This Proposed Michigan Law Would Force Trans People in Prison to Pay For Their Own Medical Care

In the last few years, incarcerated trans people have gained significantly more access to gender-affirming medical care. In January 2017, a California woman named Shiloh Quine made history by becoming the first trans person to receive gender confirmation surgery (GCS) in a U.S. prison. Since then, courts in Oregon, Missouri, and Idaho have struck down policies that prevented trans people from accessing hormones or GCS while on the inside.

But not everyone is happy with the development. In November, Michigan state legislator Beau LaFave introduced a bill that would force incarcerated people to pay for the full cost of any transition-related surgery. The proposed legislation, HB 6524, also called for prisoners to pay for any medical care related to acts of self-harm.

HB 6524 wasn’t even passed into committee during the 2018 legislative session and it stands little chance of becoming law in 2019. But the introduction of the bill is still important, because it indicates the continuing reluctance of some Republican legislators to accept that the legal landscape is changing – that in the eyes of the medical establishment, and increasingly in the eyes of the courts, GCS is not elective and therefore must be treated as a medically necessary procedure akin to any other.

Shawn Meerkamper is a staff attorney with the Transgender Law Center, the largest trans-led civil liberties organization in the country. HB 6524 is “pretty clearly an attempt to find a loophole” to the growing legal consensus that blanket-bans on GCS are unconstitutional, Meerkamper told INTO. “This level of really singling out and targeting transgender people, and the kinds of medical care they need, I don’t think would hold up in light of day.”

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The road to HB 6524 began in 2016, when a transgender woman named Jami Naturalite wrote to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) to say she was being denied hormone therapy by the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC). The SPLC had just finished litigating a similar case in Georgia, securing a settlement that ensured trans people locked up in the state could access hormones even if they hadn’t been prescribed them before entering prison. The Georgia settlement marked an important shift in policy on the state and national level. In a statement of interest filed in the case, the Department of Justice reminded state officials that “prison officials have the obligation to assess and treat gender dysphoria just as they would any other medical or mental health condition.”

After Naturalite reached out to the SPLC, the organization contacted Michigan prison officials to explain why blanket prohibitions on transition-related care were unconstitutional. Their entreaties were successful. In June 2017, the MDOC released a new policy for the care of transgender prisoners, which facilitated access to hormone treatment and allowed for the provision of GCS on a case-by-case basis.

Naturalite was thrilled with the news, but Republican Representative Beau LaFave, who represents a district on the northern shore of Lake Michigan, was not. With the release of the new transgender care policy, LaFave grew concerned that transition-related care, like all other medical care provided to prisoners, would be paid for by state residents. “When I found out that taxpayers could be on the hook for [GCS] procedures I had the bill drafted and introduced,” he told INTO in an email.

Michigan Rep. Beau LaFave (R-Iron Mountain). Photo via www.beaulafave.com.
Michigan Rep. Beau LaFave (R-Iron Mountain). Photo via www.beaulafave.com.

“I have nothing but respect for all individuals regardless of their particular life choices or personal feelings,” Representative LaFave added. “That being said, I do not believe the taxpayers of the State of Michigan should pay for felons to get free gender reassignment surgery while in prison. Law abiding citizens do not get free gender reassignment surgeries. Why should felons at the taxpayers’ expense?”

Asked to respond to LaFave’s comment, Meerkamper explained that there’s now a broad consensus among medical professionals that GCS constitutes a medically necessary treatment for some transgender people. “You cannot ‘respect’ someone while writing legislation to deny them live-saving health care,” said Meerkamper.

Jay Kaplan, the staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan’s LGBT Project, stressed the constitutional concerns raised by LaFave’s bill. “Singling out a group of people to say, you’re not entitled to health care to the same extent as other inmates might be entitled to medically necessary healthcare, raises equal protection concerns,” he said. As drafted, HB 6524 would arguably also violate protections against cruel and unusual punishment, said Kaplan, since it would amount to a denial of life-saving medical care to prisoners who cannot afford to pay for surgery out of pocket.

It’s unlikely that HB 6524 will ever become law. There appeared to be little support for the legislation in last year’s legislative session, and when asked by INTO, LaFave said he had no plans to introduce the bill again. Even if it somehow did pass through both legislative chambers, HB 6524 would likely to vetoed by the newly sworn-in Democratic Governor, Gretchen Whitmer, according to advocates. LaFave first won his seat in 2016 at the age of 24 and was re-elected last year. According to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, one of LaFave’s top donors is the DeVos family, who have previously come under criticism for making contributions to anti-LGBT groups.

While it might not pose an immediate threat to the well-being of Michigan’s trans prisoners, HB 6524 does reflect how some Republicans in the socially conservative state think about trans rights.

“This is such a flawed [bill], and obviously it’s an attack on trans people,” said the ACLU’s Kaplan. “What it’s saying is you’re not entitled to healthcare the way everybody else is.”  

Michigan has lagged behind many other states when it comes to protecting transgender residents. The ACLU of MI had to sue the state to make it easier for transgender people to change their gender marker. Many residents still struggle to access transition-related care under Medicaid, said Kaplan. In Michigan and 18 other states across the country, there are no statutes in place that specifically protect people who are discriminated against on the basis of their gender identity.

“[We] have a long way to go in making things more supportive and better for trans people in the state,” said Kaplan.

For now, the question may be how to ensure that the MDOC lives up to the policy it put in place in 2017. Kaplan said he was not aware of any prisoner in Michigan who has received GCS – which may indicate that while the transgender care policy looks good on paper, it isn’t actually enabling trans prisoners to receive comprehensive care.

