Expanding the LGBTQ Conversation

March 5 2015 2:50 PM

Florida’s Vicious Anti-Trans Bathroom Bill Easily Survives Its First Vote 

Florida’s stunningly malicious anti-trans bill passed its first major legislative hurdle on Wednesday, sailing out of the House Civil Rights Subcommittee with a 9-to-4 vote. (Yes, a subcommittee with that name actually approved this thing.) Republicans unanimously and enthusiastically supported the bill; Democrats unanimously and vigorously opposed it. When I first wrote about the proposed measure in February, a number of Floridians wrote me predicting it would quietly die in subcommittee without ever receiving a vote. After Wednesday’s vote, the bill’s passage into law suddenly seems like a distinct possibility.

How did we get to this point? The Florida measure isn’t just some garden variety anti-trans proposal; it is a gross denial of trans people’s basic humanity. Should it become law, trans people will be barred from using the public bathroom of their true gender—including those in schools and workplaces—and face up to a year in prison if they try. Arguably worse, an “owner of public accommodations, a school, or a place of employment” who allows a trans person to use the correct public bathroom is liable for a civil suit. In other words, the bill doesn’t just target trans people; it also targets their allies, forcing them to risk fines should they make a simple act of trans accommodation.


The bill’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Frank Artiles, claims he proposed it in response to Miami’s new nondiscrimination ordinance, which broadly protects trans rights. According to Artiles, the Miami ordinance lets men legally enter women’s restrooms and locker rooms in order to assault them. “All they have to say,” Artiles explained on Wednesday, “is, ‘I feel like a woman today.’”

There is some profound irony in this cruelly mocking comment. Although straight cisgender men do not actually use trans rights measures as an excuse to assault women, trans people do face a constant threat of discrimination, harassment, and violence. They experience these perils in large part because mendacious legislators like Artiles insist on perpetuating misconceptions and outright lies that encourage the view that trans people are aberrant molesters and freaks. Artiles’ bill will not actually protect any innocent women, but it will contribute to a toxic atmosphere that assures bigots that they are within their rights to attack and bully trans people. Florida House Republicans think Artiles’ bill protects civil rights. But it is overwhelmingly clear that this revolting measure does precisely the opposite.

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March 5 2015 1:56 PM

Wellesley’s Decision to Admit Transgender Women Is Smart and Just

Wellesley College will begin admitting transgender women, the school announced Thursday in a letter to alumnae. Starting with the Class of 2020, the college “will consider for admission any applicant who lives as a woman and consistently identifies as a woman,” Wellesley’s President H. Kim Bottomly and Board of Trustees Chairwoman Laura Daignault Gates wrote.

With this decision, Wellesley joins Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Mills, and Simmons College among women’s colleges that welcome applications from transgender female students

This is excellent news.

March 5 2015 12:13 PM

U.K. Authorities Routinely Humiliate LGBT Asylum Seekers

After years of trying to improve its approach to lesbian, gay, and bisexual asylum seekers, Britain’s Home Office has once again gotten it very wrong.

Aderonke Apata, a high-profile LGBT rights campaigner from Nigeria, applied for asylum in the United Kingdom and was refused. She could face the death penalty if she is deported.

As part of her evidence, she submitted a petition containing nearly 30,000 signatures from members of the British public in support of her claim. Explicit video footage and photographs of her with her girlfriend were also submitted.

Barrister Andrew Bird, representing Home Secretary Theresa May, dismissed this evidence, asserting that as she had previously had a heterosexual relationship and had children, Apata could not be a lesbian. He put it this way at the court hearing: “You can’t be heterosexual one day and a lesbian the next day, just as you can’t change your race.”

March 5 2015 9:53 AM

What Syriza’s Victory Means for LGBTQ Rights in Greece

Ever since Syriza was swept to power on a wave of anti-establishment feeling in January, interest has, understandably, focused on what the party’s victory means for Greece’s external politics. Just as radical, however, is what Syriza can do to change the country’s internal dynamics, including for Greece’s LGBTQ minority, whose character has changed tremendously since 2008, though it is still a marginalized group within the general society.

