BRATTLEBORO, VT. – U.S. Rep. Becca Balint (D-Vt.) talked with the Washington Blade on Saturday about the LGBTQ and women’s history education bill that she and U.S. Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-N.Y.) reintroduced last week.
The legislation, just like actions recently announced by the White House, responds to book bans and curriculum restrictions that have increasingly cropped up in conservative states and school districts, which disproportionately target educational materials inclusive of LGBTQ subjects and histories.
Balint and Torres’s LGBTQI+ and Women’s History Education Act of 2023 would authorize the director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History to develop and distribute resources for educators to “teach LGBTQI+ and women’s history education in a more inclusive and intersectional manner.”
On June 8, meanwhile, the White House debuted plans to address attacks on the safety and rights of LGBTQ Americans. Among these were instructions to the U.S. Department of Education to appoint a coordinator who will “address the growing threat that book bans pose for the civil rights of students,” such as by providing “new trainings for schools nationwide on how book bans that target specific communities and create a hostile school environment may violate federal civil rights laws.”
Balint told the Blade the education bill and these moves by the White House “complement each other,” but her efforts with Torres were “not coordinated as much” with the Biden-Harris administration as they were a product of the lawmakers’ shared understanding of “this moment that we’re in — as we’re both queer Americans trying to live our lives and not have our histories erased.”
“And I also come to this,” Balint said, “as a longtime social studies teacher in junior high” who also taught history as the community college level. “This push from the GOP to erase us from not just society but from history,” she said, is “so dangerous.”
“It’s important for us to make sure that our histories and our stories are preserved, not just for posterity sake, but also because students across this country need to be able to see themselves in their history that we’re taught,” Balint said.
Battles over the inclusion of Black, LGBTQ, and women’s history have roiled school districts across the country, leading to legislative restrictions that were passed in conservative states and even flaring up in areas traditionally known as liberal strongholds, like Southern California.
Last week saw protests over the inclusion of curricula that included the late gay rights activist and politician Harvey Milk in Temecula, part of the greater Los Angeles area.
“We can’t write off any area of the country,” Balint said. “There are movements from from the right coming in more traditionally blue states, as well, and they’re trying to make parents and community members feel afraid of their neighbors.”
As the right has sought to deliberately scapegoat queer and trans kids, fear mongering to rile up the conservative base, the congresswoman said “it’s really important that those of us in a position to shore up those those teachers in those schools who are trying to do the right thing, [because] they need help, they’re under siege right now.”
Balint said that her wife is from Wyoming, a solidly conservative state where she also has experience teaching. “I understand the struggles that teachers have in those schools, when they want to bring in a more inclusive history, a more true history, of the complexity of life in this country,” she said.
“So, I think it’s a really important message for us to send, both from the White House and from Congress, and in this case, also, from the Smithsonian Institution, to say this is real history. It’s important that you expose your students to it. And I think that gives those teachers more courage to be able to teach a curriculum that is more inclusive and true. “
The LGBTQI+ and Women’s History Education Act of 2023, Balint said, can also help educators in a more direct sense. “Whether you’re trying to teach the history of people of color in this country, or of women, or of queer and trans people,” she said, it is a “huge undertaking to try to do that research on your own.”
Unfortunately, however, the congresswoman acknowledged the political roadblocks to its passage with the U.S. House’s Republican control.
Just before flying home to her district, Balint said she had to sit through a speech on the House floor in which a GOP member railed against “how disgusting it was that there any kind of federal building or State Department building would fly, you know, a pride flag,” telling his colleagues “that’s not the kind of thing that we in this country want to be known for.”
The congresswoman characterized the language this member used as hurtful and cruel, intended to demonize LGBTQ people.
“There are good people in the Republican conference,” Balint said. “but when it comes to these issues, we have not seen any of them. In this congressional session, they are all falling in line. I welcome any partners across the aisle. To stand up to this kind of scapegoating.”
For this reason, when it comes to her and Torres’s legislation, she said, “I am not hopeful in this Congress. But we have to lay the groundwork for what will come when we hopefully are able to recapture the majority and really make movement on these things.”
Balint told the Blade some of her Republican colleagues have assured her and other Democrats “well, you know I don’t believe this stuff that the extremists are pushing.”
GOP members will admit that they have to take extreme anti-LGBTQ positions that they do not actually believe in for fear of losing a primary race to someone further to the right, she said.
“And one of the things that I’ve been talking about with my friends within my caucus is if, in the end, you’re gonna vote just like your extremist colleagues, then frankly, you’re not better! If you’re not gonna use your position to stand up when you know [your colleagues in the GOP caucus] are shamelessly and cruelly scapegoating a group of people, then what will it take?”
Balint said she nevertheless remains optimistic that the tides will eventually turn, but in the meantime “we have to hold them accountable. And we have to stand with them when they are courageous, which is why I always try to point out that you’ve got a few bright spots — one being the [Republican] Governor of Utah, Governor [Spencer] Cox, who made a very powerful statement about these anti trans bills.”
