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Survivors of Club Q massacre testify before Congress

Hearing focused on rise of anti-LGBTQ+ extremism, violence

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Club Q bartender Michael Anderson testifies before the House Oversight Committee on Dec. 14, 2022. (Blade photo by Michael Key)

WASHINGTON — Two survivors of the Club Q massacre on Wednesday testified during a House Oversight Committee hearing that focused on the rise of anti-LGBTQ+ extremism and violence in the U.S. 

Michael Anderson, a Club Q bartender, noted he grew up in Central Florida and “was taught in my private religious school and by many conservative voices to hate who I was, that being born gay was something to reject.”

Anderson told the committee that he “waited, silent and suffering” until he came out as gay at 16. Anderson also said gay bars and clubs “helped me embrace who I was and formed me into the man I am today.”

“On Nov.19th, 2022, a deranged shooter entered Club Q armed with an assault rifle, a pistol, an incredibly disturbing amount of ammunition and an even more disturbing amount of hatred in their heart, all while cowardly hiding behind a bulletproof vest,” said Anderson. “This shooter entered our safe space and our home with the intention of killing as many people as possible, as quickly as possible. They used a military style weapon that exists solely for the intention of killing other human beings and began to hunt us down as if our lives meant nothing.”

James Slaugh told the committee that he was at Club Q with his partner and sister when the gunman opened fire.

The gunman shot Slaugh in his arm, and his partner in his leg. Slaugh’s sister was shot more than a dozen times.

“The events of Nov. 19 were a nightmare come true,” said Slaugh. “Five wonderful people were still murdered: Ashley Paugh, Raymond Green Vance, Daniel Aston, Derrick Rump and Kelly Loving. We miss each of you.”

“Club Q was a second home and safe space to all of us,” he added. “Outside of these spaces we are continually being dehumanized, marginalized and targeted. The fear based and hateful rhetoric surrounding the LGBTQ community, especially around trans individuals and drag performers leads to violence. We shouldn’t have to fear being shot when we go to our safe spaces.”

Matthew Haynes, Club Q’s founding owner, in his testimony thanked local and state officials and LGBTQ+ rights groups — specifically One Colorado, Inside Out Youth Services in Colorado Springs and GLAAD — “for the efforts and support they have all provided to our community during this time.”

“We should not be meeting under these pretenses,” said Haynes. “I know that we as a community are in the thoughts and prayers of so many people, including many of you, unfortunately these thoughts and prayers alone are not saving lives, they are not changing the rhetoric of hate.”  

Colorado prosecutors earlier this month indicted the suspected gunman with 305 charges that include first-degree murder, attempted first-degree murder and bias-motivated crime.

The hearing took place a day after President Joe Biden signed the Respect for Marriage Act during a ceremony on the White House’s South Lawn. (Only 39 House Republicans voted for the measure when it received final approval on Dec. 8, the same day that Russia released WNBA star Brittney Griner in exchange for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.) It also took place against the backdrop of a proliferation of anti-LGBTQ+ bills that lawmakers across the country have introduced; an increase in online hate speech, harassment and threats based on sexual orientation and gender identity and anti-LGBTQ+ violence.

“To the politicians and activists who accuse LGBTQ people of grooming children and being abusers, shame on you,” Anderson told the committee. “As leaders of our country, it is your obligation to represent all of us, not just the ones you happen to agree with.” 

“Hate speech turns into hate action, and actions based on hate almost took my life from me, at 25 years old,” added Anderson. “I beg you all to consider your words before you speak them, for someone may use those words to justify action – action that may take someone’s life.”

Haynes in his testimony noted he received “hundreds of hate mail and emails” after the Club Q massacre. 

“I woke up to the wonderful news that five mentally unstable faggots and lesbians and 18 injured,” read one of them. “The only thing that I’m mad about is that the faggots had courage to subdue the wonderful killer. I hope more shootings happen again. Have a blessed day.”

“The shooter was doing God’s work, five less fags not enough,” said another. “Those that stopped him are the devil.”

Haynes told the committee that now “is a critical time for national, state, local elected officials, community and religious leaders to drop the politics and work with LGBTQ leaders and small business owners like me to support and affirm LGBTQ events, venues, communities and must importantly people.” 

“We need safe spaces like Club Q more than ever,” he added. “And we need you, as our leaders, to support and protect us.” 

Democratic New York Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, the committee’s outgoing chair, in her opening remarks noted the Club Q gunman’s “depravity robbed us of five innocent lives” before she read the victims’ names.

“In attacking Club Q, the shooter attacked the sense of safety of LGBTQI people across the country,” she said. “The attack on Club Q is not an isolated incident, but a trend of broader intimidation.”

Inside Out Youth Services President Jessie Pocock in her testimony noted at least one of the massacre’s victims had previously visited her organization. 

“This is not ok. This is not normal,” said Pocock.