The European debt crisis undermined the role of political parties and traditional institutions in Greece. One reaction to this loss of trust has been the emergence of a new civil society, with volunteerism, bartering for goods and services, and neighborhood community organizing filling the gaps left by the government’s retraction. Another emerging trend is one of civil activism, which is where the LBGTQ community comes in.

March 4 2015 5:54 PM

Beyond the Visible Spectrum, Love Looks the Same

The subgenre of gay-affirming ads and PSAs has grown rapidly in recent years, with entries from companies like Honey Maid taking the Internet by storm. But with this video from the Ad Council, called “Love Has No Labels,” we may have reached a high point, at least in terms of cleverness. In the spot, a giant X-ray screen shows various couples at the skeletal level, dancing and kissing, as curious crowds gather out front. Then, the couples walk around the sides of the screen to reveal themselves—some are queer, some straight, some of different races, some differently abled, etc. It’s a small point—if we can get past our surface prejudices, love looks the same—but one smartly made.

March 4 2015 12:38 PM

Oregon Leads the Way With Nation’s First Openly Bisexual Governor

The Conversation

This article originally appeared in The Conversation.

“It would have been so much easier for us if you were a lesbian” Kate Brown’s parents declared when she came out as bisexual.


Brown, Oregon’s new governor  and the nation’s first openly bisexual governor, recalled feeling like she had “a foot in both worlds” upon realizing she was bisexual.

At the time of her public (and involuntary) “outing” by the Oregonian during one of her many close campaigns for public office, bisexuals were (and still are) perceived as “greedy, promiscuous or indecisive” and shunned by both heterosexuals and gays alike. Brown herself was told by gay friends that she was only “half queer.”

Brown, however, immediately embraced her public identity and is now widely viewed by LGBTQ Oregonians as one of their fiercest public allies.

And although Brown’s colleagues and friends tend to diminish the relevance of her bisexuality, viewing her substantive policy work as a far more important political legacy, pundits disagree.

For them her bisexuality—and her position as the first openly LGBTQ governor to serve office—quickly became national news.

So how do we understand the importance of Brown becoming the first openly LGBTQ governor? And what does her story say about Oregon?

In many ways Oregon’s gay rights record is puzzling.

On the one hand Portland, the state’s largest city, is regarded as one of the most LGBTQ-friendly cities in the country. At the same time, though, the state has rehearsed some of the most virulent anti-gay rights campaigns in the country.

Indeed, in the 1980s and '90s, Oregon was a testing ground for a growing anti-gay movement. This was in part because conservative groups could have direct access to voters through the state’s heavily used ballot initiative process and in part because of deep ideological differences between the state’s rural and urban residents. Conservative activists hoping to ignite anti-gay fervor viewed Oregon as a perfect location to experiment with a range of anti-gay initiatives.

The first effort, inspired by Anita Bryant’s infamous and vitriolic campaign to “save our children” from gay and lesbian “recruitment,” involved taking on the state’s governor—an ally to LGBTQ Oregonians.

Then Gov. Neil Goldschmidt had issued an executive order in 1987 protecting public employees from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The Oregon Citizen’s Alliance, a group hoping to make a name for itself as a conservative political powerhouse, swiftly put this executive order to voters in a ballot initiative. And the voters overturned it by a 5 percent margin.

Riding on its electoral high the OCA then set its sights on loftier goals. In 1992, they asked the voters to amend the state constitution to place homosexuality on equal footing with pedophilia as “unnatural and perverse.”

The effort failed, but the OCA continued to focus its efforts (and voter attention) on lesbians and gays throughout the 1990s.

In 1994, Measure 13 asked voters to constitutionally proscribe the state from “creating classifications” based on sexual orientation.

In 2000, Measure 9 offered voters the chance to abolish any mention of homosexuality in public schools.

Both measures failed at the ballot box but the OCA succeeded in diverting critical LGBTQ advocacy resources away from furthering gay rights initiatives. And OCA’s grassroots campaigning across the state resulted in over two dozen cities and counties voting to bar LGBTQ Oregonians from seeking non-discrimination protections.