When legislation that would have prohibited trans students from playing on girls’ sports teams reached his desk in March, Cox vetoed it. “When in doubt,” he wrote, “I always try to err on the side of kindness, mercy and compassion.”
“I can’t overstate what it has meant for young queer and trans kids in Vermont and across the country, to be able to come and talk with me,” Balint said, or any of her colleagues who are openly gay. “We also are working so hard right now to make sure that we will be able to elect our first trans American to Congress,” she said, “we are so committed to that — we have to have true representation.”
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Former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy calls it quits
Rep. Matt Gaetz who filed the motion to take the Speaker’s gavel from McCarthy, posted one word minutes after the news broke: “McLeavin'”
WASHINGTON – U.S. Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who was dethroned from the speakership by ultraconservative members of his party in October, announced in a Wall Street Journal op-ed Wednesday that he will resign from Congress at the end of this month.
The congressman pledged to “serve America in new ways,” writing “I will continue to recruit our country’s best and brightest to run for elected office,” adding, “The Republican Party is expanding every day, and I am committed to lending my experience to support the next generation of leaders.”
The move puts additional pressure on Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.), who was elected following McCarthy’s ouster and who is now charged with leading a fractious GOP conference that was already operating with a razor-slim majority.
Now, House Republicans might have only three votes to spare before they must seek help from Democrats to pass measures.
Far-right U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a McCarthy ally who has repeatedly criticized her colleagues for toppling his speakership and, last week, for voting to expel disgraced former GOP congressman George Santos, posted about Wednesday’s news on X.
Well..— Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene🇺🇸 (@RepMTG) December 6, 2023
Now in 2024, we will have a 1 seat majority in the House of Representatives.
Congratulations Freedom Caucus for one and 105 Rep who expel our own for the other.
I can assure you Republican voters didn’t give us the majority to crash the ship.
Hopefully no one dies.
Meanwhile U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, the Republican firebrand congressman who filed the motion to take the Speaker’s gavel from McCarthy, posted one word minutes after the news broke: “McLeavin.'”
McCarthy has served in the House since 2007.
“To hell with this place:” Santos booted from Congress
The third vote to expel the congressman comes after a 56-page report by the U.S. House Ethics Committee detailing his egregious behavior
WASHINGTON – Lawmakers on Friday voted 311-114 to expel embattled U.S. Rep. George Santos (R-N.Y.) from Congress, exceeding the two-thirds majority needed for the resolution to pass with two members voting present.
The third vote to expel the congressman comes after a 56-page report by the U.S. House Ethics Committee found Santos had siphoned campaign contributions to shop at luxury retailers like Hermes and for purchases at OnlyFans, a site used primarily by sex workers who produce pornography.
During the previous votes to expel Santos, critical numbers of members from both parties voted “nay” for fear that it would set a dangerous precedent in the absence of a guilty verdict from a court of law or the committee.
Members who debated the expulsion resolution on the House floor Friday mentioned the many scandals that have enveloped Santos from the time he began serving in January, such as the revelations that he had lied on the campaign trail about having Jewish heritage, ties to the Holocaust, and a parent who was at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11.
“George Santos is a liar — in fact, he has admitted to many of them — who has used his position of public trust to personally benefit himself from Day 1,” said U.S. Rep. Anthony D’Esposito, another Republican from New York.
The number and nature of those lies, along with the allegations of financial malfeasance, made Santos a pariah, as well as a liability for Republicans in vulnerable districts, particularly in neighboring parts of New York.
Politico congressional reporter Olivia Beavers posted a photo on X of members talking to news cameras, captioned “NY Rs taking a victory lap.”
NY Rs taking a victory lap pic.twitter.com/lVl55UmU3g— Olivia Beavers (@Olivia_Beavers) December 1, 2023
Democratic New York Gov. Kathy Hochul will now schedule a special election to replace Santos, with her party privately lining up behind Thomas Suozzi, who held the seat from 2017 to 2023 and who last year defended Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law, calling the measure prohibiting classroom discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity “reasonable” and “common sense.”
Separately, Santos is facing a 23-count indictment for alleged financial crimes that was brought by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York.
He walked out of the chamber before Friday’s vote was finalized, stepping into a waiting car as he told reporters “Why would I want to stay here?” and “To hell with this place.”
San-Toast: House Ethics Committee releases Santos report
Efforts to expel him earlier this month failed when a group of Republican and Democratic members voted against the resolution
WASHINGTON – Following the publication of a report by the U.S. House Ethics Committee, which found he had misused campaign funds for luxury personal purchases and OnlyFans content, U.S. Rep. George Santos (R-N.Y.) announced on Thursday that he will not seek reelection next year.