Human Rights Campaign President Kelley Robinson told the committee the Club Q massacre “is just one example of the violence that has shattered LGBTQ+ lives, families and communities in the past few years.”

“Violence and discrimination against LGBTQ+ communities is the tragic result of a society that devalues our lives — particularly the lives of black and brown transgender and gender non-conforming people,” said Robinson. “And this hate and violence is on the rise.”

Robinson in her testimony cited openly gay California state Sen. Scott Wiener, who received a bomb threat earlier this month that contained his home address and described him as a “pedophile” and a “groomer.”

“Fueled by nearly unfettered access to guns, and political extremism and rhetoric that is deliberately devised to make our community less safe, less equal and less free,” said Robinson. “Violence has become a lived reality for so many in our community.”

Human Rights Campaign President Kelley Robinson testifies before the House Oversight Committee on Dec. 14. (Blade photo by Michael Key)

GLAAD President Sarah Kate Ellis, National Center for Transgender Equality Policy Director Olivia Hunt, Ilan Meyer of the Williams Institute, Charles Fain Lehman of the Manhattan Institute and Equality Florida Communications Director Brandon Wolf also testified.

Wolf in 2016 survived the Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando, Fla., that left 49 people dead and 53 others injured.

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House Republicans pass anti-LGBTQ Parents Bill of Rights Act

The White House issued a statement Monday: “[…] the bill does not actually help parents support their children at school”

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U.S. Capitol Building (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

WASHINGTON – U.S. House Republicans on Friday passed the Parents Bill of Rights Act (H.R. 5), a proposal that would require public schools to share educational materials with parents and also contains provisions that would trigger the outing of LGBTQ students without their consent.

Critics say the legislation’s professed purpose, to equip parents with the information necessary for them to better engage with their children’s educators, is a pretext for its ultimate goals: for schools to censor out content addressing race, or materials containing LGBTQI+ characters or themes, while also discouraging LGBTQ students from being out at school.

The U.S. House Equality Caucus noted the likelihood of that outcome in a statement Friday denouncing the bill, which the group’s chair, Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), called “dangerous” — pointing to its requirement for “schools to forcibly out transgender students, even if it puts those youth in harm’s way.”

“All children deserve access to a safe and affirming school environment,” Pocan said in the statement. “Transgender youth have enough challenges already due to harassment, bullying, and anti-transgender state laws,” he said, adding, “My colleagues who voted for this bill should be ashamed.”

House members voted 213-208 for passage of the Parents Bill of Rights Act, with Republican U.S. Reps. Andy Biggs (Ariz.), Ken Buck (Colo.), Matt Gaetz (Fla.), Mike Lawler (N.Y.), and Matt Rosendale (Mont.) voting against the legislation with every Democratic member. The bill was first introduced by GOP Rep. Julia Letlow (La.)

With Democrats’ control of the U.S. Senate, movement on the bill will almost certainly be stopped once it reaches the upper chamber, but it may nevertheless still have a harmful impact on the country’s LGBTQ youth.

For example, the National Institutes of Health published a peer reviewed study last year that found a link between anti-trans legislation and “suicide and depression-related Internet searches” using a dataset comprising 40 bills that were introduced and reached committee, of which three were passed and signed into law.

The Caucus’s statement noted H.R. 5 contains “two provisions that would require schools that take steps to respect a student’s gender identity to forcibly out those transgender youth to their parents” along with another that would allow parents to access their children’s answers to survey questions, answers that might include information about a student’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

The risk that their parents will be able to see their answers will incentivize many students to lie about these and other questions, which the Caucus said will undermine the federal government’s ability to collect important demographic, statistical, and survey data on America’s LGBTQ youth.

Exacerbating that problem is another provision in the legislation, which requires parents to “opt-in” if their children would be asked to share their sexual orientation or gender identity.

America’s largest LGBTQ advocacy organization, the Human Rights Campaign, also issued a statement Friday condemning H.R. 5.

“The bill — which picks and chooses which families have rights and which don’t — has occupied the chamber’s time while extremist House leaders continue neglecting the very real and urgent problems facing our schools, such as gun violence, teacher shortages and educational inequality,” the group said in its statement.

HRC also noted the legislation’s potential to trigger forcible outing of LGBTQ youth “would endanger students instead of fulfilling school officials’ obligation to make judgments on a case-by-case basis in the best interests of the students under their supervision.”

The organization said it expects House Republicans to move “in coming weeks” on H.R. 734, “a bill to ban participation by transgender youth in school sports,” and drew parallels between the Parents Bill of Rights Act and the “curriculum censorship seen in harmful, unnecessary bills passed in state legislatures recently.”

U.S. Rep. Melanie Stanbury (D-N.M.), a member of the Equality Caucus, echoed that message in her statement Friday, writing that H.R. 5 was “Modeled after bills passed at the state level, which have censored the teaching of American history, allowed book bans, and violated the safety and privacy of transgender and LGBTQ+ students.”