Before Shiloh Quine received her surgery, when she thought the California state prison administration would never approve the procedure, she tried to kill herself. For her and many other trans prisoners across the country, GCS can be lifesaving. “Whenever the state incarcerates someone, the state is taking that person’s life into their hands,” Shawn Meerkamper told INTO. “And then to take care of their needs, and their medical care is chief among them.”

Idaho Appealing Ruling It Must Provide Gender Confirmation Surgery to Inmate

The state of Idaho is arguing that gender confirmation surgery is not medically necessary. The Gem State is appealing a court order that it must provide surgery to a transgender inmate who is self-harming.

Governor Brad Little announced last week that the state will fight a U.S. District Court ruling that found it cruel and unusual to deny inmate Adree Edmo’s gender-affirming surgery.

“The hardworking taxpayers of Idaho should not be forced to pay for a prisoner’s gender reassignment surgery when individual insurance plans won’t even cover it,” Little said in the announcement. “We cannot divert critical public dollars away from our focus on keeping the public safe and rehabilitating offenders.”

Many insurers, however, do cover transition-related care, and Medicaid covers gender affirming care.

If anything Edmo’s case may test public opinion over whether gender-affirming healthcare is medically necessary. Courts across the nation have already largely found that prisons are required to provide transgender inmates healthcare, which includes hormones and gender-affirming surgery.

“When a person urgently needs medical care because they’re seriously in danger of health consequences and they don’t get it, then courts have made clear that that care must be provided,” said National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) Attorney Amy Whelan, who is representing Edmo.

In Florida, a federal judge ruled that the state’s Department of Corrections must provide hormones to a transgender inmate and recognize her as female. The state is now appealing that ruling, a move that a dozen LGBTQ advocacy organizations are fighting.

In Edmo’s case, Chief U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill said that the Iowa Department of Corrections (IDOC) had ignored medical standards in refusing Edmo treatment for gender dysphoria.

“This constitutes deliberate indifference to Ms. Edmo’s serious medical needs and violates her rights under the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution,” Winmill wrote. He gave the state six months to provide Edmo with surgery.

Edmo, who had been self-harming behind bars, said the ruling was a relief.

“Not having the care I need is like being in a prison within a prison,” she said in a statement. “Even though I am still living, it has felt like I have been dying inside.”

But many in Idaho have taken issue with the ruling, conflating Edmo’s past crimes with her being transgender. The governor’s office notes that Edmo is serving a 10-year sentence for sexual abuse of a minor.

An article on Edmo by ABC Local 8 News also parallels Edmo’s gender with allegations of sexual abuse. The article repeatedly deadnames and misgenders Edmo (this piece has not been linked as INTO does not condone either practice).

The article quotes Edmo’s ex, Brady Summers, who says he survived an abusive relationship with Edmo. But the station allows Summers to question if Edmo is even transgender.

“Never once indicated anything of gender dysphoria or sexual indifference,” Summers is quoted saying. “He was a predator. He, on several occasions, had his way with me. It was brutal.”

Asked to comment on the decisions to run the piece and its violations of the AP Stylebook and GLAAD Media Guide, News Director Curtis Jackson stood by the story.

“In our research the story is correct,” Jackson said in an email. “The reason we aired the story is because of the high interest in the prison case.”

Other articles note that Edmo would be only the second person in the nation to receive a bottom surgery behind bars. Advocates argue, however, that that hardly matters as many others have won the right to transition-related healthcare.

IDOC officials argue in Edmo’s case that gender-confirmation surgery is not medically necessary.

“If Ms. Edmo had a broken arm, we’d all agree it should be treated,” the state’s Chairman of the Board of Correction, Dr. David McClusky, said in a statement. “But disagreement among medical professionals in this case does not constitute cruel and unusual punishment.”

McClusky’s reasoning that gender affirming care is elective, however, flies in the face of consensus among major medical associations.

Richard Saenz, Criminal Justice and Police Misconduct Strategist at Lambda Legal, said the law is clear when it comes to providing medically necessary care for all behind bars.  

“As a queer person who does this type of work, it’s difficult when we lose the idea of dignity and humanity of people who are incarcerated,” Saenz said. “I can understand, but I disagree with people who say they don’t deserve this healthcare. I believe that’s coming from a place of bias against transgender people in general, and it’s not where doctors are.”

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2020 Presidential Hopeful Apologizes For Past Support of Anti-Gay Conversion Therapy

A 2020 presidential hopeful has recently come under fire following allegations she worked for an anti-LGBTQ organization which promoted conversion therapy.

U.S. House Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) issued an apology on Monday after CNN reported she worked for the Alliance for Traditional Marriage at the age of 17. Gabbard’s father, Mike, founded the pro-family group, which was originally called Stop Promoting Homosexuality America. It was effectively disbanded in 2004.

In 1998, Mr. Gabbard posted a message to the organization’s website expressing support for discredited treatments seeking to “cure” homosexuality.

“[W]e must… renew our efforts to reach out with love and compassion to those who are addicted to homosexual behavior,” he claimed, “and encourage them to seek help through the National Association of Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), ‘ex-gay’ ministries such as Exodus International, Courage, Homosexuals Anonymous and Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays (P-FOX).”

At the time, Tulsi Gabbard dismissed criticism of her family’s anti-LGBTQ activism as the work of extremists.

When her mother, Carol Porter Gabbard, ran for the Hawaii Board of Education in 2000, Tulsi Gabbard claimed “homosexual activists” were engaging in a “war of deception and hatred” to stop her campaign.

“They know, that if elected, [my mother] will not allow them to force their values down the throats of the children in our schools,” the younger Gabbard said.