The Investigative Subcommittee found “substantial evidence” that the embattled congressman “caused his campaign committee to file false or incomplete reports with the Federal Election Commission; used campaign funds for personal purposes; engaged in fraudulent conduct in connection with RedStone Strategies LLC; and engaged in knowing and willful violations of the Ethics in Government Act as it relates to his Financial Disclosure (FD) Statements filed with the House,” according to a statement released by its chair, U.S. Rep. Michael Guest (R-Miss.) and ranking member, U.S. Rep. Susan Wild (D-Pa.).
The report reveals contributions from two supporters totaling $50,000 were wired to RedStone, a company owned and operated by Santos, and then transferred to his personal bank account and “used to, among other things: pay down personal credit card bills and other debt; make a $4,127.80 purchase at Hermes; and for smaller purchases at OnlyFans; Sephora; and for meals and for parking.”
Pursuant to issuance of the report, the Ethics Committee voted unanimously to “refer the substantial evidence of potential violations of federal criminal law to the Department of Justice for such further action as it deems appropriate.”
Santos responded with a post on X decrying the report as a “disgusting politicized smear.” The congressman added, “I will however NOT be seeking re-election for a second term in 2024 as my family deserves better than to be under the gun from the press all the time.”
If there was a single ounce of ETHICS in the “Ethics committee”, they would have not released this biased report. The Committee went to extraordinary lengths to smear myself and my legal team about me not being forthcoming (My legal bills suggest otherwise).— George Santos (@MrSantosNY) November 16, 2023
It is a disgusting…
The Washington Post reported on Thursday that Guest has plans to introduce a motion to dismiss Santos from Congress on Friday morning, which could be considered by the House upon return from the Thanksgiving holiday break on Nov. 28.
Efforts to expel him earlier this month failed when a group of Republican and Democratic members voted against the resolution, many claiming the move — in the absence of a criminal conviction in a court of law and before the committee had released findings from its report — would set a dangerous precedent.
In October, Santos was handed a 23-count superseding indictment from prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York, which contains a range of criminal charges from wrongful unemployment benefits claims to identity theft.
House votes to keep Santos in Congress
The resolution was introduced by U.S. Rep. Anthony D’Esposito (R-N.Y.), and was backed by other GOP members of the New York delegation
WASHINGTON – U.S. Rep. George Santos (R-N.Y.) survived a resolution to expel him from Congress with a vote of 213-179 on Wednesday night.
The resolution was introduced by U.S. Rep. Anthony D’Esposito (R-N.Y.), and was backed by other GOP members of the New York delegation, all in vulnerable swing districts.
Earlier on Wednesday, new House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) had voiced opposition to removing Santos without due process.
On Oct. 10, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York handed Santos a 23-count superseding indictment, alleging a bevy of financial crimes including credit card fraud, conspiracy to commit offenses against the United States, wire fraud, aggravated identity theft, access device fraud, false statements to the Federal Election Commission and falsifying records to obstruct the commission.
In the months following Santos’ election in 2022, media reports revealed the congressman had lied about or fabricated an astonishing number of claims about his life and career.
Rep. Mark Pocan proposes national museum of LGBTQ+ history
“As our community faces unprecedented attempts to erase our history, we must preserve and protect our stories for future generations”
WASHINGTON – U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), chair of the Congressional Equality Caucus, reintroduced two bills on Friday that would “begin the process of creating a National Museum of American LGBTQI+ History and Culture,” according to a press release.
The proposal was backed by all eight of the caucus’s openly-LGBTQ co-chairs, Democratic U.S. Reps. Mark Takano (Calif.), Sharice Davids (Kan.), Robert Garcia (Calif.), Becca Balint (Vt.), Ritchie Torres (N.Y.), Chris Pappas (N.H.), Angie Craig (Minn.) and Eric Sorensen (Ill.).
Pocan’s first bill would create an eight-member commission to assess the viability of building the facility in D.C., directing its “recommendations to address whether the museum should be part of the Smithsonian Institution.”
Members of the commission, who will be chosen for their expertise in museum planning or LGBTQ research and culture, will have 18 months to develop a fundraising plan to support the project through public contributions and compile a report on the availability and cost of acquiring collections, among other responsibilities.
Then, Congress will consider the second bill to formally begin creating the museum.
Pocan, whose proposal comes during the National LGBT History Month observance, discussed the importance of his project in a statement:
“As our community faces unprecedented attacks and attempts to erase our history, we must preserve and protect our stories for future generations.
It is vital to remember our collective past — particularly when certain states, and even members of Congress, seek to constrain and repeal existing rights by passing bills that harm LGBTQI+ youth and our community at large.
Let’s tell these stories, the good and the bad, and honor the many contributions the LGBTQI+ community has made to this nation with a museum in Washington, D.C.
I look forward to the passage of this legislation and to visiting this museum in the near future.”
