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.”

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.

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.”

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!”

Texas’ New House Speaker Says Anti-Trans ‘Bathroom Bill’ Is Not a ‘Real Issue’

Dennis Bonnen is ready to move on.

A year and a half after Republican lawmakers in Texas failed to force through a anti-trans “bathroom bill” in a special session, the incoming Speaker of the House suggested another push isn’t on the table for 2019.

After he was unanimously tapped to replace retiring Joe Straus, Bonnen told colleagues he would not get “caught up in things that don’t lead to real results.”

In a Tuesday speech, the longtime House lawmaker said he was focused on four key issues for the nascent legislative session. Bonnen’s top priority is funding the state’s ailing public school system, which ranked 40th in the country in a 2018 report from Education Week.

“My passion for education centers on the fact that I grew up a dyslexic kid in a small town at a time when there were almost no options available to students like me,” the conservative claimed.

Bonnen also hopes to tackle sex trafficking, school safety, and property tax reform.

While the 46-year-old did not specially mention the thwarted Senate Bill 6, he expanded on those comments in an interview with the Dallas Morning News. Bonnen referred to the “bathroom bill” discussion as a distraction.

“I would be very discouraged if we were distracted by an issue that could derail those significant challenges that we need to solve,” he said.

Those comments fall in line with remarks made by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott last year. The Republican said taking up the issue of transgender restroom use is “not on [his] agenda” in the 2019 session following reports he privately opposed SB 6.

Even Dan Patrick, who was formerly its most vocal champion, suggested he was done with SB 6. In a Wednesday news conference with Bonnen and Abbott, the Texas Tribune reported the lieutenant governor repeated “comments he… previously made about winning public opinion on the issue even if the legislation did not pass.”

That claim is dubious at best. A June 2017 poll from the Tribune found that 47 percent of Texans agreed with Bonnen that the question of where transgender people go to the bathroom isn’t a legitimate concern.

But as the legislative session convenes Wednesday for a 140-day session, washing his hands of SB 6 is also strategic for Bonnen. He will now preside over a House that is far more Democratic than during the 2017 term: The Blue Wave led to a 12-seat pickup in the lower chambers of the Texas Legislature.

Addressing members of the Texas House, Bonnen urged lawmakers to come together across partisan divides to tackle the issues voters care about.

“Unlike Washington, Texas stands apart,” he claimed. “We lead the nation by doing things our way. And we do it with strength, unity, and resolve. We will once again rise to that occasion and serve as the nation’s model for effective governance.”

Moving forward from SB 6 may be easier said than done, however. The bill’s author, Sen. Lois Kolkhorst (R-Brenham), has already vowed to try again in 2019. At a September forum hosted by the right-wing group Texas Values, she referred to “men in women’s bathrooms” as the “women’s rights issue of our time.”

“The only way that you fail is to not try,” Kolkhorst said of introducing another version of the legislation.

Arizona Lawmaker Won’t Say If Bill Would Allow Teachers Who Discuss LGBTQ Issues to Be Fired

Arizona Rep. Mark Finchem is staying pretty tight-lipped on a controversial proposal banning teachers from discussing “any side of a controversial issue” in classrooms.

In December, the Oro Valley lawmaker put forward House Bill 2002 after a constituent complained that a math teacher in the district had been criticizing President Donald Trump during class discussions. Finchem told the Arizona Republic the proposal is intended to ensure faculty leave their “political agenda behind… at home.”

“If you enter a classroom with a Trump T-shirt, a Hillary T-shirt, [or] a Vote No 126 T-shirt, you engage in a political speech in class,” he claimed.

The draft bill intends to solve that problem by instituting a code of ethics that all K-12 teachers in the state must follow. These rules, for instance, forbid faculty members from “[singling] out one group of students as being responsible for the suffering or inequities experienced by another group of students.”

While that proposal enumerates race as a verboten characteristic for discussion, it does not specify whether topics related to queer and trans lives are also prohibited.

Websites like LGBTQ Nation concluded HB 2002 is vague enough that teachers could, for example, be terminated for discussing the Stonewall Riots of 1969—which helped set off the modern movement for queer and trans rights. Issues like LGBTQ equality are “often deemed ‘controversial’ by Republicans,” the site concluded.

Even worse, the proposal may lead to teachers being effectively forced to give hate groups a platform in schools. Any teacher who does discuss marriage equality could be forced to present the opposing side—giving equal time to anti-LGBTQ bigotry.