The rollercoaster ride of gay rights initiatives that characterizes Oregon politics in the last three decades is largely due to a public and contentious battle between conservative voters and progressive elected officials (representing largely urban interests).

It was a pro-gay rights governor who kickstarted the OCA’s anti-gay efforts. In 1992, a state appellate court overturned Measure 8, and one year later state legislators made it illegal to “single out citizens or groups of citizens on account of sexual orientation,” rendering moot the city and county-based anti-gay ordinances.

In 2004, Oregonians voted to ban same-sex marriage in the state. Soon after state legislators passed sweeping domestic partner legislation (sponsored by Brown), giving LGBTQ Oregonians the same statewide rights and benefits as heterosexual married couples.

When members of the LGBTQ community went to court to overturn the state’s marriage ban in 2014, state officials declined to defend the law in court—hastening its removal.

As these battles between deeply homophobic organizations and fiercely progressive gay rights efforts were taking place, Oregon emerged as a pioneer state for LGBTQ elected officials.

The state is home to the nation’s first openly gay mayor of a top-30 city (Sam Adams, Portland); the first openly transgender mayor (Stu Rasmussen, Silverton); and the first openly LGBTQ Speaker (Tina Kotek).

In fact, her historic ascendancy as the first openly LGBTQ governor to serve is not Kate Brown’s first “first.” In 2008, she became the first openly LGBTQ person to win a statewide election for secretary of state.

Against this backdrop, then, Brown’s promotion to governor seems to be par for the course in Oregon’s colorful history on gay rights.

That leaves us to ponder the implications of this historic occasion.

The Conversation

How will Brown fare at the polls come 2016, when she sits for special election? Will LGBTQ Oregonians secure additional policy protections as a result of the Brown-Kotek legislative powerhouse? To what degree will this partnership position Oregon as a national leader in gay rights? This has yet to be played out.

In the meantime, tensions are still percolating within the state’s more conservative communities. It was, remember, Oregon that made national headlines when a bakery refused to make a cake for a gay couple’s wedding.

What is clear, however, is that Brown’s appointment, in concert with both her open and proud identification as bisexual and the many recent political gains for LGBTQ individuals nationwide, solidifies a new era of possibilities for those who identify and support LGBTQ efforts.

That Brown’s sexuality is even described as historic, rather than abhorrent (as it likely would have been a handful of decades ago), speaks volumes about the shift American public opinion has made.

March 4 2015 12:28 PM

Why The Fosters’ Opening Credits Are the Best on Television

This weekend I consumed the 13 new episodes of House of Cards like a person eating popcorn at the movies: I swallowed it so greedily that after a couple of episodes, watching had become mere habit. The only time the spell was broken was every 55 minutes or so when the opening credits played: The music is stirring, and the capital’s monumental architecture impressive, but the empty streets and the images of speeding cars going nowhere in particular didn’t seem well-suited to the themes of the show.

But at least House of Cards has a theme tune—and one that lasts a marathon minute and a half. On the broadcast channels, where ads are eating into shows’ running time like flesh-eating bacteria, credit sequences are disappearing altogether. Shows like ScandalHow to Get Away With Murder, and Empire dispense with them in a matter of seconds.

But there’s one opening sequence that I never ignore: ABC Family’s The Fosters, a show about a lesbian couple and their five teenagers, is the best on television. In fact, on more than one occasion I’ve rewound the credits and rewatched a couple of times to mentally prepare myself for a new episode. The sequence isn’t glamorous or star-studded, quite the opposite, in fact: Over the course of 38 seconds, 22 images flash by—a copper frying pan, a calendar crowded with appointments, a boy’s arm spilling over the edge of his bed. Some have to do with food and nourishment—breakfast cereal and syrup being poured over cornflakes, a cup of coffee on the kitchen table—others suggest direct connections with the characters, like Stef unloading the contents of her pockets onto the dresser, Brandon’s music, or Mariana’s nail polish.