BREAKING: I’ve just introduced legislation to create a National Museum of American LGBTQI+ History and Culture. As our community faces unprecedented attacks and attempts to erase our history, we must preserve and protect our stories for future generations. pic.twitter.com/xkxdcCXAo0— Rep. Mark Pocan (@RepMarkPocan) October 27, 2023
New Speaker on his anti-LGBTQ extremism: ‘Go pick up a Bible’
Johnson was a co-sponsor of U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s bill that aims to ban gender affirming healthcare for trans youth
WASHINGTON – Newly elected Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson (La.) defended his extremist anti-LGBTQ views on Thursday, telling Fox News, ‘I am a Bible believing Christian,” adding, “go pick up a Bible off your shelf and read it – that’s my worldview.”
The Washington Post, in an article published on Thursday that chronicles the congressman’s “campaign against gay rights” throughout his career, reported that one of his aides directed the paper to a Facebook post written by Johnson last year in which he “argued that ‘biblical beliefs’ were inseparable from ‘public affairs.'”
After the little-known evangelical Southern Baptist Republican politician was elevated on Wednesday to become his party’s highest-ranking elected official, second in line to the presidency, details about his far-right, socially conservative views began to emerge.
CNN uncovered editorials written by Johnson from 2003 to 2005 in which he argued for the criminalization of gay sex, called homosexuality an “inherently unnatural” and “dangerous lifestyle,” and said marriage equality poses a threat to “our entire democratic system” — warning that “polyg-amists, polyamorists, pedophiles, and others will be next in line to claim equal protection.”
At the time, and until 2010, Johnson was an attorney for the Alliance Defending Freedom, an anti-LGBTQ hate legal group according to The Southern Poverty Law Center, and “arguably the most extreme anti-LGBTQ legal organization in the United States” according to Lambda Legal.
When asked about the op-eds by Fox News personality Sean Hannity, the Speaker said, “I don’t even remember some of them” and defended his work fighting against same-sex marriage on behalf of the right-wing group during the early 2000s.
The Post reports that during this time Johnson was “at the leading edge of litigating high-profile cases contesting protections for abortion, contraception coverage and gay and transgender rights.”
Many Louisianans were first introduced to Johnson in the 1990s, when he appeared on television with his wife to promote “covenant marriage,” which is available in Louisiana, Arizona, and Arkansas and carries legally binding provisions that make divorce more difficult. Critics say these unions can make harmful and abusive relationships worse.
Before serving in the state legislature from 2015 to 2017, and then in the U.S. House beginning in 2017, Johnson had sought tax subsidies, with a federal lawsuit on behalf of the Christian creationist group Answers in Genesis, to fund the Noah’s Ark amusement park in Kentucky whose exhibits contradict the scientific consensus on matters like the age of the Earth, such as by showing dinosaurs coexisting with humans.
Johnson’s term in the Louisiana legislature was defined by his introduction of legislation called the Marriage and Conscience Act, which critics argued was intended to protect the right to discriminate against same-sex couples. Most Republican members of the statehouse joined with the Democrats to defeat the bill.
In Congress, Johnson did not become more not become more moderate
Earlier this week, a group of House Republicans sank U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer’s (R-Minn.) bid for the speakership, reportedly in part because of the congressman’s support for marriage equality.
A day before he was elected, Johnson told Jake Sherman of Punchbowl News he had made an issue of Emmer’s vote for the Respect for Marriage Act, which codified legal protections for married LGBTQ couples and was backed by 38 other Republican members of the House.
Last year, he cosponsored the Stop the Sexualization of Children Act, which would prohibit public schools, libraries, and all federally funded institutions from offering “sexually explicit” programs, events, and literature for children under 10.
Dubbed the “federal ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law,” the bill defines “any topic involving gender identity, gender dysphoria, transgenderism, sexual orientation, or related subjects” as per-se sexually explicit, which critics including activist and civil rights attorney Alejandra Caraballo have called “dehumanizing” to LGBTQ people.
Johnson was also a co-sponsor of U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s bill that aims to ban guideline directed gender affirming healthcare interventions for transgender youth and would impose draconian criminal penalties for providers who do so.
In July, as chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution and Limited Government, Johnson led a hearing on the topic where, according to the Human Rights Campaign, “lies and disinformation” were spread “about what that [health] care consists of,” to advocate for policies that would put “unqualified lawmakers” between “medical professionals, parents and their children.”
In addition to the Respect for Marriage Act, HRC notes the congressman also voted against the Equality Act, the LGBTQI+ Data Inclusion Act, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, and the Violence Against Women Act.
As chair of the Republican Study Committee in Congress, Johnson argued against Amazon’s decision to stop selling work by conversion therapy advocate Joseph Nicolosi, who died in 2017.
In 2022, the congressman said there is no separation of church and state in America. “If anybody tries to convince you that your biblical beliefs or your religious viewpoint needs to separated from public affairs,” he said, “you should politely remind them to review their history and you should not back down.”
During his relatively short time in Congress, Johnson co-sponsored three bills attempting to ban abortion nationwide, each imposing criminal penalties for providers who perform abortions: the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, the Protecting Pain-Capable Unborn Children From Late-Term Abortions Act, and the Heartbeat Protection Act.
