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FDA grants approval of over-the-counter birth control pill

Birth control pills will be available without a prescription for the 1st time after the FDA granted approval of daily contraceptive Opill

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Photo of Opill courtesy of Perrigo pharmaceutical

WASHINGTON — The Food and Drug Administration approved the first-ever non-prescription birth control pill Thursday, a contraceptive called Opill whose manufacturer says “can be taken by most women and people who can get pregnant.” 

The FDA announced the approval with a statement that noted this progestin-only oral contraceptive pill, known as norgestrel, provides an option for consumers to purchase oral contraceptive medicine without a prescription at drug stores, convenience stores and grocery stores, as well as online. 

“Today’s approval marks the first time a nonprescription daily oral contraceptive will be an available option for millions of people in the United States,” said Patrizia Cavazzoni, M.D., director of the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, in a statement. “When used as directed, daily oral contraception is safe and is expected to be more effective than currently available nonprescription contraceptive methods in preventing unintended pregnancy.”

When used as directed, Cavazzoni said, daily oral contraception such as Opill “is safe and is expected to be more effective than currently available nonprescription contraceptive methods in preventing unintended pregnancy.”

Norgestrel is made with “a synthetic version of the hormone progesterone to prevent pregnancy,” NPR reported, noting that most birth control pills also contain estrogen.

Perrigo, which is headquartered in Dublin, Ireland, also makes Omeprazole, Ibuprofen and allergy relief medication. It recently acquired the medication from Laboratoire HRA Pharma. 

The big question is when will the pills — which will be sold in boxes containing a 28-day supply — be available to purchase? The FDA says that’s up to Perrigo. The company says the pills will be available in stores and online early next year, in the first quarter of 2024. The price also hasn’t been announced. 

That was a concern expressed by U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) in his tweet Thursday: 

The nation’s top Democrat in Congress also hailed the announcement, with Majority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer tweeting, “reproductive care is health care.”

But what will congressional Republicans, state lawmakers and governors say, and do? 

As Barbara Rodriguez reported in The 19th in April, a growing rift is emerging in the GOP between those opposed to both birth control and abortion, and those who support access to birth control and Plan B pills, which are emergency contraceptives that are different from daily contraceptive medication. 

Trying to protect reproductive rights in Iowa is the statewide reproductive health group Family Planning Council of Iowa, which for the last six months has been giving away free health kits at events and clinics containing two emergency contraception pills, condoms, lubrication and educational pamphlets.

They’re also now mailing them out in discrete packages to those who request them in an effort to legally increase access to emergency contraceptives, interim executive director Allison Smith told Axios. 

The American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, Planned Parenthood of the Heartland and the Emma Goldman Clinic filed a lawsuit against the state Wednesday to block an anti-abortion bill passed Tuesday by the Republican-controlled Iowa Legislature. It bans most abortions around six weeks of gestation, with exceptions for the life of the pregnant person or for rape and incest, provided they are reported to law enforcement within a specific time span.

The groups also asked a judge to temporarily block the law while the courts decide if it violates the Constitution.

Gov. Kim Reynolds is expected to sign that bill Friday at an anti-abortion summit featuring presidential hopefuls including Republican candidate Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.), who has similarly signed a six-week abortion ban into law. 


Click here for more information about Opill. Planned Parenthood also has guidance for anyone who has questions about birth control, available by clicking here.

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Federal Government

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Understanding intimate partner violence within the LGBTQ community

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sharp increase in anti-LGBTQ hate crimes, FBI finds

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

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FBI Director Christopher Wray (Screen capture/NBC News)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Harms of waiving anti-discrimination rules for religious universities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Baylor University’s unprecedented Title IX exemption

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other religious schools are likely to follow Baylor’s lead

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

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

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

193 colleges and universities have met the criteria.

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

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

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

The powerful influence and role of financial incentives  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New PEPFAR strategy includes ‘targeted programming’ for marginalized groups

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Biden in 2021 signed a memo that committed the U.S. to promoting LGBTQ+ and intersex rights abroad as part of his administration’s overall foreign policy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Census Bureau asks to test questions on LGBTQ+ issues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Older Americans Act updates targets LGBTQ seniors living with HIV

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

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SAGE/Los Angeles Blade photo & graphic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Federal Government

Bill would abolish USAID because it promotes global LGBTQ+, intersex rights

U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) introduced measure on Aug. 1

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U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Samantha Power speaks at a House Appropriations Committee hearing on April 18, 2023. U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) has introduced a bill that would abolish USAID because it promotes LGBTQ+ and intersex rights around the world. (Screen capture via House Appropriations Committee YouTube)

WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) has introduced a bill that would abolish the U.S. Agency for International Development because it promotes LGBTQ+ and intersex rights around the world.