As the youngest-ever elected lawmaker in the Hawaii State Legislature, Tulsi Gabbard doubled down on her parents’ opposition to equality. When Hawaii voted in favor of a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages, her father’s organization spent more than $93,000 in support of the ban.

Then 21, Tulsi Gabbard claimed her father was merely trying “to protect traditional marriage.”

“I learned that real leaders are willing to make personal sacrifices for the common good,” Gabbard told the Honolulu Star-Bulletin in an interview. “I will bring that attitude of public service to the legislature.”

During her single term in Hawaii’s legislature, the Democratic lawmaker opposed bills legalizing civil unions and protecting bullied LGBTQ youth.

In a speech to fellow House representatives, Gabbard warned the anti-bullying legislation would lead to children being taught that homosexuality is “normal and natural.” She also expressed concern that “homosexual advocacy organizations” would infiltrate K-12 schools to “promote their agenda to our vulnerable youth.”

But days after announcing her intention to take on President Donald Trump in the 2020 election, Tulsi Gabbard expressed “regret” for her anti-equality stances.

“I’m grateful for those in the LGBTQ community who have shared their aloha with me throughout my personal journey,” she said in a statement to CNN. “Much work remains to ensure equality and civil rights protections for LGBTQ Americans and if elected president, I will continue to fight for equal rights for all.”

INTO reached out to Gabbard’s office to inquire about how her opinions on conversion therapy have changed over the past decade. This publication did not receive a statement prior to press time but will update should one be provided.

LGBTQ groups said Gabbard must expound on her LGBTQ rights platform—including her views on conversion therapy—if she intends to campaign in 2020.

“This will be a robust primary with many champions of equality in the race,” said

Stephen Peters, Human Rights Campaign’s Senior National Press Secretary, said in an email to INTO: “Anyone running for president and trying to win the support of the 10 million LGBTQ voters and our allies will have to not only explain past positions but articulate a vision and agenda for the future.”

Orientation change efforts, which entail a range of practices from shock treatment to talk therapy, remain legal in 36 states. These states include Arizona, Florida, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Virginia.

Gabbard’s home state, however, passed a law banning conversion therapy in 2018.

But as states like Colorado, Maine, and New York move to join the growing list of states banning conversion therapy, others say Gabbard’s “personal journey” on the issue mirrors the public’s own evolution on reparative treatments.

“Every day more Americans like Rep. Tulsi Gabbard are coming to understand the dangers of conversion therapy, which too often contributes to depression and increased risk of suicidal behavior,” said Sam Brinton, Head of Advocacy and Government Affairs for The Trevor Project, in a statement shared with INTO.

Gabbard is one of four candidates to officially declare their intention to run for president in 2020. Others include former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass).

Warren also recently apologized for missteps in her record on LGBTQ rights.

During her 2012 campaign against Republican Scott Brown for governor of Massachusetts, the progressive standard-bearer claimed gender-affirming surgeries for transgender prisoners are not “a good use of taxpayer dollars.”

A spokesperson for Warren claimed those were no longer the candidate’s views.

“Senator Warren supports access to medically necessary services, including transition-related surgeries,” the spokesperson for her exploratory campaign told ThinkProgress. “This includes procedures taking place at the VA, in the military, or at correctional facilities.”

Both Warren and Gabbard earned perfect ratings of 100 on the most recent HRC Congressional Scorecard, indicating universal support for LGBTQ equality.

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Republican Governor in Ohio Signs LGBTQ Nondiscrimination Order For Second Time in a Month

For the second time in less than a month, a Republican governor in Ohio has signed a nondiscrimination order protecting LGBTQ state employees.

The executive order was one of six signed by incoming Gov. Mike DeWine during an inauguration ceremony held shortly after midnight on Monday. It upholds an order signed by former Gov. John Kasich in December, one which extended state-level employment protections to Ohio’s LGBTQ community for the first time.

The order signed Monday expanded on the earlier measure by adding three protected classes: pregnant people, foster parents, and parents of young children.

“We said we were going to hit the ground running,” DeWine said during the swearing in.

LGBTQ groups hailed the governor’s decision to keep the Kasich order, as many feared it may be in jeopardy under the new administration. As the state’s attorney general, DeWine defended Ohio’s marriage ban in court, facing off against SCOTUS marriage equality plaintiff Jim Obergefell.

The advocacy group TransOhio called the nondiscrimination order a “victory for all of Ohio.”

“By issuing this executive order protecting state employees, including LGBTQ state employees, from discrimination, Gov. DeWine made a strong statement on his first day that he will be a governor for all Ohioans,” added Equality Ohio Executive Director Alana Jochum said in a press release.

However, Jochum noted the Buckeye State “is still playing catch up when it comes to welcoming LGBTQ people.”

Currently, Ohio is one of 30 states which lacks fully inclusive nondiscrimination protections at the statewide level. The Ohio Fairness Act, which would add “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to the state’s list of protected classes, stalled in the state legislature last year.

Supporters claim the proposal is gaining momentum, despite conservative opposition in the lawmaking body. HB 160 reportedly received the support of hundreds of local businesses during the 2018 legislative session.

LGBTQ advocates hope DeWine’s support leads to further bipartisan action on the issue.

“Republicans, Democrats, and Independents are coming together to affirm what we all know to be true: Our nation is at strongest when everyone is able to live their lives without the fear of discrimination,” claimed Freedom for All Americans CEO Masen Davis in a statement.  

“Governor DeWine’s executive order is an important step toward comprehensive nondiscrimination protections for all LGBTQ people in Ohio and nationwide,” he added.