On Wednesday, the New York Times reported that Johnson played “a leading role in recruiting House Republicans to sign a legal brief supporting a lawsuit seeking to overturn the results” of the 2020 election, which was “rooted in baseless claims of widespread election irregularities.”
His efforts led 60 percent of the GOP conference to sign on to the amici brief, filed in connection with the case brought by Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, which was ultimately thrown out by the U.S. Supreme Court.
“You know the allegations about these voting machines, some of them being rigged with this software by Dominion, there’s a lot of merit to that,” Johnson said, parroting what was one of the most far-fetched conspiracies spread by supporters of former President Donald Trump.
PFLAG activists claim mistreatment by Rick Scott & Ted Cruz’s staff
Laura McGinnis, senior manager of press & public relations for PFLAG, said this year’s Lobby Day brought 146 attendees from 30 states & D.C.
ARLINGTON, Va. – Participants in PFLAG’s Lobby Day who on Oct. 19 met with congressional offices of members representing their states and districts, said they were mistreated by aides for U.S. Sens. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas), neither of whom were present at the time.
By contrast, staff for other members, including other Republicans who include U.S. Reps. Aaron Bean (R-Fla.) and Beth Van Duyne (R-Texas) and U.S. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) were positive, affirming and respectful, they told the Washington Blade on Oct. 20 after the opening plenary of PFLAG’s National Convention.
Cindy Hill-Nobles, president of PFLAG of Jacksonville (Fla.) said “I have never been so incensed” as when an aide in Scott’s office openly smirked while she recounted how her son once contemplated suicide because was bullied so extensively after coming out as gay in the fourth grade.
She said the staffer accused her of “trying to put porn in the hands of children” after she told him about the “banned books club” she had formed with a local church in hopes that greater access to stories with LGBTQ characters and narratives might deter bullying and potentially spare other children and families from the pain hers had survived.
These were not the only “instances where some very nasty things were said” by Scott’s aide, who was “combative” and “degrading, in a lot of ways, to the group of us that were there,” Hill-Nobles recalled. She added it seemed that the staffer, as he tapped his pen on a blank notepad, “wasn’t looking to get anything out of the meeting except for us out of his office.”
Scott’s Communications Director McKinley Lewis, who was not in attendance, addressed Hill-Nobles’s account of the meeting in an emailed statement to the Blade, writing:
“Our office prides itself on meeting and speaking with all Floridians and hearing about the issues that matter most to them. This is just one of the reasons why Senator Rick Scott’s team was recognized by the Congressional Management Foundation with a Democracy Award for the best constituent services in Congress. The allegations made here are not true. We have full confidence that our staff conducted this nearly hour-long meeting with the utmost professionalism and respect.”
Ginger Chun, a board member of PFLAG of San Antonio and mother of a transgender young adult, recalled “really awkward and uncomfortable” conversations with Cruz’s staff — one of whom, she said, insisted on debating with her in a combative manner about the availability of healthcare interventions for trans youth.
Rather than a parley over public policy, the mutually agreed upon focus of and purpose for their meeting was for representatives from PFLAG “to go in and tell your story and let them hear what’s important to you,” Chun said. “And that’s really not the reception that we got.”
A spokesperson for Cruz said, “PFLAG came to our office lobbying against restrictions on taxpayer funding for puberty blockers and so-called sex-change surgery, including for children. PFLAG also wants biological men competing in women’s sports.”
The emailed statement continues, “Like most Texans, Senator Cruz vigorously opposes these radical positions and will always stand against adults being allowed to permanently destroy the natural bodily functions of children and undermining the integrity of girls’ sports.”
PFLAG Advocacy, Policy and Partnerships Director Diego Miguel Sanchez said, “we know that when everyone goes home, there will be incidents at a grocery store or school parking lot or somewhere where people are combative.”
However, he said, “in the confines of an office where the promise is to serve” one’s constituents, this behavior constitutes “an absolute betrayal of the obligation of serving in Congress” and that of anyone who serves as “an emissary for those elected officials.”
Once serving as Capitol Hill’s first openly trans senior legislative staffer as senior policy advisor to former U.S. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), Sanchez on Oct. 20 said he will speak with the chiefs of staff in each office where PFLAG Lobby Day participants were mistreated.
The lawmakers “deserve to know that either they were misrepresented, underrepresented, or need to do a little education for the people they’re choosing to meet with their constituents,” he said.
Laura McGinnis, senior manager of press and public relations for PFLAG, told the Blade this year’s Lobby Day brought 146 attendees from 30 states and D.C. who participated in 108 meetings with members of Congress from both chambers. PFLAG has not yet gathered information and feedback about all of them, she said.
Because the organization’s conventions are held biennially and in different locations, the most recent Lobby Day came during PFLAG’s last National Convention in D.C. in 2013, McGinnis said.