The White House issued a Statement of Administration Policy on Monday addressing the bill, writing “The Administration does not support H.R. 5 in its current form because the bill does not actually help parents support their children at school” and “Moreover, instead of making LGBTQI+ students feel included in their school community, it puts them at higher risk.”

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Takano to renew House Democrats’ push for the Equality Act

“With homophobic and transphobic legislation being proposed in state legislatures – it is far past time we act to outlaw discrimination”

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U.S. Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) (Blade photo by Michael Key)

WASHINGTON – U.S. Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), a co-chair of the Congressional Equality Caucus, issued a statement Thursday pledging to introduce the Equality Act during this Congress, legislation that would extend federal anti-discrimination protections to LGBTQ Americans.

The bill would prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in “employment, education, access to credit, jury service, federal funding housing, and public accommodations.”

Four previous versions were introduced in the House by by U.S. Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) and in the Senate by U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) in 2015, 2017, 2019, and 2021. The Biden administration and Congressional Democrats have signaled that the legislation remains a major priority despite the Republicans now exercising their majority control of the lower chamber.

With Cicilline’s planned departure from Congress on June 1 to lead the nonprofit Rhode Island Foundation, Takano thanked and credited his colleague “for his leadership on behalf of our community and stewardship of the Equality Act.”

Cicilline, who drafted the legislation and chaired the Equality Caucus in the last Congress before Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) took over this year, noted the heightened importance of the Equality Act’s passage amid the proliferation of anti-LGBTQ and especially anti-trans legislation.

“With homophobic and transphobic legislation being proposed in state legislatures across the country and here in Congress,” he said, “it is far past time we act to finally outlaw discrimination against the LGBTQI+ community by passing the Equality Act.”

The legislation is also backed by major LGBTQ advocacy groups including the nation’s largest, the Human Rights Campaign. “There is overwhelming support for this bill among the American people and the business community, and we will continue fighting until this bill is signed into law,” said the organization’s President Kelley Robinson.

Robinson also thanked Cicilline for his leadership on the bill and said the Human Rights Campaign looks forward to working with Takano, “an incredible champion for our community” who “is the perfect leader for this effort” to “build on he work Congressman Cicilline started and get the Equality Act signed into law.”

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Ritchie Torres speaks about personal mental health struggles

Openly gay N.Y. congressman appeared on ‘GMA3’

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U.S. Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-N.Y.) (Screen capture via 'GMA3' Twitter video)

NEW YORK — New York Congressman Ritchie Torres has spoken out about his struggle with depression and the importance of mental health in the wake of U.S. Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.)’s recent hospitalization for clinical depression. 

Torres, a Democrat who is the first openly gay Afro-Latino member of Congress, told “GMA3” hosts DeMarco Morgan and Eva Pilgrim on Tuesday that he had “an obligation to tell” his “story in the hopes of breaking the shame and silence, and stigma that too often surrounds the subject of mental health.”

Torres views his coming to terms with his mental health issues — while also being open about it — as a form of “public service” to the American people. 

“We live in a society that historically has shamed people for experiencing mental illness, that has framed mental illness as a failure of character or a failure of willpower. And I’m here to send a message that mental illness is nothing of which to be ashamed, that there are millions of Americans who struggle with depression and anxiety,” Torres explained. 

Even before being elected to Congress, Torres, 34, spoke freely about his past experiences concerning mental health issues and how they affected him. While campaigning, one of his opponents tried to use his depression as a counterpoint to prove that he was not worthy of being in public office. 

From then on, Torres vowed to “never again would I allow my mental health to be weaponized,” he told Time magazine

He emphasized the importance of psychotherapy and medication as a means of controlling his depressive episodes and going through his day by day as a congressman.

He noted, however, that “there are people who have trouble accessing mental health care.” 

“And even if you do, the process of experimenting with psychiatric medications can be draining and debilitating, because there’s no one size fits all,” he added. 

Torres said he hopes that Congress can pave the way for more mental health care for the millions of Americans who need it.

“Our healthcare system is fundamentally broken and Congress is no closer to fixing it,” he argued. 

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Senate confirms Garcetti for India ambassadorship

The period between Garcetti’s nomination and confirmation marked the longest stretch without a sitting U.S. ambassador to India

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Former Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti (Photo courtesy Eric Garcetti)

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Senate voted 52-42 on Wednesday to confirm former Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s nomination by President Joe Biden to serve as U.S. ambassador to the Republic of India.

Democratic Sens. Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Mazie Hirono (Hawaii), and Mark Kelly (Ariz.) voted “nay,” while Republican Sens. Bill Cassidy (La.), Susan Collins (Maine), Steve Daines (Mont.), Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Bill Hagerty (Tenn.), Roger Marshall (Kan.), and Todd Young (Ind.) voted “yea.”