DeWine is one of a handful of first-term governors to sign an executive order forbidding bias against LGBTQ employees already this year. He is joined by Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer and Wisconsin’s Tony Evers, both of whom are Democrats.

Republican Rick Snyder, the former governor of Michigan, signed a nondiscrimination order shortly before leaving office in 2018.

Liberty Counsel Says It Doesn’t Want to Lynch LGBTQ People After All

Liberty Counsel would like the record to reflect that it doesn’t want to lynch gay people.

The evangelical law firm drew controversy last week after President and Founder Mat Staver opposed the inclusion of LGBTQ people in the Justice for Victims of Lynching Act. He claimed language on “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” in the Congressional bill was a way to “slip” in federal nondiscrimination protections.

“The old saying is once that camel gets the nose in the tent, you can’t stop them from coming the rest of the way in,” Staver told the right-wing website One News Now on Tuesday.

According to Staver, the anti-lynching legislation would represent “the first time that you would have in federal law mentioning gender identity and sexual orientation as part of this anti-lynching bill.” (This is false: LGBTQ people were included in the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act a decade ago.)

While the Justice for Victims of Lynching Act unanimously passed the Senate last month, Staver claimed Liberty Counsel had been meeting with House lawmakers to remove the LGBTQ provisions ahead of a vote.

But just days later, the Orlando-based advocacy group is rolling back its own president’s statements—saying they were mischaracterized by the media.

In a Thursday press release, Liberty Counsel claimed many outlets “have falsely reported that Liberty Counsel is opposed to banning lynching, or, opposes banning lynching of LGBTQ people.” It called those allegations “false, reckless, and offensive” and claimed they were pushed by “those with a political axe to grind.”

“No one can or should oppose a bill that bans lynching.” Staver stated. “We oppose lynching across the board for any person. Period!”

Staver then attempted to clarify his earlier remarks. As he now claims, he does not specifically want LGBTQ people cut out of the law. He merely believes that enumerating a “list of protected categories” would weaken the legislation by limiting the application of the law.

“Lynching should be prohibited no matter the person’s reason for committing this violent crime,” he concluded.

At the risk of editorializing, that assertion makes no sense and is flatly untrue. The legislation merely recognizes that the vast majority of lynching victims are members of marginalized groups. The NAACP notes that between the years of 1882-1968, 73 percent of the 4,743 people who died as a result of lynching were black.

As hate crimes have surged in the U.S. in recent years, people of color and members of the LGBTQ community have been among the groups most targeted for violence. In 2016, LGBTQ people accounted for 17.5 percent of hate crimes.

Nonetheless, Liberty Counsel accused journalists of pushing “unrelated political agendas by hijacking a serious issue.”

“False reporting endangers lives,” it said.

The lobby group further claimed the fake news campaign against it had led to “death threats” against its employees. Liberty Counsel allegedly received an angry message saying, “All LC leaders must die.”

The individual’s “identity is being traced,” the organization claimed.

Liberty Counsel first gained infamy after defending Rowan County, Ky. clerk Kim Davis for denying marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The law firm—which believes LGBTQ advocacy is satanic, fascist, and pro-pedohilia—has fought against banning conversion therapy and opposed Planet Fitness’ trans-inclusive locker room policy.

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More LGBTQ Chechens Detained Amid Fears of Another Anti-Gay Purge

Arrests of LGBTQ people in Chechnya have reportedly surged amid fears authorities are launching another campaign targeting queer and trans people.

Advocacy groups have witnessed a concerning “spike in detentions of men and women suspected of being gay,” as activist Igor Kochetkov told the Associated Press. Kochetkov, head of the Russian LGBT Network, did not cite specific numbers.

The report arrived just hours after a warning to Chechnya’s LGBTQ community was posted on the social network Vkontakte.

“We ask anyone still free to take this message seriously and leave the republic as soon as is possible,” the bulletin reads. “I ask you to turn to human rights activists, the media, [and] friends who can help you.”

The message includes an email contact for the Russian LGBT Network and the number to its hotline.

Little is known about the arrests. As the Independent reports, the surge in detentions may have resulted from “contacts of LGBTQ Chechens [finding] their way into the hands of the authorities.”

The Russian LGBT Network is expected to provide more information in a Monday report.

More than 100 people were arrested in 2017 after Chechen police reportedly began imprisoning and torturing suspected LGBTQ individuals. Maxim Lapunov, a survivor of the purge, claimed his jailers would flog him until he could no longer stand. When he collapsed from the pain, they would stand him back up and keep beating him.

At least three people have died as a result. This tally is believed to include Zelim Bakaev, a gay singer who disappeared while visiting the southern Russian republic.

Chechen leaders have continued to deny a crackdown is taking place, even after the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) released a report in December claiming “indisputable” evidence of human rights abuses.

A spokesperson for Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov told the Russian news network RBK TV the new claims are “untruth and misinformation.”

“In the Chechen Republic, there are no prisons and places of detention,” said Alvi Karimov, who has previously said Chechen men “have only one orientation and the country’s highest birth rate speaks of its effectiveness.”

Kadyrov has dismissed the reports as “provocation.”

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One of the Only Federal Laws That Protects LGBTQ People Expired in the Shutdown

The U.S. is three weeks into what is about to become the longest federal government shutdown in history, and a whole lot of people are angry. Caused by the congressional impasse over President Trump’s insistence on getting millions of dollars to fund a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border, the shutdown has forced roughly 800,000 workers to go without pay since before Christmas.

Over a thousand of those workers have turned to GoFundMe to raise money for rent and food, two federal employee unions have filed lawsuits demanding pay, and government workers protested outside the White House today, yelling: “Pay the workers, furlough Trump.”