“PFLAG does participate in lobby day events organized by movement partners,” she added, “for example, PFLAG parents, families, and allies attended a lobby day for the Equality Act organized by Freedom for All Americans during the last Congress, with SAGE right before the pandemic lockdown, and HRC’s earlier this year.”
Sanchez noted PFLAG has a unique approach to advocacy, arranging meetings on Capitol Hill in which constituents are told to discuss “their lives and their families and experiences; their fears, their hopes and their dreams.”
They leave hard copies of bills that they — and PFLAG — consider “really pertinent right now,” but this is secondary to the purpose of relaying personal stories about their lived experiences, he said.
Good experiences in other GOP offices
Scott’s office aside, Hill-Nobles said her interactions with staff for other Republican members of the Florida delegation were professional and respectful.
For example, when an aide in Bean’s office asked questions about her son, she said it was clear that they “seemed to honestly care how he was, how his mental health was and how he managed to get through school.”
Differences of opinion were handled respectfully by Bean’s staff, Hill-Nobles said, noting cases where they relayed their opposition to the Equality Act and support for policies in schools and athletics organizations that prohibit trans students from using restrooms or competing on teams that align with their gender identity.
These arguments were consistent with “what we were expecting [and] what I was expecting,” she said, “again, it was a respectful conversation; it was not demeaning.”
Hill-Nobles added that during a “drop-in” to U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.)’s office, where “we quickly went in and gave our information,” the Florida senator’s “front desk aides were perfectly polite and kind.”
Trans college student Levi Fiedler, who has served as an intern for PFLAG, the LGBTQ+ Victory Institute, the ACLU, and in the office of U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids (D-Kan.), agreed only to speak on the record with the Blade about positive experiences he had on the Hill during PFLAG’s Lobby Day.
Among them was the meeting with Cornyn’s staff, where Fiedler recalled having a “better conversation” than some he has had “with people who are on our side,” adding the experience was a testament to how “respect and kindness and love are not party-specific.”
Chun, who was also in attendance, agreed. “Cornyn’s office was amazing,” she said.
Even though they expressed opposition to policies that would require the collection of data on anti-LGBTQ bullying, the senator’s staff listened closely to their remarks about “how important it is to protect kids, regardless of who and what they are and what they’re perceived to be,’ Fiedler said.
His highest praise, though, was reserved for “one of the most kind and compassionate people,” an aide in Van Duyne’s office who asked “very open follow-up questions about the bills that we referenced,” and then “follow up questions about our experiences.”
The congresswoman’s staffer “genuinely wanted to hear our stories” to learn about “what our backgrounds were, what our families were like,” Fiedler said. It was “one of the sweetest and kindest conversations I’ve ever had about my experiences” as a trans person, he said.
Lobbying comes at a pivotal moment on Capitol Hill
With an article in June, the American Psychological Association noted the “overwhelming” consensus of research showing that anti-LGBTQ bills and laws, “which target access to health care, sports participation and school policies, have resulted in heightened levels of anxiety, depression and suicide risk among the transgender community.”
LGBTQ advocates, particularly those who work with members of the community in crisis, say these bills cause dramatic spikes in self-harm behaviors and suicides regardless of whether they are signed into law or come from local, state, or federal legislators.
Recent months have seen a flurry of anti-LGBTQ policies proposed by Republicans serving in Congress.
House Republicans nearly caused funding for the federal government to lapse at the end of last month by insisting on extreme, partisan — and, in all 12 cases, anti-LGBTQ — amendments to the chamber’s must-pass appropriations bills which, with the GOP members’ “poison pills,” were doomed to languish in the U.S. Senate.
Then-House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) narrowly averted a shutdown by brokering a last-minute deal with the Democrats for a short-term continuing resolution that extended funding for the government through mid-November.
As a result, a group of Republican members led by U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) recalled him. Twenty-one days later, the conference has failed to unite behind a new member to lead their party, which means the chamber is now procedurally unable to clear the government spending bills.
Even if the House GOP majority elects a speaker before the Nov. 17 deadline, it remains unclear members will agree to remove partisan amendments from the appropriations packages which, historically, were passed with broad bipartisan margins.
House Republicans defend book bans in subcommittee hearing
Republicans defended book bans arguing parents must be able to exercise their right to determine which materials their children can access
WASHINGTON – During a hearing of the U.S. House Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education Subcommittee on Thursday, Chair Aaron Bean (R-Fla.) defended book bans that have disproportionately targeted works with LGBTQ characters and content.
The congressman raised objections to the Biden-Harris administration’s appointment last month of openly gay nonprofit leader and former Obama administration official Matt Nosanchuk to review the practice of pulling books from school libraries.
Responding to the remarks from Bean, who said the “book ban czar” would “potentially penalize” local school boards “for simply reviewing books,” a U.S. Department of Education spokesperson said in a statement to the Washington Blade:
“Across the country, communities are seeing a rise in efforts to ban books – efforts that are often designed to empty libraries and classrooms of literature about LGBTQI+ people, people of color, people of faith, key historical events and more.
