, in fact, carrying out these requirements” Tax said.

Next year, the Older Americans Act will be up for reauthorization again, so “we will once again be fighting for an explicit greatest social need designation again for LGBT older people and older people living with HIV,” he said, adding, “And we recently introduced legislation with [U.S. Rep.] Suzanne Bonamici [D-Ore.] that would try to accomplish that goal in 2024.”

The legislation, Tax explained, originally “came about in 1965 under Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society as a counterpart to Medicare and Social Security,” which respectively addressed the medical and financial needs of older Americans.

“The Older Americans Act is everything else that should enable you to age in place in your community,” Tax said — and, as such, the statute covers, among other programs, “home and congregate meals and meals at senior centers, Meals on Wheels, transportation assistance, legal assistance, caregiver support, respite, all the things that have enabled people to age in place in their community.”

SAGE’s legislative efforts are coupled with advocacy around the administration and enforcement of the statute by ACL, which prior to the forthcoming rulemaking has not issued new regulations on the Older Americans Act since 1988, Tax said.

“Part of that,” he said, “is because there have been so many legislative changes since the law came about in 1988, so, their goal now is to modernize those regs and recognize the changes to the OAA and also maybe put some additional information in there or some additional guidance in there that might not be captured in the statute.”

SAGE wants the ACL “to be as explicit as possible, as proscriptive as possible, about ensuring that the aging network is meeting the needs of both LGBT older people and older people living with HIV,” Tax said, which informed the organization’s public comment to the agency.

This work is important because there are state-by-state differences in how older LGBTQ adults and seniors with HIV are treated, Tax said.

For instance, the “New York State Office for the Aging is extremely aware of the needs of LGBT older people and older people living with HIV,” he said. “They acknowledge that in the work that they do; they’re very intentional in the work that they do to meet the needs of LGBT folks and older people living with HIV.”

Tax said, “we are working hard at SAGE to make sure that other states first acknowledge that this population, or these populations, even exist, and secondly, [that they] are doing more to make sure that LGBT older people and older people living with HIV have access to the same aging services and supports other older people have access to.”

Politics, unfortunately, can play a role, Tax told the Blade.

“When anti equality forces are in control in the White House, of course, that does have an impact on the types of rules and regulations you see coming out of the administration and its agencies” he said.

By contrast, “it’s pretty clear now with the Biden administration’s focus on equity and its interest in making sure that LGBT folks are treated like everybody else, that we’re seeing regulations or proposed regulations that incorporate those important themes.”

“There are good people in state agencies across the country who want to do the right thing,” Tax said, but “Sometimes they bump up against the political realities of their states.”

“We are working hard at SAGE to make sure people who want to do the right thing regardless of what state they live in have the resources and the information and the tools that they need to take care of all of the older people in their states,” Tax said.

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