But amid all the chaos — and there is chaos, with food safety inspections going unperformed, people destroying unsupervised national parks, and TSA officers quitting en masse — there’s also an important federal law that quietly expired about two weeks ago. And that law is one of the only federal laws that explicitly includes LGBTQ people in nationwide protections.

The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) allows federal funds to be distributed to programs that work to end sexual assault, domestic violence, stalking, and harassment. Despite the name, it applies to people of all genders, and when it was reauthorized in 2013, a nondiscrimination clause included sexual orientation and gender identity. In 2018, $553 million was appropriated for VAWA programs, a massive amount of money that funds things like domestic violence shelters, rape crisis groups, campus programs, emergency housing, and other programs.

But the Violence Against Women Act was set to expire in December unless Congress voted to reauthorize it — and the federal government shut down just before that could happen.

“This is important for LGBTQ people in part because VAWA is one of the few federal laws with SOGI nondiscrimination protections written into the law explicitly, and that recognizes LGBTQ people as an underserved population,” said Lambda Legal’s law and policy director Jennifer Pizer in an email to INTO on Wednesday. “These aspects of VAWA represent important breakthroughs in federal lawmaking.”

But Pizer stressed that inclusion isn’t the only reason the law should matter greatly to LGBTQ people. VAWA is especially important for queer and trans people because they  are so often victims of violence.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, about one in three women and one in six men experience sexual assault within their lifetimes. But those numbers are even higher for some segments of the LGBTQ community; studies have shown that around half of all bisexual women and transgender people say they’ve been sexually assaulted.

Lesbian and bisexual women are particularly vulnerable to intimate partner violence, according to a 2017 report by the National Center for Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP) — with lesbians being five times more likely to report violence at the hands of a current partner. More than 60 percent of bisexual women reported violence at the hands of a current or former intimate partner, according to the Centers for Disease Control’s 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey.

The response of law enforcement is crucial to the safety of survivors. But nearly half of all LGBTQ survivors of domestic violence surveyed for the NCAVP report said police were “indifferent” when they reported, showing the need for more education on the unique needs and experiences of queer and trans survivors of violence.

For trans women, the protections offered by VAWA are especially important in light of recent comments made by Department of Housing and Urban Development head Ben Carson, who in March said the agency would back away from LGBTQ-inclusive policies because cisgender women were not always comfortable sharing shelters with “somebody who had a very different anatomy.”

But according to the NCAVP report, transgender and bisexual women were two times more likely to experience violence or harassment at a domestic violence shelter.

“The programs and shelters funded by VAWA are crucial resources for transgender people of color, in particular, too many of whom are frequently the targets of violence, marginalization, and erasure by our society,” National Center for Transgender Equality executive director Mara Keisling told INTO. “The temporary expiration of VAWA is a betrayal of the some of the most vulnerable people in our country today, and yet another immoral price Americans are being forced to pay for this President’s reckless shutdown.”

The expiration of VAWA doesn’t mean programs all over the country have to close immediately. Many have already received and allocated their federal funding. But for those which depend on upcoming funds, the shutdown could mean a host of obstacles. And it’s not entirely clear which programs will be impacted first. According to a December Roll Call story published the day VAWA expired, most of the act’s funding is administered through two federal agencies: the Department of Justice and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

In September, Congress approved 2019 funding for HHS, meaning that most VAWA programs administered there will receive money allocated for this year only. But the Department of Justice is effectively inoperable during the shutdown and has not been funded for this year. In an ironic twist, Trump’s stubborn insistence on keeping the government from operating until Congress approves his border wall, which he says is needed to stave off a national security crisis at the border, has resulted in at least 5,000 FBI agents being furloughed — which the FBI Agents Association told The Atlantic this week is the real national security crisis.

On Friday, Congress voted to authorize some emergency funding to a handful of federal agencies despite the shutdown. But even that last-minute measure is unlikely to pass through the Republican-controlled Senate, especially because the agencies Congress asked to immediately fund are the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of the Interior, and the U.S. Forest Service — not exactly GOP priorities. And VAWA was not on the table at all today.

Lambda Legal’s Pizer recalled “distressingly overt anti-LGBTQ (and anti-immigrant) hostility from conservative Republicans” in 2013, as Congress battled over the most recent reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act with provisions added to protect those communities.

“But the fact that those callously ideological voices ultimately failed to block the bill is due to leaders of goodwill in both parties, all of whom deserve credit for caring about victims of violence and other terrible abuse,” said Pizer. “Those who are still in Congress should look in the mirror, reflect on those in fear and pain who need VAWA-supported help, and act immediately to reopen our federal government and reauthorize this essential statute.”

After Protesting Church Sign Misgendering Caitlyn Jenner, These Activists Are Fundraising to Repair It

Protesters are helping a California church fundraise to repair a sign which was allegedly vandalized after it bore a transphobic message misgendering and deadnaming Caitlyn Jenner.

Justin Hoke, a pastor at Trinity Bible Presbyterian Church in Lake Shastina, reported on Wednesday that a sign reading “Bruce Jenner is still a man” had been destroyed.

Homosexuality is still a sin,” the message continued. “The culture may change. The Bible does not.”

In a Facebook post highlighting the damage, he claimed the Plexiglass had been shattered and the letters had been stolen.

“I woke this morning to find that our sign had been vandalized,” Hoke wrote. “I have not seen it up close yet as this picture was sent to me by a member of our congregation. Please pray that God would provide.”

“As wickedness increases the fear of God decrees,” he added later.