Garcetti’s appointment has been languishing in the Senate for nearly two years, threatened most recently by Democratic defectors who objected to unresolved allegations that the former mayor knew — or should have known — about sexual harassment by a former top aide, Rick Jacobs.

Hirono, who earlier this week had pledged to support Garcetti’s nomination, said Wednesday that she changed her mind after learning new information, but declined to offer specifics.

Throwing additional uncertainty into Wednesday’s vote was the absence of six senators including Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who is recovering from shingles and announced plans last month to retire at the end of her term, and Jon Fetterman (D-Pa.), who recently checked himself into Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for treatment of clinical depression.

The White House and Garcetti nevertheless pushed for the vote, which had been delayed by the split control of the Senate until the new Congress was seated in January. The period between Garcetti’s nomination and confirmation marked the longest stretch without a sitting U.S. ambassador to India since formal diplomatic relations were first established with the country.

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Sorensen: ‘We’re going to do better today for the next generation’

“I think it’s a point of extreme Republicans to run on this platform instead of solving the problems that we do have in front of us”

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Rep. Eric Sorensen (D-Ill.) (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

WASHINGTON – Whether on matters concerning climate change or LGBTQ rights, members of Congress ought to focus on making progress for the benefit of the next generation, U.S. Rep. Eric Sorensen (D-Ill.) told the Washington Blade.

“It’s making that decision today to talk about what’s in our future, not what’s in our past, and to say, ‘let’s just do what’s best for our kids,’” Sorensen said during an exclusive interview with the Blade from his office last week.

The congressman, who became the first openly gay member to represent the state of Illinois in either chamber with his election in 2022, has plenty of experience reaching folks with this message.

A meteorologist by trade, Sorensen began his television career at the ABC affiliate KTRE in Lufkin, Texas in 1999 before becoming chief meteorologist for WREX, Rockford, Illinois’s NBC affiliate, and then senior meteorologist at the ABC affiliate WQAD serving the Quad Cities area.

“You know, I was the one talking about climate change to farmers,” Sorensen said.

“Whenever I talk about climate change, I don’t fault anyone for being in a different place in the past,” he said, which helps to avoid positioning conservatives and climate skeptics in a defensive posture.

“We don’t ever have to agree on who’s causing climate change, or what 1.5 degrees celsius or two degrees celsius means,” Sorensen said. “Let’s just say that we’re going to do better today for the next generation, okay? And the same thing with LGBTQ issues, right?”

As it turned out, discussing climate change “wasn’t this third rail that we thought it was,” he said. Likewise, “it was the same thing as when I had my trans friends on television on Good Morning Quad Cities” for National Coming Out Day.

The move was important, Sorensen said, “so that my community could see these are real people…my friend Paula and my friend Chase are real people.” The congressman added, “we talked about how we came out, and we didn’t get any backlash [from the audience], because, you know what? I don’t live in a hateful community.”

Sorensen said the network looked at audience engagement metrics for segments featuring his trans friends, and for segments in which he addressed climate change, and the data repeatedly indicated that viewers were able to easily countenance both.

Some of this might be attributed to the good will he had built with this audience. After all, “I was the one they were turning to when the tornado was bearing down on their family’s home,” Sorensen said.

Regardless, “how do we expect people to understand if we don’t explain these things?”

‘Everyone should be speaking out’ against anti-trans extremism

Last week, Republicans on the U.S. House Education and Workforce Committee passed legislation that would bar transgender women and girls from competing in school sports per Title IX.

The measure, part of a nationwide wave of anti-trans bills, is likely fated to languish in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

On the heels of a press conference to drum up opposition to the bill that was hosted by the Congressional Equality Caucus and its chair, Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), Sorensen said, “I’m disappointed because these are real people.”

“We have to understand that, you know, when we talk about the threat that transgender people face today, if you just look at what is being proposed, what the extreme Republicans are saying, is that there’s now a group of kids or a group of people that don’t deserve to learn what athletics is about,” said the congressman, who is also a co-chair of the Equality Caucus.

Sorensen said the message from Republican members backing this legislation is that “this group [of women and girls] doesn’t deserve to learn teamwork as a kid.”

“It’s terrible,” he said. “Everyone should be speaking out against this. What it just shows is that these Republicans, they’re just stoking fear and division and being extreme, instead of actually solving the problems of the people.”

Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) at the U.S. Capitol on March 8 speaking out against the proposed trans sports ban.
(Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

“I think it’s a point of extreme Republicans to run on this platform instead of solving the problems that we do have in front of us,” Sorensen said.

He noted extremism doesn’t seem to have been a winning message for Republican candidates in the 2022 midterm elections, during which time the GOP’s focus was on issues like the economy and healthcare.