The bill, among other things, notes USAID “operates several ‘capacity building’ programs abroad and uses these programs to spread perverse ideology that is antithetical to (a) functioning, well-ordered society” and “aims to identify and address ‘restrictive gender norms and inequalities … to foster the sustainability of results.”

U.S. Reps. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), Anna Paulina Luna (R-Fla.) and Eli Crane (R-Ariz.) have co-sponsored the bill that Gaetz introduced on Aug. 1. It has been referred to the House Foreign Affairs and Appropriations Committees.

President Joe Biden in February 2021 signed a memo that committed the U.S. to promoting LGBTQ+ and intersex rights abroad as part of his administration’s overall foreign policy. USAID earlier this month released its first-ever policy for LGBTQ+ and intersex-inclusive development that has the following four pillars.

         • Supporting locally-led programmatic approaches that advance USAID’s commitment to localization

         • Using USAID’s global development diplomacy to drive progress on LGBTQI+ inclusive development both within and beyond the agency’s programming

         • Prioritizing evidence-based LGBTQI+ programming and approaches and strengthening responses through data

         • Improving USAID’s response to crises that impact LGBTQI+ persons and communities

U.S. Reps. Dina Titus (D-Nev.) and Robert Garcia (D-Calif.) are among the lawmakers who have introduced bills in this Congress that would require the U.S. to promote LGBTQ+ and intersex rights abroad. Embattled U.S. Rep. George Santos (R-N.Y.) — an openly gay Republican who federal prosecutors in May indicted on 13 counts of wire fraud, money laundering, theft of public funds and making false statements to the U.S. House of Representatives — has put forth a measure that would ban the U.S. from providing aid to countries with laws that criminalize LGBTQ+ people and women.

“For more than six decades, USAID and Congress have worked closely together to create a more stable, prosperous world,” a USAID spokesperson told the Washington Blade on Tuesday in a statement. “We value the strong bipartisan support for USAID’s work, which has helped accelerate tremendous progress in reducing extreme poverty around the world, fighting disease, addressing hunger, helping millions of children access quality education and supporting emerging democracies.” 

“The United States is committed to supporting human rights, social inclusion and fundamental freedoms, including for members of historically marginalized populations,” added the spokesperson. “As part of this commitment, USAID works with our partners on the ground to advance LGBTQI+-inclusive development and the rights of LGBTQI+ people. Through our work and partnerships over many decades and in countries around the world, we know that advancing respect for human rights and individual dignity makes societies stronger, healthier, more prosperous and more capable of peacefully resolving differences.” 

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Civil rights probe targets Vanderbilt as trans patients sue hospital

VU Medical Center is cooperating with an investigation by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service’s Office of Civil Rights

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Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo Credit: Vanderbilt University Medical Center/Facebook)

NASHVILLE — Vanderbilt University Medical Center is cooperating with an investigation by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service’s Office of Civil Rights, a spokesperson for the hospital confirmed on Thursday.

News of the probe comes just weeks after transgender patients sued VUMC for failing to redact personally identifying information from their health records when they were shared with the office of Tennessee Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti late last year.

When the hospital disclosed its compliance with the records request, which according to the AG’s office was made in connection with its investigation into the hospital’s billing practices, transgender patients and their families raised alarm over how their information might be used.

The patients’ complaint argues these concerns are amplified following the passage of bans on gender affirming health care for minors, along with other efforts by the state’s Republican officials to restrict the rights of trans Tennesseans.

“Our clients are encouraged that the federal government is looking into what happened here,” an attorney for the plaintiffs told The Tennesseean.

A spokesperson for HHS did not immediately respond to a request for comment about whether its civil rights investigation is linked to Vanderbilt’s disclosure of health records to Skrmetti’s office.

In July, Skrmetti joined a group of 18 conservative attorneys general who are resisting a federal rule that would establish parameters limiting the collection of records of patients who have sought abortions or gender affirming care out-of-state because of restrictions on these services in the places where they live.

The move renewed skepticism over the AG office’s claim that its demand for Vanderbilt to turn over health records for hundreds of patients was made in connection with a “run of the mill” probe into potential billing fraud.

The VUMC spokesperson declined to share details beyond affirming the hospital’s compliance with HHS’s investigation. A spokesperson for the AG’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

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U.S. Dept. of Education reaffirms Baylor’s religious exemption

The university had asked DOE to dismiss sexual harassment complaints by LGBTQ+ students, arguing claims infringed school’s religious tenets

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The Old Main building at Baylor University in Waco on Dec. 23, 2020. (Photo Credit: Jordan Vonderhaar for The Texas Tribune)

By William Melhado | WASHINGTON – The U.S Department of Education exempted Baylor University from sexual harassment claims regulated under Title IX last month after the Christian university asked the agency to dismiss discrimination complaints made by students, arguing that the claims were inconsistent with the university’s religious tenets.