March 4 2015 8:57 AM

Alabama Supreme Court Throws Tantrum, Defies Federal Judge, Halts Gay Marriages

On Tuesday night, the Alabama Supreme Court had a humiliating and highly public meltdown. In a 148-page opinion, the justices held that Alabama’s gay marriage ban remained valid—purporting to overrule a federal judge who recently struck down the ban and ordered probate judges throughout the state to issue marriage licenses to gay couples. Only one justice dissented, while another concurred; the other seven joined a bizarre, prolix, occasionally unintelligible opinion that challenges fundamental notions of federal supremacy, constitutional order, and equal protection of the law. It is a gruesome, mangled masterpiece of rambling illogic and venomous vitriol. It is the judicial version of a nervous breakdown, and it deserves to be read in full.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Tuesday’s opinion is that, on its face and by its own terms, it simply does not make sense. Certain portions of the opinion blatantly contradict others, while several sections draw conclusions that are contradicted soon after. (This jumble may be due to the fact that the opinion was issued “per curiam,” meaning it has no single author and was presumably co-written by the seven justices who joined it in full.) Early on, the justices’ main argument seems to be that marriage equality finds no protection in the U.S. Constitution—and that it is unnatural and aberrant:

The family is the fundamental unit of society. Marriage is the foundation of the family. There is no institution in a civilized society in which the public has any greater interest. According to one observer, marriage is a “prepolitical” “natural institution” “not created by law,” but nonetheless recognized and regulated by law in every culture.

That “observer,” by the way, is Robert P. George, whose infamously kinky theory of marriage is, at bottom, fixated on the mythical powers of penile-vaginal intercourse. And, borrowing George’s tactic of disparaging all same-sex marriages as illegitimate, the justices repeatedly put scare quotes around “marriage” and “marriage license” when applying the words to gay couples. This court is not one for subtlety.

Predictably, the justices then pay lip service to the need for the judiciary to duck out and let states define marriage democratically. But, with no apparent self-awareness, these seven elected judges abruptly wade in and settle the issue themselves:

The meaning and significance of marriage as an institution, as prescribed or recognized throughout all of these statutes and all of Alabama’s decisional laws, reflects the truths described above: that marriage, as a union between one man and one woman, is the fundamental unit of society.

These “truths,” the court explains, are derived almost entirely from religion—which, it suggests, is a more reliable foundation for law than any secular institution. (Like, say, the Supreme Court.) And the justices certainly won’t let a mere federal judge stand in the way of marriage “truths”:

[State] courts may interpret the United States Constitution independently from, and even contrary to, federal courts.
After careful consideration of the reasoning employed by the federal district court … we find that the provisions of Alabama law contemplating the issuance of marriage licenses only to opposite-sex couples do not violate the United States Constitution and that the Constitution does not alter or override the ministerial duties of the respondents under Alabama law.

Ah, yes! How could we forget the longstanding rule that the Constitution’s supremacy clause doesn’t apply when the Alabama Supreme Court says it doesn’t?

To be fair, the justices may have a mote of a point here. There is some debate about whether federal district judges can overrule state supreme courts on questions of constitutional law—if the Supreme Court has not yet resolved the matter. Under a very generous reading of this section, the justices might be claiming that because the Supreme Court has not issued a final word on marriage equality, the state supreme court should have the power to reject a lower court ruling striking down the state’s marriage ban.

But then, in their next breath, the justices go and ruin that entire argument by flagrantly contradicting it. A few pages earlier, the justices argued that the Supreme Court’s ruling in United States v. Windsor did not resolve the constitutional validity of state-level marriage bans. Now they argue that it … did (emphases mine):

Supreme Court precedent provides [a] course to justify the conclusion reached by the federal district court: The notion that marriage confers a certain dignity on its participants that the law cannot deprive individuals of simply because they desire to marry a person of the same sex. This line of reasoning comes from Windsor.
Windsor’s “equal dignity” rationale … appears to be a legal proxy for invalidating laws federal judges do not like, even though no actual constitutional infirmity exists. Since the notion is not textual, it is at least incumbent upon federal courts employing it to strike down state-marriage laws to describe in concrete terms what “dignity” state-sanctioned marriage confers and therefore exactly what same-sex couples are deprived of by traditional marriage laws.