It is remarkable “how things have changed in such a short amount of time,” Sorensen said. “And that’s because the Republicans, these extreme Republicans, have decided that they’re going to to roll through this division and hate.”

“It’s insane,” he said, pointing to legislation like the bill proposed in the Iowa Legislature to ban same-sex marriage “when it’s already been set in stone.”

At the same time, the congressman said, there is ample reason for optimism. For example, “in the state of Illinois we rejected that hate because the state of Illinois elected its first LGBTQ member of Congress.”

And back in the Quad Cities, Sorensen had the chance to meet the next generation of out youth when volunteering at the area’s LGBTQ community center, Clock, Inc. “I just stood there in awe at these kids that were able to be themselves.”

Moving forward, Sorensen said Democrats should continue to prioritize issues that Americans actually care about.

“I don’t feel like we need to defend ourselves,” he said. “You know, if they want to put this wedge issue out there, we need to just be able to say, ‘I’m fighting for Americans. I’m fighting to lower the price of goods, connecting people to health care,’” which includes healthcare for trans folks as well as reproductive care including abortions.

“Sorensen said his identity as a gay man was not a central feature of his congressional campaign, but still, for many folks, “the only gay person that they knew was Eric Sorensen on channel eight.”

Overcoming homophobia

Growing up in the 1980s during the AIDS crisis, Sorensen said he asked himself, “Why should I even try?” He told the Blade, “I can see in my head the pictures of a hospital room, and I thought, ‘that’s how I’m gonna die,’” he said, so, “why would I even try, when they’re never going to allow me to be on television?”

Having relocated from Lufkin to Tyler, after a couple of years working as a meteorologist in the comparably larger northeast Texas metropolitan area, Sorensen said his sexual orientation became a problem for his employer in 2003.

“My boss told me, ‘Eric, I need you to go to the conference room after your show’s over,’” the congressman remembers.

Laid before Sorensen was his employment contract, a document he had not seen since he had signed it. “All of a sudden,” he said, “the members of management walk in, and I was told to have a seat while nobody across the table sat down – so they were looking down upon me.”

They had been alerted to Sorensen’s profile on Gay.com and offered him the choice to “be that person,” pointing to a printout of his profile, “or have a job.”

From there, he took a pay cut to return to Illinois where “I got to be out,” he said, “I got to be myself,” while every day at work, “I was telling my mom and dad what the weather was like.”

The congressman added, “If I would have given up in that space in Texas, where would I be? I wouldn’t be here today.”

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Pocan, Congressional Equality Caucus criticize trans sports ban bill

“Today, Republicans are showing their real priorities, political priorities, by considering a trans and intersex sports ban”

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Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) speaks at the U.S. Capitol on March 8. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

WASHINGTON – U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) and the Congressional Equality Caucus held a press conference Wednesday at the U.S. Capitol to rally opposition to House Republicans’ proposed legislation that would prohibit transgender women and girls from participating in sports.

The bill was slated for markup by the U.S. House Education and the Workforce Committee later Wednesday.

“I’m assuming by the time it gets to the floor, we have talked to many members of Congress, especially on the Democratic side, we’re gonna fight hard on this,” Pocan said in response to a question from the Washington Blade.

“I have no idea where some of the extreme politicians may try to take this, but the bottom line is they promised us they’re going to lower the costs for the American people they promised us smaller, less intrusive government, and now they’re being the biggest of big brother that can possibly be by trying to determine which kids can play in sports,” Pocan said.

Joining Pocan and the caucus at the press conference were Shiwali Patel, director of justice for student survivors and senior counsel at the National Women’s Law Center, Rebekah Bruesehoff, a trans student athlete, and Jamie Bruesehoff, her mother.

“Today, Republicans are showing their real priorities, political priorities, by considering a trans and intersex sports ban as the opening salvo in their efforts to undermine the rights of LGBTQI+ people,” Pocan said during his prepared remarks.

“Women and girls face real problems on the field, from strained resources to unequal pay and sexual harassment and assault, but rather than dealing with these matters or other challenges like gun violence, members on the Education and the Workforce Committee will spend their first legislative markup targeting a handful of trans girls and women who participate in school sports,” Pocan said.

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House Equality Caucus slams proposed GOP ban on trans athletes

The legislation would bar trans youth athletes, stipulating that “sex to be based solely on a person’s reproductive biology at birth”

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U.S. Capitol Building (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Congressional Equality Caucus has come out against a proposal from House Republicans to ban transgender student athletes.

“This is not about girls’ and women’s sports; it’s about attacking trans kids,” Caucus Chair Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) said in a press release Monday. “This sports ban is just the opening salvo in their larger efforts to limit the rights of and demonize the LGBTQI+ community, and the Equality Caucus will do everything it can to defeat it,” he said.