Although Hoke blamed the destruction on a group who protested the sign on Jan. 6, organizers Amelia Mallory, Charolette Kalayjian, and Mishelle Le Guellec told the Siskiyou Daily News the “Shastina Love Rally” was not responsible.

“To our knowledge, nobody affiliated with our peaceful rally was involved,” Mallory said. “If we do become aware of the culprit we will be informing the local authorities.”

Protesters “condemn the use of violence and destruction of property,” she added.

The estimated dozen protesters who gathered across the street from Trinity Bible Presbyterian Church on Sunday are reportedly planning another demonstration for this weekend. Activists say their message is “strictly of love and support for anyone who feels like they are the target of the sign.”

But in a perhaps surprising twist, members of the local LGBTQ community plan to use the rally to raise money for the church. There will be a “collection to help… with repairs to their sign” at this Sunday’s event, Mallory said.

Organizers hope the gesture will help change hearts and minds within the church.

“While we are donating with no strings attached, we do hope that pastor Hoke will reflect on the generosity of those he rebukes before posting another similar message,” Mallory told the local news station KRDV.

In a Sunday sermon, Hoke did not appear ready to make nice. He took aim at LGBTQ rights in a speech calling same-sex unions “selfish.”

“What the world calls love is not love at all,” he claimed. “Rather it is extreme mutually agreed upon selfishness which knows nothing of sacrifice, nothing of servanthood, nothing at all of seeking another’s highest good.”

The sermon was called “Love Warns.” The title is a reference to the popular marriage equality slogan, “Love Wins.”

As of Thursday, a temporary sign was back on display.  In the caption of a Facebook photo showing the glass patched together with duct tape, Hoke remarked: “It’s not pretty, but it’s back up.”

Nashville Police Appoints LGBTQ Liaison in Wake of Anti-Trans Scandal

The Metro Nashville Police Department (MNPD) is rolling out changes in the wake of an anti-trans scandal that has rocked the city’s LGBTQ community.

The department has appointed an official LGBTQ liaison and sanctioned seven officers for denigrating a transgender person on Facebook in 2017.

Several officers snapped photos of a transgender person during their lunch break in September 2017 and uploaded the images to Facebook, according to Nashville Scoop. The officers took turns mocking and misgendering the individual.

“He sure has a purdy mouf!” wrote Sgt. Kimberly Forsyth.

Forsyth is among the seven officers to be slapped with sanctions by the department’s Office of Professional Accountability in the wake of the incident, a spokesperson for the office told INTO. Her penalty includes a demotion to officer. The sanctions are as follows:

Kimberly Forsyth:  Demotion from sergeant to police officer.  

Melvin Brown:   Demotion from sergeant to police officer.  

Ofc. Brandon Wood: Ten-day suspension.   

Ofc. Craig Oakley: Five-day suspension.   

Ofc. Andy Esqueda: Three-day suspension.  

Ofc. Tim Morgan: Two-day suspension.

Ofc. David Snowden: Two-day suspension.

All of the employees are also required to attend remedial trainings related to law enforcement and the trans community, diversity inclusion and social media. Officers have the option to accept the consequences or request disciplinary hearings.

The department is taking the incident a step further. On Thursday, MNPD announced the appointment of its first full-time LGBTQ liaison.

Officer Catie Poole, a five-year veteran of the department, has been tasked with outreach to the queer community and creating a safe reporting system for hate crime victims.

Poole most recently worked in the city’s Central Precinct as a downtown bicycle officer.

“I am excited and honored to take on this new responsibility for our police department,” Poole said in a statement. “I love being out in the community and helping people. I joined the Nashville Police Department to make a difference.”

Poole has vowed to support LGBTQ employees internally at MNPD and to make it easier for hate crime victims to report crimes.

She said she will be launching a Safe Place program in Nashville. Safe Place is Seattle’s police program that aims to tackle underreporting of anti-LGBTQ hate crimes.

LGBTQ Nicaraguans in Costa Rica: The Refugees That Ran From President Ortega’s Persecution

None of them have reached the age of 30. All of them have sadness and pain in their faces, but also hints of hope.

More than a hundred Nicaraguans that have entered Costa Rica legally and illegally are LGBTQ, and they are organized into a group called Asociación Hijos del Arcoiris LGBTI (The Children of the Rainbow LGBTI Association). They had to leave their country to save themselves from political, homophobic and transphobic persecution from the government of the current president, Daniel Ortega, after a social and economic crisis broke out in the Central American country on April 18 last year, pushing them to protest in the streets and openly oppose Ortega’s regime.

Today, the LGBTQ Nicaraguans are safe on the other side of the border, most of them in Costa Rica’s capital city of San José. They are struggling to find housing, jobs, education, food, and clothing, but mostly they are trying to heal from the pain of leaving their country, and integrate themselves in a society where the government pushes new policies with the help of international organizations to help and protect them, but where transphobia, homophobia and xenophobia are also at their worst.

Six Months of Protests and Refugees

19,720 Nicaraguans asked the Costa Rican Government for refuge between April and November of 2018, according to official data given by the Immigration Office of Costa Rica. Before that, only 473 Nicaraguans had become refugees; that’s a 4,000 percent increase in only seven months.

Marcela Rodríguez, the Protection Officer leader of all the Protection Programs of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office in Costa Rica, explained: “Before, three types of Nicaraguans came to the country asking for refuge: farmers who opposed the dredging of their lands for the construction of the interoceanic canal, women fleeing the misogynistic and patriarchal violence of men, mostly of their partners; and people of low income looking for more opportunities and a better life.”