“These efforts are a threat to student’s rights and freedoms. To address this issue, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) brought on Deputy Assistant Secretary Matt Nosanchuk, whose portfolio will include serving as the Department’s coordinator on responding to book bans, among other topics and responsibilities.
“OCR will continue its work to support the public and school communities in understanding the civil rights impact book restrictions can have, in violation of federal law, and take enforcement action when necessary.
“In the coming weeks, OCR will hold trainings for schools, libraries, teachers, and other education stakeholders to help them navigate their duty to provide equal access to education and a supportive learning environment for all. The Department of Education remains firm in its commitment to ensure all students are protected from all forms of discrimination.”
A witness called by the Democratic members of the subcommittee, Jonathan Friedman, director of free expression and education programs at PEN America, said on Thursday that the range of restrictions and bans happening across the country today is “wildly unprecedented.”
“We’ve been doing this work on and off for about 100 years,” he said, and there is now a “movement to encourage people to censor ideas” despite First Amendment jurisprudence on these matters, much of which comes from cases that were decided a half century ago.
U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.), the Democratic ranking member of the subcommittee, said that despite her Republican colleagues’ assurances months earlier that they were not interested in addressing book bans, “Now, today, the majority is holding a hearing specifically about what books should or should not be allowed in school libraries.”
“And I’ll note that this is the U.S. Congress, not a school board meeting,” she said.
Republicans have defended book bans by arguing parents must be able to exercise their right to determine which materials their children can access, but Bonamici said “parental rights” is a pretext used by MAGA politicians to enact censorship laws that are coordinated by a “well-funded, vocal minority of parents and conservative organizations pushing their own personal agenda on others.”
“We can all agree that books in school libraries should be age appropriate,” she said, “And we all used to agree that the federal government should not dictate school curricula or what books are in school libraries.”
The congresswoman’s opening remarks came after Bean addressed some titles, by name, that he found objectionable, including Maia Kobabe’s “Gender Queer: A Memoir” and “Lawn Boy,” a semi-autobiographical coming of age novel by Jonathan Evison.
According to the American Library Association, last year these books were respectively the first and seventh most banned and challenged, both for their inclusion of LGBTQ and sexually explicit content. The works, both critically acclaimed, are not intended for readers of all ages.
Objections raised by conservatives to these two books is not out of step with how proponents of book bans tend to focus on materials addressing matters of race, sexual orientation, and gender identity. Bonamici highlighted research by PEN America, which found that “41 percent of banned content focuses on LGBTQI+ themes, protagonists or characters,” while “40 percent focuses on characters of color.”
Meanwhile, “At least seven states have passed draconian laws in the past two years subjecting school librarians to years of imprisonment and fines for providing books deemed to be explicit, obscene, or harmful,” the congresswoman noted.
Book bans are unpopular. A 2022 poll by the ALA found seven in 10 Americans are opposed to the practice. Representatives from the organization, who were in attendance on Thursday, participated in another hearing on Wednesday addressing book bans, which was convened by Interfaith Alliance and included U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.).
In a statement to the Blade, ALA President Emily Drabinski responded to the exchanges between lawmakers and witnesses during Thursday’s hearing:
“ALA wholeheartedly agrees with today’s witnesses, who when asked by Rep. Suzanne Bonamici whether they believe diverse perspectives and materials are essential to any library, all responded with a resounding yes,” Drabinski said.
“Yet censorship persists at record levels. ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom documented 1,269 demands to censor library books and resources in 2022, and the majority of those books are about or authored by LGBTQ+ people and people of color. Preliminary data suggests that 2023 will be another record-breaking year.
“Providing youth access to a wide variety of reading material in which they can both see themselves and experience the lives of others benefits the individual readers and the community. It will take the whole community to protect the freedom to read. It’s time to come together to end book bans.”
On Friday, Drabinski will participate in a plenary session for PFLAG’s biennial National Convention entitled, “Let Freedom Read! Read With Love to Support Inclusive Books and Education.”
“At a time when a small, but vocal pro-censorship faction is irresponsibly using religion as a smokescreen to justify an assault on our constitutional rights, it is imperative that we are reminded that freedom of religion is adjacent to freedom of speech as part of the First Amendment for a reason,” former ALA Executive Director Tracie D. Hall said in panel discussion during Wednesday’s hearing.
“They are and remain innately connected because an assault on one indisputably compromises the other,” she said.
Characterization of restrictions as ‘book bans’ is disputed
Bean repeatedly raised objections to Democrats’ use of the term “book bans” to describe practices like school boards’ removal of certain books from school libraries, noting that these materials remain widely available at public libraries and through retailers like Amazon.
In his remarks before the subcommittee, U.S. Rep. Burgess Owens (R-Utah) held up a Bible as he argued that the most egregious book ban from the U.S. Supreme Court in 1963, with a decision banning Bible reading in schools.