The Caucus’s issuance of the press release comes ahead of the bill’s scheduled mark-up on Wednesday by the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

The legislation would bar any participation in school sports by trans athletes, stipulating that “sex shall be recognized based solely on a person’s reproductive biology and genetics at birth” for purposes of compliance with Title IX.

Introduced by Republican Rep. Gregory Steube (Fla.) on Feb. 1, the bill’s 43 GOP co-sponsors include Reps. Ken Buck (Ohio), Matt Gaetz (Fla.), Nancy Mace (S.C.), Andy Biggs (Ariz.), Lauren Boebert (Colo.), Jim Banks (Ind.), and George Santos (N.Y.), the scandal beleaguered gay congressman who faces multiple investigations over alleged financial crimes.

The Democratic Women’s Caucus joined the Equality Caucus in registering their opposition Monday ahead of the mark-up 

“We will not let anti-LGBTQI+ Republicans—who have refused to work with us on addressing real gender equity issues—use “protecting women” as an excuse to attack trans youth,” said Rep. Lois Frankel (D-Fla.), chair of the Democratic Women’s Caucus.

Groups like the Women’s Sports Foundation and National Women’s Law Center support full and equal access and participation for trans student athletes.

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House Ethics Committee opens probe of George Santos

The inquiry will evaluate whether the embattled congressman’s required financial disclosures as a candidate contained illegal omissions

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House Ethics Committee moves forward with investigation into Rep. George Santos (Screenshot/YouTube MSNBC)

WASHINGTON – The U.S. House Ethics Committee on Thursday announced it had voted unanimously to open an investigation of Rep. George Santos’s (R-N.Y.) over allegations of financial and sexual misconduct.

The ten-member body, divided evenly between Republicans and Democrats, will now put Santos’s fate into the hands of an evenly divided subcommittee of four members led by Republican Rep. David Joyce (Ohio).

The subcommittee’s inquiry will evaluate whether the embattled congressman’s required financial disclosures as a candidate contained illegal omissions or conflicts of interest, as well as an allegation by an applicant to his congressional office that Santos made unwanted sexual advances towards him.

Santos did not comment beyond a statement shared on Twitter that was written in the third person:

“The House Committee on Ethics has opened an investigation, and Congressman George Santos is fully cooperating. There will be no further comment made at this time.”

Democratic U.S. Rep. Ritchie Torres (N.Y.) – who, with U.S. Rep. Dan Goldman (N.Y.), filed the initial Ethics Committee complaint against Santos, tweeted:

“BREAKING: House Ethics has opened an investigation into George Santos. Rep. Dan Goldman and I filed an ethics complaint against the self-described terrible liar for violating House rules. Now Congress is one step closer to holding its most corrupt member accountable.”

Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) previously said action might be taken with Santos pursuant to the results of an Ethics Committee investigation.

House Ethics Committee moves forward with investigation into Rep. George Santos:

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Democrats should highlight GOP attacks on personal freedoms

Priorities for Balint include the Equality Act, a bill that would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation & gender identity

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Rep. Becca Balint (D-Vt.) (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

WASHINGTON – On issues from the curriculum taught in schools to trans Americans’ access to healthcare, Democrats should focus their messaging on how their opponents’ policy proposals would threaten personal freedoms, U.S. Rep. Becca Balint (D-Vt.) told the Washington Blade.

The Democratic Party’s tendency to get into the minutiae “doesn’t always serve us well,” as it is generally more effective to relay broader ideas about “this fundamental American concept of freedom” that elected Republicans are working to undermine, Balint said during an exclusive interview with the Washington Blade from her office on Tuesday.

“We don’t like being told what to do as Americans,” she said, adding that the message resonates regardless of whether folks identify as liberals or conservatives, or whether they live in rural or urban areas: “We don’t want to be told what we can and can’t learn about; what we can and can’t talk about.”

Government intrusion and overreach into otherwise private matters concerning healthcare and education has been a hallmark of policies enacted by GOP leaders like Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, a presumptive but still undeclared candidate for the 2024 presidential race.

Examples have included banning books with LGBTQ characters and themes, last month’s rejection of an advanced African-American studies course, and the Florida Board of Medicine’s adoption of a policy threatening the licenses of medical providers who administer guideline-directed interventions for trans and gender nonconforming youth.

In a video shared on Rumble last month, former president and declared 2024 Republican candidate Donald Trump pledged to weaponize the federal government against trans Americans if elected, such as by terminating the Medicare and Medicaid eligibility of hospitals and facilities that perform gender affirming care for minor patients.

“Ideas around equity and justice are things that we go to as Democrats,” Balint said. “But those aren’t necessarily the words that folks who identify as independents or Republicans use for the same kinds of ideas.”

The congresswoman said it is more effective to frame these debates as matters of “freedom and fairness as opposed to justice or equity or equality,” which is why she will “continue to say, ‘do you want more government intrusion?’”