Now, all types of citizens from the Central American country make up that huge number. From cities and from the countryside; young and old; professionals, students and workers; men, women and children; they “all have something in common: they are running from political persecution,” Rodríguez told INTO. But they’re also fleeing persecution based on their sexual orientation or gender identity and expression, as government propaganda has used these aspects of the dissidents to attack and discredit them in a violent and most harmful way, as the Asociación Los Hijos del Arcoíris LGBTI and other LGBTQ Nicaraguan refugees have denounced.

This persecution started in April this year when a tense situation exploded. In a report from Centro Nicaragüense de Derechos Humanos (CENIDH) (Nicaraguan Center of Human Rights), titled “Derechos Humanos en Nicaragua 2018” (Human Rights in Nicaragua 2018), the origins of the crisis are explained: the constitutional reform pushed by Ortega that established indefinite reelection and has allowed him to stay in power for eleven years now; the violations of the human rights of anyone that opposed Ortega, such as political participation, a fair trial and freedom of speech; and government corruption. Nicaragua was rated the most corrupt country in Central America by the World Corruption Perception Index of the International Transparency organization. The report also cited the extreme poverty that Nicaraguans suffer: 8.7 percent of them live in poverty, according to a survey from the Fundación Internacional para el Desafío Económico Global (International Foundation for the Global Economic Challenge) this year.

But the spark that ignited the crisis was Ortega’s decision to reform the public pension system on April 18, increasing the contribution the workers must give to face a shortfall of $76 million. The opposition claims this is the result of corruption: their leaders say Ortega’s government has been using the pensions as a fund to finance their parties and trips.

Because of the pension issue, an open and fierce opposition started. Under the leadership of students and other young people, workers, families and pensioners organized and took to the streets to protest. The government’s response was a brutal and violent repression that has escalated, the CENIDH narrates in its report; while the army and the police attacked people, dissolved the protests and incarcerated the dissidents, the president and other entities restrained and violated human rights, from freedom of speech and freedom of assembly to the right to health. And the public health system denied medical assistance to those who were hurt by the armed forces.

According to CENIDH’s report, “The governmental repression and violence has been characterized by the unproportioned use of force and the execution of murders, incarcerations, forced disappearances and torture. This violence has reached almost every social group: during these six months of protests 320 people have been murdered, 22 of them minors, 40 young students, 22 police officers and 1 journalist.”

In December of 2018, Ortega outlawed non-governmental organizations, including the CENIDH, and expelled the Grupo Interdisciplinario de Expertos Independientes (Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts), and the Mecanismo de Seguimiento para Nicaragua (Follow Up Mechanism of Nicaragua) of the Inter American Commission of Human Rights. Both groups were in Nicaragua looking to stop the violation of human rights, and to promote a dialogue between the government and its opposition through a “Table of National Dialogue” that failed multiple times over months.  

In the case of LGBTQ people and opposition leaders, the persecution and attacks are more personal. While the Immigration Office of Costa Rica says only seven people have self-identified as LGBTQ at the moment they asked for refuge, there are more than a hundred members of Asociación Los Hijos del Arcoíris LGBTI. Their founder and spokesman, Ulises Rivas, explains that “There are more that are too afraid to self-identify as part of this community or are in precarious situations: depressed, without money, food, documents or clothes, and even living on the streets.”

At a December event in San Jose called “Ya Ni Sé” (I Don’t Even Know Anymore), Beyardo Siles, a spokesman from the National LGBT Dialogue Table of Nicaragua, presented a preliminary report about the violence and repression leaders of the opposition that are LGBTQ have faced. Siles explained that Ortega’s government started a hate campaign against them, looking to diminish and discredit the young men and women that became the face of the opposition, calling them Maricones (faggots) y Lesbianas (lesbians) with images that went viral on social media. There were also physical attacks and persecution because of their sexual orientation, gender identity and expression.

A presentation at Ya Ni Sé, an LGBTQ refugee speakout in Costa Rica in December 2018. Photo by Jess Marquez Gaspar.
A presentation at Ya Ni Sé, an LGBTQ refugee speakout in Costa Rica in December 2018. Photo by Jess Marquez Gaspar.

“From April to July we received reports of 45 LGBTQ leaders affected, 44% of which are Human Rights Activists, 15 leaders of different types of organizations and 5 LGBTQ activists,” said Siles.  

The LGBTQ leaders reported  144 incidents: the worst ones were 3 murders and 1 sexual assault, Siles explained. He added that: “there also have been 41 death and physical harm threats and 7 physical attacks”, and said they have yet to process dozens of new reports they have received since August.

Fleeing to Costa Rica and becoming an LGBTQ Refugee

Running from the attacks and the persecution, and even to save their lives, the members of “Asociación Los Hijos del Arcoiris LGBTI” went to Costa Rica. In a meeting, around 20 young LGBT men and women from the group told their stories. With ages ranging between 18 and 30 years old, they came from different regions in Nicaragua: some from Managua (where the capital is located), Carazo and León. They have different backgrounds: a group of them are college students looking to be engineers, pharmacists and social workers; others had occupations as bakers, barbers, Zumba instructors and paramedics; there are some who are professionals like Ulises, who is a journalist, and others who are political leaders. They identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual and faced day to day discrimination for their sexual orientation, even before the crisis.

When the protests and persecutions started, most of them had to hide or  travel to another city of the country, and keep moving for months until the only option was, ultimately, to flee to Costa Rica. Some took buses and crossed the border legally, but the majority had to walk for days. “I had to cross plantation fields, under the sun and the rain, with only a backpack and very little food,” Ulises Rivas told INTO. When asked why, Rivas said: “I had to leave behind—and they took them—most of my legal papers, even my passport. I didn’t have a legal way to cross the border.” Finally, Rivas reached San José as more than 19,000 other Nicaraguans have.