“A teacher must provide students with materials supporting both sides of the controversy in a fair-minded and nonpartisan manner,” the text reads.

INTO reached out to the conservative to ask if he felt the speculation regarding its anti-equality implications was accurate. Finchem’s spokesperson, Renee Padilla, claimed he’s “unavailable for commenting, as he is, and has been out of the office.”

This publication isn’t the only outlet lacking clarification on the bill’s implications. The Hill and Arizona Daily Star were also offered no comment.

What has been reported about the legislation does not inspire confidence that HB 2002 would not be used to target vulnerable LGBTQ people. Finchem’s bullet points were lifted nearly verbatim from a “Teacher Code of Ethics” posted on the Stop K-12 Indoctrination website two years ago.

The campaign warns that “no age group and no corner of our K-12 classrooms are immune from the left’s ideological aggression.”

Stop K-12 Indoctrination is a project of the David Horowitz Freedom Center, whose namesake has been cited by the Southern Poverty Law Center as “a driving force of the anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, and anti-black movements.”

Finchem’s own record on LGBTQ rights is concerning. Three years ago, he put forward draft legislation which would allow the state of Arizona to ignore decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court, such as its ruling on Obergefell v. Hodges. He told the Arizona Daily Star that SCOTUS had no right to “force” marriage equality on states.

“If the federal government wants to issue a gay marriage license, they’re free to do that,” the representative said at the time. “But it’s not a state license.”

In 2017, Finchem also attempted to ban schools from discussing “social justice.”

The Arizona State Legislature convenes for the 2019 legislative session on Jan. 14. As with Finchem’s previous proposals, HB 2002 is not expected to go far.

Kim Davis’ Lawyers Want to Remove LGBTQ People From Bill to Make Lynching a Federal Hate Crime

Kim Davis’ lawyers are fighting to keep LGBTQ people out of a Congressional bill to make lynching a federal hate crime.

The Justice for Victims of Lynching Act passed the Senate in December following a unanimous vote of 100 to 0. The legislation has been a long time coming. The bill was first put forward in 1882 and has stalled more than 200 times in the 137 years since, according to the New York Times.

The current version of the proposal was put forward by Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.).

Despite its overwhelming popularity, Liberty Counsel’s Mat Staver plans to lobby against LGBTQ-inclusive provisions in the legislation as it moves through the House of Representatives. The draft bill covers characteristics like “gender identity” and “sexual orientation” in addition to “color,” “national origin,” “race,” and “religion.”

Staver told One News Now this language is a way to pass anti-discrimination protections for the LGBTQ community through the back door.

“So far they’ve been unsuccessful over the many years in the past [at passing the Employment Non-Discrimination Act],” the Liberty Counsel founder and CEO claimed, “but this is a way to slip it in under a so-called anti-lynching bill, and to then to sort of circle the wagon and then go for the [jugular] at some time in the future.”

First put forward in 1994, ENDA would have prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in the workplace.

Although it failed to become law, that legislation eventually led to the introduction of the Equality Act, which expands LGBTQ inclusions in standing civil rights law beyond the workplace. It would protect against sexual orientation and gender identity bias in all walks of life, whether housing and education or credit and federal funding.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi vowed Democrats would take up the issue if they won back the House in the 2018 midterms. Democrats now hold a 36-seat majority in the chambers.

Staver warned the LGBTQ-inclusive Lynching Act is a sign of things to come.

“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,” he said. “And this would be the first time that you would have in federal law mentioning gender identity and sexual orientation as part of this anti-lynching bill.”

The right-wing activist claimed Liberty Counsel—which famously represented the once-jailed Rowan County clerk in court—was already lobbying House lawmakers to remove the language on LGBTQ identity.

The Orlando, Florida-based firm has a noted track record of anti-LGBTQ advocacy.

Following her brief five-day incarceration, Liberty Counsel took Davis on a nine-day trip to Romania to lobby against same-sex marriage. As sources told INTO at the time, she was “presented like a martyr” during the speaking tour.

Despite Liberty Counsel’s efforts, a referendum to ban marriage equality in Romania failed due to low voter turnout.

Liberty Counsel has also pushed for the introduction of anti-trans “bathroom bills” across the U.S. and is behind lawsuits challenging Planet Fitness’ inclusive locker room policy. They have also opposed local ordinances banning conversion therapy.