So, with the presidential primaries looming, it will be important for Democrats to use this paradigm to discuss Republicans like DeSantis interfering with their healthcare, “picking on queer and trans kids and people who support them,” or targeting teachers who are living and working in their communities, Balint said.

The congresswoman, herself a former history teacher, noted that educators are among those figures who are “holding civic society together.”

Fighting extremism and anti-LGBTQ bigotry in Congress

Balint, who made history as Vermont’s first openly LGBTQ U.S. representative, said Democratic leaders including members of Congress must “be much more open about who we are.”

“If my colleagues across the aisle took a few minutes to talk to families who are raising trans kids right now,” Balint said, “they would understand…that their rhetoric is increasing levels of anxiety, and depression, and disconnection – and that’s not the role of a public official.”

The efficacy of this strategy is underscored by the fact that anti-trans policies are based on lies. “Nothing about the rhetoric around trans Americans is based in reality,” Balint said. “It’s not based in the facts or the experiences of young people in this country.”

“When I talk about my life as a queer person, as a queer parent, as someone who is very open about my own mental health struggles, that gives other people permission to feel like they have a sense of place – in government, in their communities,” Balint said.

LGBTQ staffers on Capitol Hill have thanked Balint for speaking so openly about her identity, she told the Blade.

She said engaging in these discussions on personal terms can also be an effective way of reaching colleagues who, because they “have never had to deal with these issues,” have “learning curves.”

For example, Balint said, during the new Congress’s Jan. 7 swearing-in ceremony, she gently but firmly corrected another member for assuming her spouse in attendance was a man. After their exchange, the congressman found Balint again to apologize, promising that he will be sure never to repeat the mistake.

Balint hedged that other interactions have gone less smoothly. She said one of her main takeaways since arriving in Washington as a newly elected first-term member has been “the extent to which there are extremists within [the GOP],” which “is deeply disturbing to me as an American and certainly as somebody who’s a member of the LGBTQ community.”

Last week, House Republicans introduced a bill that would designate as America’s “national gun” the AR-15 style firearms used in deadly mass shootings, including the 2016 massacre at the former gay Orlando nightclub Pulse. Embattled gay GOP Rep. George Santos (N.Y.) is a co-sponsor of the legislation, which Balint characterized as “a political stunt” and an example of the kind of extreme rhetoric that makes violence more likely.  

The congresswoman said moves like this messaging bill take “our focus away from helping people,” adding that helping people is “why I ran for office – to make life better, to alleviate suffering,” not to use rhetoric and talking points “to raise money.”

Given the high rate of suicide in Vermont, Balint said her work in Congress, including for the House Gun Violence Prevention Task Force, will be focused on matters like probing the relationships between gun violence, gun policy, and suicide, including among vulnerable populations like “people within the LGBTQ community who don’t feel like they have the support” they need.

A co-chair of the Congressional Equality Caucus and member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Balint has been appointed to serve on the powerful House Budget and Oversight & Accountability Committees.

Priorities for Balint will include the Equality Act, a landmark bill that would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in areas from employment and housing to jury service. A leading champion of the legislation, gay Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), announced plans to retire in May, so Balint said she was talking with him last night “about how we make sure that work continues.”

“We have to continue to fight these battles and these issues, regardless of whether we think they’re going to be able to pass this session,” she said, “because we have to queue it up for when [Democrats] are back in the majority.”

Other focus areas, she said, will be addressing the interrelated and ongoing housing and mental health crises in this country, as well as reproductive justice.

From 2015 to her swearing-in last month, Balint served as a Vermont state senator, including as majority leader and president pro-tempore. Unlike the U.S. House, Balint said, the Vermont Legislature “is pretty high functioning” with “a strong ability to work across the aisle.”

However challenging the calcified and polarized politics of Washington are by comparison, Balint noted there are moderate Republicans in the House. “We know because they were reaching out to members on our side saying, ‘we are not approving of what our leadership is doing around abortion issues.’”

For House Democrats, “it will be impossible for us in this moment to do anything” without the support of a few GOP members, which is a challenge because there are so few moderates in the party as a result of primary challenges from the far-right, Balint said.  

“I’m not going to be a conflict entrepreneur”

Rep. Becca Balint (D-Vt.) (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Particularly in recent years and especially among Republicans, members of Congress have become bomb-throwers – prone to making outlandish and extreme statements, instigating and engaging in online spats with political opponents, and dehumanizing others.

Far-right Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (Ga.) has accused elected Democrats of “grooming” children for sexual abuse, compared COVID-19 mask mandates to the persecution of Jews during the Holocaust, and, before her election to Congress, supported calls to assassinate Democratic Party leaders.

Despite – or perhaps in some ways because – of this record, Greene is widely considered a rising star within her party, becoming a top ally of newly elected Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, and, according to data from Open Secrets, raising more money during the 2022 election cycle than any other House Republican member except for McCarthy, House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (La.), Dan Crenshaw (Texas), and Jim Jordan (Ohio).