On Wednesday, Raskin, an attorney who taught constitutional law for more than 25 years, noted how GOP members of Congress have repeatedly mischaracterized the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence on the matter for purposes of defending their efforts to ban books based on their personal feelings towards them.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s 1963 ruling in Abington School District v. Schempp holds that “no state law or school board may require that passages from the Bible be read or that the Lord’s Prayer be recited in the public schools of a state at the beginning of each school day — even if individual students may be excused from attending or participating in such exercises upon written request of their parents.”
The decision came a year after Engel v. Vitale, which found that it was unconstitutional, per the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, for state officials to create and encourage public schools to recite an official prayer.
Maryland Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin decries book bans
Raskin has some personal experience with book bans: ‘We need more politicians who are reading books and fewer politicians banning books’
WASHINGTON – U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) and the Interfaith Alliance convened a briefing on Capitol Hill Wednesday morning entitled, “Banned Beliefs: How People of Diverse Faiths are Fighting to Protect Our Public Schools and Libraries.”
The event comes as Republicans across the country are leading efforts to ban books and educational materials, disproportionately targeting those with LGBTQ characters or themes or addressing matters of race or religion.
On Thursday, the U.S. House Education and the Workforce Committee, under Chair Aaron Bean (R-Fla.), will hold a hearing on “Protecting Kids: Combating Graphic, Explicit Content in School Libraries.”
“We need more politicians who are reading books and fewer politicians banning books,” said Raskin, who reintroduced a resolution at the end of September with U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) that would recognize Banned Books Week and condemn “the escalating attacks on books and freedom of expression in the United States.”
“The censorship of books, censorship of curriculum, censorship of teachers, censorship of ideas and free speech and free discourse are always an exercise of power,” Raskin said.
The congressman relayed how, in July, when U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) displayed photographs on the House floor of Hunter Biden engaged in explicit sex acts, he said to her, “Marjorie, you know, if those pictures had been in a book, you would have banned the book, but you just showed them to everybody.”
Raskin has some personal experience with book bans, as he explained on Wednesday. “I did write a book for young people, students, which is about all the Supreme Court cases that affects kids in public high schools and middle schools — which is drug testing, censorship, segregation, desegregation, affirmative action,” he said. The book “was sponsored actually by the Supreme Court Historical Society, and it was banned last November in Texas.”
“I thank you for standing up for freedom of speech and its closely connected value, freedom of religious worship,” the congressman said.
Speaking with the Washington Blade after the briefing, Rev. Paul Brandeis Raushenbush, who serves as president and CEO of Interfaith Alliance, said “We encourage all religious communities to tell the story that actually banning books is bad for all of our faiths.”
“Interfaith Alliance is here to make sure that people understand” that while “a lot of times religion is used as a pretext for banning books, the majority of us who are in religious communities know that this is terrible for our faith,” he said.
Raushenbush said that “while while we encourage people to show up for litigation, we encourage people to show up to the school board” meetings where these issues are often adjudicated, “We also encourage religious leaders to talk about this and to share with their community why this is terrible for our faith.”
The reverend noted that the most-banned books are those grounded in the religious traditions of Judaism and Islam. “How telling, that anti semitism and Islamophobia are spiking right now,” he said, adding, “and this is even [prior to] the war in Gaza and Israel.”
House Republicans push to expel George Santos
After D’Esposito announced the plans, he told reporters the resolution is backed by the entirety of the state’s freshman GOP House delegation
WASHINGTON – U.S. Rep. Anthony D’Esposito (R-N.Y.) on Wednesday said he will introduce a resolution to expel from Congress his embattled gay GOP colleague from New York, U.S. Rep. George Santos.
After D’Esposito announced the plans on X, he told reporters the resolution is backed by the entirety of the state’s freshman Republican House delegation, U.S. Reps. Nick LaLota, Mike Lawler, Marc Molinaro, Nick Langworthy and Brandon Williams.
The congressman’s post cites the “ever-expanding legal case against” Santos, who on Tuesday was handed a 23-count superseding indictment by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York, which alleges a bevy of financial crimes.
I will be introducing legislation to expel George Santos from Congress. pic.twitter.com/ai4tJxzBZs— Rep. Anthony D’Esposito (@RepDesposito) October 11, 2023
In May, the New York Republicans voted with their GOP colleagues to refer allegations of malfeasance against Santos to the House Ethics Committee.
Last week, the Long Island-based ex-campaign treasurer for Santos, Nancy Marks, pled guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit offenses against the U.S., which included wire fraud, falsifying records, and identity theft.
On Wednesday night, Santos responded by proclaiming “I look very much forward to seeing the anti American attempt by WEAK RINO’s to oust me without giving me my right to Due process.”
I look very much forward to seeing the anti American attempt by WEAK RINO’s to oust me without giving me my right to Due process.— George Santos (@MrSantosNY) October 11, 2023
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