As Colorado Swears in America’s First Gay Governor, Denver Bans Conversion Therapy

As Colorado becomes the first state to swear in an openly gay man as governor, Denver also made history this week. The Mile High City became the first municipality in the state to ban anti-LGBTQ conversion therapy.

On Monday, Denver’s City Council unanimously voted to outlaw orientation change efforts from being performed on minors under the age of 18 years old. The city defines conversion therapy as “based on the false claim that being LGBTQ is a mental illness that needs to be cured.”

According to government leaders, the ordinance is “aimed at state-licensed therapists, operating their practice in the city.”

While no known practitioners of conversion therapy are operating within Denver city limits, supporters of the measure believe it’s preemptive. Conversion therapy has been deemed as “ineffective” and “harmful” by every leading U.S. medical and child care group, including Voice for Adoption and the National Association of Social Workers.

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock called the ordinance’s passage a “very proud moment for our administration, for members of City Council, and for everyone in Denver who values inclusion and acceptance.”

“Tonight’s vote to ban conversion therapy [is] our city coming together and saying with one voice that we will never allow our LGBTQ youth to be the targets of these dubious practices, and that we are here to support them,” the 49-year-old Democrat claimed in a press release.

“Who they are is something to be celebrated, not maligned, and Denver will always be there to lift up our youth and ensure that they have the opportunity to grow up safe, happy, and healthy,” he added.

Hancock submitted the proposal to a city council committee in December.

At the time, the Denver mayor called reparative therapy efforts “dangerous and immoral,” claiming that his government was “going to make sure that they never happen within [the] city.”

At the time of writing, conversion therapy remains legal at the statewide level in Colorado. Just 14 states (and D.C) have outlawed it. While local municipalities in Florida, New York, and Ohio have taken action to prohibit the practice in their communities, no other cities or counties have done the same in The Centennial State.

Statewide legislation banning “gay cure” treatments has failed in the Colorado Assembly at least four times, facing opposition from conservative lawmakers.

LGBTQ advocates, however, believe 2019 could be different. Control of the State Senate flipped to Democrats in the 2018 midterms, giving them a slim three-vote majority in the upper chambers of the legislature. Democrats currently hold 19 seats, while Republicans boast just 16.

Should a conversion therapy bill head to his desk, Colorado’s new openly LGBTQ governor, Jared Polis, is all but guaranteed to sign it.

The 43-year-old Democrat was sworn in on Tuesday after handily defeating challenger Walker Stapleton by double-digits in the 2018 election. During his inauguration ceremony, Polis said his victory showed “anything is possible in our great state and in our great country.”

Just one other LGBTQ candidate has been elected to a governorship in the U.S.: bisexual Kate Brown, who is currently serving as governor of Oregon.

This Man Sued Mutual of Omaha for Denying Him Insurance Because He Takes Truvada — and Won

What if your insurance denied you coverage because you responsibly took a drug to prevent you from getting HIV? Unfortunately, this is an all-too common practice, but a legal victory today could make it a thing of the past.

A settlement was reached today in the Massachusetts lawsuit Doe v. Mutual of Omaha which challenged an insurance company’s policy on denying applicants’ various forms of coverage for taking Truvada, a medication taken for HIV prevention.

The lawsuit, which GLAD (GLBTQ Advocates and Defenders) filed against Mutual of Omaha, has resulted in the insurance company revising their underwriting guidelines that previously dictated that applicants who take Truvada, a pre-exposure prophylaxis for HIV commonly known as PrEP, were automatically declined for long-term care insurance. Long-term care insurance generally covers things like home care, assisted living, adult daycare, respite care, hospice care, or nursing homes; types of care that aren’t always covered by health insurance or Medicare.

As a result of the outcome of the suit, the plaintiff in the case, known only as John Doe, will receive the long-term care policy he applied for.

“We are pleased that Mutual no longer declines insurance coverage based on the use of HIV pre-exposure prophylaxis, and we call upon other providers of life, disability, and long-term care insurance to do the same,” said Bennett Klein, AIDS Law Project Director for GLAD, in a press release Tuesday. Klein also represented Doe in the lawsuit.

Mutual of Omaha told INTO on Tuesday that it is revising their underwriting guidelines and that they were no longer “[declining] long-term care insurance applications solely on the basis that an applicant takes Truvada as PrEP for HIV prevention.”

Truvada, which was approved for use by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2012, reduces the risk of users contracting HIV by more than 90 percent, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The health protection agency openly sanctioned the use of PrEP for reducing risk of contracting HIV in 2014.