In this environment, amid the ceaseless attacks against them, Balint acknowledged the difficulty for LGBTQ people and their allies to refrain from responding in kind. At the same time, she said, “I’m not somebody who’s going to continue to keep a fight going for the sake of the fight.”

From “how I post [on social media] to the way I deliver my floor speeches [in the House],” Balint said, “it is this signal even to people within my own party, that I’m not going to be a conflict entrepreneur.”

Disagreements are bound to happen, and confrontation can be productive, the congresswoman said, but one must find the right approach and be mindful of the broader context.

Balint remains optimistic in the face of these challenges. She told the Blade she never imagined she would be able to marry the woman she loves, or raise two children, or be elected to serve as Vermont’s first openly LGBTQ member of Congress.

Nor, Balint said, did the framers envision “the child of an immigrant, a working class mom, a queer person,” would have the privilege of serving in this role. But “now that I’m here, I’m going to make the most of it, and I’m going to fight on behalf of all of our freedoms.”

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Congress

Rep. Santos sponsors anti-Trans resolution, backs AR-15 measure

George Santos cosponsors two House bills one minimizing Trans rights & the other glorifying the weapon of choice in 2 LGBTQ mass shootings

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Out Republican Rep. George Santos is seen outside of his offices wearing an AR-15 lapel pin as he ignores reporter's questions (Screenshot/YouTube CBS 2 New York City)

WASHINGTON – Rep. George Santos (R-NY) cosponsored two resolutions in the House of Representatives, one that directly targets the transgender women and a second that the promotes the AR-15 assault rifle as the “national gun of America.” 

H. Res. 115 and H.R. 1095, were both introduced and cosponsored by his fellow Republican lawmakers. 

H. Res. 115, introduced by Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-AZ), seeks to implement a “Women’s Bill of Rights,” so as to “reaffirm legal protections afforded to women under Federal law.” The resolution, however, directly challenges liberal gender norms by limiting the statutes to “biological differences between the sexes.” 

Lesko’s legislation only recognizes the biological origins of a person’s birth certificate, thereby eliminating transgender rights be recognized publicly in this symbolic but showing telling of Republican political ideological goals.

Insofar as women’s rights go, the resolution tries to provide six points, three “for purposes of Federal law” focusing only on long-held defined gender terms for specific biological roles: “sex” to be defined as “biological sex at birth,” words such as “woman” and “girl”, and “man” and “boy” would be defined based on the sex assigned at birth, and “mother” and “father” are defined via their assigned sex. 

Likewise, the language allows discrimination under the basis of the person’s sex “when they serve an important governmental objective and are substantially related to achieving that objective.” 

“Protecting women’s rights should not be a partisan issue, yet the left cannot even define the word ‘woman,’” said Rep. Lesko in a statement. “I am proud to once again introduce this important legislation to affirm the basic biological truth that men and women are different and safeguard the rights of women in our laws.”

The Republican Long Island congressman has made homophobic allegations in the past in spite of his known gender orientation. “The family unit has been under attack for decades, decades!” Santos said on John Stubbins’s conservative “Indivisible” show. “In different ways, right? The flavor of the decade is same-sex couples. ‘Oh, that’s so OK!’ Look, to each their own, I don’t have anything against that but they’re teaching in school how kids that, you know, you don’t need a mommy and a daddy, you can have two mommies, you can have two daddies. I think that’s a little much for kids, right?”

H.R. 1095, on the other hand, seeks to make the AR-15 semi-automatic assault rifle the nation’s national gun. The legislation was introduced by Rep. Barry Moore (R-AL).

Santos’ backing of this resolution as an out LGBTQ+ congressman disregards the damage automatic rifles have caused to the LGBTQ+ community—such as the Pulse and Club Q mass shootings. 

An angered New York Governor Kathy Hochul (D) called Santos support “disgusting.” In a statement the Governor said:

“It’s outrageous and appalling that New York Congressman Santos would attach his name to legislation that would designate the AR-15 as the ‘national gun of the United States.’ This weapon of war has been used in mass shootings across the United States – from my hometown of Buffalo, where the shooter used a modified AR-15 to murder ten people in a despicable act of white supremacist terrorism, to Parkland, Florida, where the shooter killed seventeen innocent people with an AR-15-style weapon. The families and friends of those killed in Parkland have become heroic advocates for gun safety – including the Beigel-Schulman family of Dix Hills, who fight for change in memory of their son, Scott. This bill, which attempts to glorify the weapons that have been part of such horrific tragedies, adds unforgivable insult to injury for those families. It should never become law, and Congressman Santos should immediately remove his name from it, if he has any respect for New Yorkers.”

Both resolutions have yet to make it through to the House floor. 

Rep. George Santos backs bill making AR-15 the “national gun” of U.S.:

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