Most of the LGBTQ refugees had to sleep in parks and other public places, and some were lucky enough to be received by other Nicaraguans, or by Costa Ricans that took them in. They had to walk the city seeking for help, and found the Costa Rican Immigration Office, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and local and Nicaraguan LGBTQ organizations and activists that helped them ask for asylum and helped them build a new life in Costa Rica.

That’s why three months ago, Rivas and 5 other young men decided to come together and start the Arcoiris organization. They started looking for other LGBTQ Nicaraguans, and collected donations that helped them rent and furnish two houses in the city—where they now house more than 30 people.

Members of the Nicaraguan refugee group Asociación Hijos del Arcoiris LGBTI at a home in Costa Rica. Photo by Jess Marquez Gaspar.
Members of the Nicaraguan refugee group Asociación Hijos del Arcoiris LGBTI at a home in Costa Rica. Photo by Jess Marquez Gaspar.

They have learned how to work the system created to receive and support refugees in Costa Rica. The Costa Rican office of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Association (HIAS) has given them free legal advice on how to ask the Costa Rican Immigration Office for asylum; while the organization that helps refugees, RET International, offers them psychological and medical attention, and helps them find and pay for permanent housing and food. FundaMujer, an organization that works for human rights with a gender perspective, offers them education opportunities such as technical studies; and the UNHCR helps them find jobs through their corporate responsibility program “Living the Integration.” Also, the Center of Social Rights of Migrants (CENDEROS) gives temporary housing to the ones that have been victims of sexual and gender-based violence.

Right now, the situation is complicated for most of them. Of the 19,720 Nicaraguans that have asked Costa Rica for asylum since April 2018, none have received an answer. The immigration office has a year-long backlog of cases to process, according to Marcela Rodríguez from the UNHCR. Because of the delays the UNHCR has been working with the immigration office to make the system more efficient.

Over 30 percent of the Nicaraguans have applied for asylum under two types of persecution recognized by the 1951 Refugee Convention: political opinion, as they have been attacked and chased down for being against Daniel Ortega’s government; and for sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and persecution associated with LGBTQ and human rights activism. While they wait for a resolution, they have temporary visas, which allows them to find jobs.

Only a few of them have jobs, only 10 percent have enrolled in educational programs, and most of them spend their days looking for ways to make money or find food and clothes; participating in LGBTQ activities and activism; and trying to overcome what has happened to them.

A calendar of activities for residents at one of the Hijos de Arcoirís homes in Costa Rica. Photo by Jess Marquez Gaspar.
A calendar of activities for residents at one of the Hijos de Arcoirís homes in Costa Rica. Photo by Jess Marquez Gaspar.

As the director of the RET International Office in Costa Rica, Christine Eppelin Ugarte reveals that the LGBTQ refugees to whom they provided psychological attention all suffer from post-traumatic stress from the sexual and gender-based violence they have received for being LGBTQ in Nicaragua, but also in Costa Rica. Their symptoms are usually anxiety, low self-esteem, depression, insomnia, eating and sleeping disorders, and a state of constant alert.

LGBTQ Nicaraguans go through a “migratory mourning” that comes from multiple struggles.

Eppelin Ugarte explains what those struggles are: “First, the impact of having to leave their country by force; the difficulties of coming to Costa Rica and being attacked or robbed; second, once they get to Costa Rica, the disappointment they suffer when they realize being an immigrant doesn’t match the high expectations they had about the life they imagined in their new home; and third, the difficulties and unrooted feeling that comes from losing their homeland as a concept and as a place, and having to integrate in a society they don’t know or understand.”

The young women and men of “Asociación Los Hijos del Arcoíris LGBTI” say they feel frustrated, angry, and sad. At the Ya Ni Sé event, Nicaraguan artist Eyla Sinvergüenza explained the feeling: “I feel lost, without a country, hurting, as the place I called my homeland is dead, it no longer exists.”

José David Moya, coordinator of case management at RET, explains that most refugees come with wounds and dehydration from the trip to Costa Rica, malnutrition because of the crisis, and multiple diseases and conditions—such as HIV, anxiety, depression, and STIs.

Also, Moya thinks “Xenophobia and LGBTQ-phobia has increased in Costa Rica during 2018 like never before.” While the Costa Rican government took steps to protect LGBTQ immigrants—including the Global Migratory Pact, pushing an executive order to prevent and sanction LGBTQ-phobic discrimination among public workers, and two other executive orders— a demonstration against Nicaraguans took over the streets of San José in August, resulting in 44 detentions for xenophobic attacks, and there were 25 verbal and physical assaults against LGBTQ people, according to the Frente por los Derechos Igualitarios (Front for Equalitarian Rights), a coalition of nonprofit organizations.

The members of the “Asociación Los Hijos del Arcoíris LGBTI” have felt this. One of them, a young woman named Ángeles, says, “It’s been hard, we don’t receive much acceptance because we are Nicaraguans and because we are refugees. But also, Costa Ricans, and even other Nicaraguans, discriminate [against] us because we are LGBTQ.”

That is why, in the middle of this hard situation, the work they have done is inspirational, and so is their attitude.  “We have hope,” said Andrey, one of the young men.

“We see this as an opportunity to grow, to learn from the things the LGBTQ movement has conquered here and [in] the Costa Rican democracy, and then come back to our country to make a change,” says Dave, another member of the group.

Rossi, one of the young women, states: “We are not alone. We have each other and we are united by one cause.” When asked what that cause is, at least 10 of them yell at the same time: “¡Nicaragua Libre!”