The CDC also reported that 90,000 PrEP prescriptions were filled in 2018, with a total of 1.1 million Americans at risk for HIV nationwide.

Generally, the Affordable Care Act bars discrimination against applicants on the basis of their sexual orientation for health insurance, but allows states to determine applicant eligibility for other types of insurance, such as life insurance or disability insurance.

Unfortunately, Mutual is hardly the first insurance company to reject applicants for taking PrEP. In February 2018, the New York Times reported on a similar circumstance in which Dr. Philip J. Cheng, an openly gay Massachusetts doctor, was only offered coverage for five years on a disability insurance plan because of his PrEP use.

The article also highlighted how insurance applicants who take PrEP are indirectly penalized for taking a preventative medication by insurance companies, while those who do not are much more likely to receive coverage.

“I was really shocked,” Dr. Cheng told NYT at the time. “PrEP is the responsible thing to do. It’s the closest thing we have to an HIV vaccine.”

Following the NYT report, New York state financial regulators stated publicly that they would investigate reports of gay men who had been denied various forms of insurance, including disability and long-term care, because of taking PrEP.

“Denying insurance to people who take steps to prevent HIV makes no sense, undermines public health, and contributes to HIV stigma,” said Gabriel Arkles, senior staff attorney at the ACLU, in an email to INTO Tuesday. “We are pleased that Mutual of Omaha will no longer discriminate against people who take advantage of this form of preventive medicine.”

Wisconsin Gov. Signs Order Protecting LGBTQ Workers From Discrimination Hours After Taking Office

Just hours after taking office, Wisconsin’s new governor signed an executive order protecting LGBTQ state employees from discrimination.

After defeating Republican Scott Walker in a closely-watched race, Tony Evers was inaugurated as the 46th governor of Wisconsin on Monday. During his swearing-in ceremony, the Democrat urged government leaders to “transcend divisiveness” and “governing by retribution,” a swipe at his predecessor’s much-publicized “war on labor.”

Evers’ pledge to turn the page certainly got off to a good start. The 67-year-old signed an order that prevents government workers from being fired or denied employment based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.

The order calls for “the state to put standard terms in contracts saying that the recipient can only hire on the basis of merit,” the Associated Press reports.

Wisconsin is one of 30 states lacking inclusive statewide laws banning anti-LGBTQ discrimination in the workplace. Although the state was the first in the nation to pass legislation prohibiting bias in housing and employment on the basis of sexual orientation, it has yet to update that bill to include gender identity.

Republicans control both chambers of Wisconsin’s bicameral legislature, making the passage of trans-inclusive provisions a difficult task.

Despite the conservative roadblock, the governor reportedly intends to push the issue further. According to the Associated Press, his administration intends to “create a model anti-discrimination policy” for other states, cities, and municipalities to implement.

Five cities and Milwaukee County have already passed local nondiscrimination ordinances protecting their trans citizens from discrimination.

Advocacy groups lauded Evers for taking steps to protect LGBTQ people on his very first day in office. Fair Wisconsin Director Megin McDonnell said in a statement the order “modernizes our state’s internal policies to make sure Wisconsin government employees are judged solely on their job performance, not who they are or who they love.”

“Discrimination in any form is wrong,” said Human Rights Campaign Wisconsin State Director Wendy Strout in a statement, adding that Evers “continues to demonstrate that he will fight day in and day out [for] fairness, justice and equality.”

Freedom for All Americans noted that Evers is actually the fourth governor to sign an antidiscrimination pledge in three weeks—two of whom were Republicans. These included Outgoing Governors John Kasich of Ohio and Rick Snyder of Michigan, as well as Michigan’s new Democrat governor, Gretchen Whitmer.

“The momentum for LGBTQ nondiscrimination is undeniable,” its CEO, Masen Davis, concluded.

“Discrimination can and does impact so many LGBTQ people every day,” he continued. “We’re not wasting any time moving the ball forward in 2019—we believe that these executive orders from governors of both parties demonstrate the urgent need to pass enduring and comprehensive protections through state legislatures.”

This issue could soon be headed for the federal legislature, as well.

Incoming Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi pledged Democrats would push for the Equality Act if the party retook the House of Representatives in the 2018 midterms. Following the election, Democrats now hold a 36-seat advantage.

If passed, the Equality Act would prohibit anti-LGBTQ bias in all walks of life—including federal funding, education, credit, public accommodations, and jury selection.

It’s unlikely, however, to survive the Senate, where Republicans retain the majority.