After LGBTQ+ students filed several Title IX discrimination complaints against the Waco-based university — in one case for failing to address homophobic harassment by a former student’s peers — Baylor wrote to the agency’s Office for Civil Rights, arguing that the federal government previously recognized that the university is exempt from certain aspects of civil rights laws.

Lori Fogleman, the university’s assistant vice president of media and public relations, lamented that Baylor’s religious exemption was being mischaracterized as a “broad-based exception to sexual harassment.”

Instead, she said in a statement that “Baylor is responding to current considerations by the U.S. Department of Education to move to an expanded definition of sexual harassment, which could infringe on Baylor’s rights under the U.S. Constitution, as well as Title IX, to conduct its affairs in a manner consistent with its religious beliefs.”

Title IX, the federal civil rights law that protects against sex-based discrimination in educational programs and activities, has expanded in recent years. In 2021, President Joe Biden said those protections should also include LGBTQ+ students.

The expansion has exposed rifts between faith-based or conservative-led public schools and universities and LGBTQ+ people seeking protection.

In May, Baylor President Linda Livingstone sent a letter to the federal education agency requesting that its civil rights office dismiss several complaints made by LGBTQ+ students, citing the university’s stance against same-sex relationships and sexual conduct.

Livingstone wrote that because Baylor believes marriage is between a man and a woman and “affirms the biblical understanding of sexuality as a gift from God,” the university should be exempt from Title IX requirements that contradict those Baptist doctrines.

The agency responded in July with a list of Title IX provisions that Baylor was exempt from on the grounds “that they are inconsistent with the University’s religious tenets.” Included in that list were regulations prohibiting sexual harassment.

Baylor’s request for a religious exemption to Title IX can be traced to several discrimination complaints LGBTQ+ students filed as long as two years ago.

While she was a student at Baylor, Veronica Bonifacio Penales found sticky notes with homophobic slurs on her dorm room door. She said she received similar comments from peers on social media. Claiming Baylor did nothing to address the harassment, Penales filed a discrimination complaint against the university in March 2021.

Penales also claimed the university’s policies on gay and lesbian relationships forced her to hide her sexual orientation as a queer woman, despite Baylor saying it values diversity and inclusion.

She took issue with the school’s civil rights policy, which states that as a religiously controlled university, Baylor is exempt from complying with certain aspects of civil rights laws.

“This statement tells me that Baylor cares more about its right to discriminate against queer and other students than it does about the health and safety of its queer and other students,” Penales wrote in her declaration for the discrimination complaint.

More than two years after Penales filed her complaint, Baylor received notice from the federal agency that its religious exemption to Title IX includes sexual harassment prohibitions.

The education department’s letter doesn’t mean Penales’ complaint is immediately closed, but that’s a likely outcome, said Paul Carlos Southwick, director of the Religious Exemption Accountability Project, an advocacy group that filed a complaint on behalf of Penales. The civil rights office still needs to determine if Penales’ Title IX complaint should be dismissed, Southwick said.

Southwick said in the history of Title IX, no other university has requested such an exemption.

“It doesn’t appear to meet a wholesale exemption from sexual harassment regulations, but the language is really vague in general,” Southwick said.

Elizabeth Reiner Platt, the director of the Law, Rights, and Religion Project at Columbia Law School, said in a statement to The Texas Tribune that this exemption was disappointing coming from a governmental agency tasked with protecting civil rights.

“This decision is the latest example of religious exemptions being expanded in ways that undermine equality rights and, ultimately, harm religious communities,” she said.

Baylor has a rocky history with Title IX compliance. In 2016, the education department investigated the university over allegations that it failed to address numerous sexual violence claims, many of which were made against football players.

Both head football coach Art Briles and university President Ken Starr were ousted after a damning report found that administrators failed to notify authorities of allegations against football players, even after speaking with victims.

Disclosure: Baylor University has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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The preceding article was previously published by The Texas Tribune and is republished by permission.

Editor’s note: More than 200 speakers are now confirmed for the 2023 Texas Tribune Festival in downtown Austin from Sept. 21-23. Each year, the Festival engages, challenges and surprises attendees with unexpected talent mashups, must-see interviews and more, curated by the award-winning journalists at The Texas Tribune. See the lineup and get tickets today.

The full program is now LIVE for the 2023 Texas Tribune Festival, happening Sept. 21-23 in Austin. Explore the program featuring more than 100 unforgettable conversations coming to TribFest. Panel topics include the biggest 2024 races and what’s ahead, how big cities in Texas and around the country are changing, the integrity of upcoming elections and so much more. See the full program.

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues. Disclosure: The ACLU of Texas has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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