Got that? Windsor definitely gives district judges legal authority to invalidate laws that, they believe, deprive gay people of “equal dignity.” And that is precisely what a federal judge did in Alabama. So why does the Alabama Supreme Court still get to overrule her? Because—and this is really the heart of the opinion—Windsor was wrongly decided. Why? Because marriage equality goes against religion, and legislatures should be permitted to cite religious principles when defending their own bans:

By asserting that denying same-sex couples the status of marriage deprives them of “a dignity and status of immense import,” the Windsor Court made a moral judgment that a married couple has more dignity than an unmarried couple. … [This] is not, strictly speaking, a legal judgment … It seems at least disingenuous to find a constitutional infirmity with traditional marriage laws by way of a moral judgment when states have been forced to defend those laws apart from any moral or religious basis, an especially difficult task given that American ideas of marriage indisputably have been shaped by the Jewish and Christian religions. Moreover, because the Windsor Court's moral judgment is (one must assume) not based on religion, then it must be asked what standard is being used to judge that marriage is better than non-marriage, that it contains some kind of higher dignity than other relationships? Because the notion is not contained in the Constitution, one may question whether it is nothing more than intuitions. At any rate, it is not a legal basis for striking down a validly enacted law.

And there it is. The pretext drops, the fangs come out: The Alabama Supreme Court has the power to restore its state’s marriage ban not because Windsor doesn’t apply, but because Windsor was wrong. Make no mistake: With Tuesday’s opinion, the Alabama justices did not just overrule a federal district judge; they attempted to openly defy the Supreme Court. This is no longer a case about just marriage equality; it is a case about the power to say what the law is. The Alabama Supreme Court wants to claim that power for itself. And it’s daring the U.S. Supreme Court to call its bluff. 

March 3 2015 2:17 PM

Nebraska to Lesbian: We Don’t Care if You Die Before You Can Get Married

On Monday a federal judge struck down Nebraska’s same-sex marriage ban as a violation of the United States Constitution’s equal protection clause, ordering the state to begin recognizing gay marriages on March 9. A day later Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson petitioned the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals to put the judge’s ruling on hold. According to Peterson, the plaintiffs suing for the right to marry have no pressing need to obtain marriage licenses—despite the fact that one plaintiff, Sally Waters, is currently dying from stage 4 metastatic breast cancer. The district judge held that Waters should be permitted to marry her partner before she dies. Here’s Peterson’s response to that ruling:

[T]he district court’s conclusion that there is a “real possibility” that Ms. Waters will not live to see the issue resolved is simply a “possibility” which was not supported by any medical evidence. Moreover, the district court’s conclusion is inconsistent with the ample provisions in Nebraska law which would provide that, in the event Sally dies during the pendency of this litigation but Appellees ultimately prevail, an amended death certificate would be available which would address this concern.

Much of the conservative opposition to marriage equality has, of course, always been motivated by a startling lack of empathy, compassion, and human decency. Peterson’s brief, however, takes this callousness to a stunning new level.

March 2 2015 5:39 PM

Russell Tovey Flexes His Way Into Femmephobia

It’s generally a good idea to refrain from making diagnoses without personally examining the patient, but in Russell Tovey’s case, I think we can safely say it: The guy is suffering from a particularly tragic case of femmephobia. For the unfamiliar, Tovey is a British actor most famous on this side of the Atlantic for his work in Looking, HBO’s controversial “gay show,” in which he plays the tech boss and illicit lover (Tovey’s character, Kevin, is in a not-open relationship) of Jonathan Groff’s Patrick. His extensive work in British projects means he’s a bigger deal in his homeland, a fact that earned him a feature interview in the Observer on Sunday—an interview in which he readily revealed the symptoms of his affliction.

After a stimulating meditation on the actor’s newly fleshed-out physique, reporter Tom Lamont gets Tovey talking about his journey as a gay man, especially as it developed after a homophobic attack (triggered, Tovey reasons, by his wearing a cardigan) 10 years ago, which left him with a scar. Tovey’s story is harrowing, and the trauma he experienced must be taken seriously. That said, his processing of that trauma through damaging femmephobic rhetoric—the kind that values traditionally masculine-performing gay men above their more effeminate brothers—is a problem.