A conservative Republican lawmaker in the House of Delegates took to Twitter and other social media platforms this past weekend announcing that he is gay. Twenty-four year old Joshua Higginbotham said that he felt he owed it to the voters of West Virginia, after recently deciding to share it with his family and friends.
Higginbotham, who was first elected to the House when he was only 19, represents rural Putnam County located alongside Interstate 64 between the state’s capital city of Charleston to the East and Huntington to the West. His campaign adverts have all trumpeted his avid support of the Second Amendment as well as taking a pro-life position.
However, a check of some of his recent legislation shows a more progressive mindset. He is lead sponsor on House Bill 2998, a measure amending the State’s current codes relating to unlawful discriminatory practices in four categories covered by the West Virginia Human Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act, adding language that prohibits discrimination based upon age and sexual orientation, or gender identity; and defining “sexual orientation” and “gender identity.”
That measure, earlier in the legislative session, led to a series of conflicts which involved the state’s only other openly gay lawmaker, Democratic Delegate Cody Thompson (D43-Marion). Republican House Delegate John Mandt, who resigned after posting an anti-gay slur but then was re-elected drew harsh criticism for an extended online diatribe opposing protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity the Associated Press reported earlier this year on February 7, 2021.
In his social media video as well as in an interview with reporter Anthony Conn from the local ABC News affiliate WCHS 8 in Charleston, Higginbotham said, “I am still a Christian. People think that gay people can’t be Christians. I believe God loves me no matter what. I’m still a conservative Republican. That’s rare, I know, but you can be gay and Republican. You can be gay and conservative.”
He added referring to his conservative politics that “nothing changes except now [you] know about my personal life.”
The statewide LGBTQ advocacy group Fairness West Virginia applauded the delegate’s decision to come out. “We think that it’s great that Delegate Higginbotham can lead his authentic life now. This must be a big burden that’s lifted off his shoulders,” Executive Director Andrew Schneider told WCHS ABC 8.
There are some in the state who are critical of Higginbotham. One source who asked to not be identified, told the Blade in a phone call Tuesday that Higginbotham’s support of former President Trump raised some doubts as to his veracity especially in issues surrounding Transgender West Virginians.
A measure introduced by freshmen New York Representative Ritchie Torres (D15-Bronx) that would ensure that financial institutions are providing LGBTQ-owned small businesses equal access to credit was blocked by the Republican caucus this week.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in a statement after the vote noted, “House Republicans are using Pride Month to attack LGBTQ-owned small businesses. […] Passing this uncontroversial bill to help small businesses stay afloat during a pandemic should be a no-brainer.”
“Sadly, no attack is too low for this House Republican Conference, not even attacking LGBTQ-owned small businesses during Pride Month,” Pelosi added.
The openly gay Ritchie tweeted, “The Republicans in the House voted down my legislation, HR 1443, which would protect LGBTQ-owned businesses from discrimination. A slap in the face to the LGBTQ community right in the heart of Pride Month.”
Democratic Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed an executive order Monday that prohibits use of state funds for the practice of conversion therapy on minors.
Erin Knott, the Executive Director of Equality Michigan was present for the signing ceremony telling the Blade by phone afterwards, “Since Day 1, she has said she do what she could to stop this barbaric practise. She had worked with us in 2019 getting started on this issue but then the pandemic hit and other issues surrounding that [COVID19] in the state so it was delayed till now.”
Knott reflected that the Executive Order, 2021-3, prevents a discredited practise noting that, “it has been used on too many young people in our community to make them feel like there is something wrong with who they are. These children have been subjected to abusive and hateful practices when they should be held and loved.”
“Since day one, I have made it clear that hate has no home in Michigan,” said Whitmer. “My administration is committed to addressing the systemic barriers faced by young LGBTQ+ Michiganders so that our state is a place where they are able to reach their full potential. The actions we take today will serve as a starting point in protecting our LGBTQ+ youth from the damaging practice of conversion therapy and in ensuring that Michigan is a reflection of true inclusion.”
By signing the order, the governor said that she plans to ensure that taxpayer funding is only used for research-based medical and mental health practices. She has also asked the Michigan legislature to draft a ban on conversion therapy.
“As a pediatrician who works with LGBTQ+ adolescents, I have seen how patients thrive when they are able to be themselves and when their identities are supported,” Dr. Maureen Connolly, a pediatrician in Detroit who specializes in adolescent medicine and caring for the LGBTQ+ community told Detroit ABC News affiliate WZZM 13. “Conversion therapy is the exact opposite of what young people need and has been shown to have long-lasting negative effects including depression, self-harm and decreased self-esteem. I am grateful for this executive action and I know it will have a positive impact on the health of young people across Michigan.”
“LGBTQ youth are beautiful the way that they are and deserve to be loved and respected — not subjected to the dangerous and abusive practice of conversion therapy. Thank you to Governor Whitmer for taking action to protect LGBTQ youth,” said Sam Brinton, Vice President of Advocacy and Government Affairs for The Trevor Project. “While there is still much work to do in the Great Lake State, this is an amazing step forward that will help save young LGBTQ lives in Michigan.”
According to The Trevor Project’s 2021 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health, 13% of LGBTQ youth reported being subjected to conversion therapy, with 83% reporting it occurred when they were under age 18. LGBTQ youth who were subjected to conversion therapy reported more than twice the rate of attempting suicide in the past year compared to those who were not.
A peer-reviewed study by The Trevor Project, published in the American Journal of Public Health, found that LGBTQ youth who underwent conversion therapy were more than twice as likely to report having attempted suicide and more than 2.5 times as likely to report multiple suicide attempts in the past year.
Jalen McKee-Rodriguez, a high school math teacher and graduate student who has lived in San Antonio since 2013, beat his former boss and incumbent in the runoff race for the San Antonio City Council. With his victory, McKee-Rodriguez became the first out gay Black man ever elected in the state of Texas.
McKee-Rodriguez once worked for his opponent, incumbent City Councilwoman Jada Andrews-Sullivan, but left her office in 2019 after facing retaliation for reporting anti-gay discrimination and harassment. Just last week, poll watchers heard two pastors who endorsed Andrews-Sullivan tell congregants voting for McKee-Rodriguez would be a “sin.”
“Jalen shattered a lavender ceiling in Texas, and it came as right-wing state legislators target LGBTQ people and people of color with bigoted policies aimed at rallying their extremist political base,” said former Houston Mayor Annise Parker, President & CEO of LGBTQ Victory Fund. “We need more people of color, young people and LGBTQ people in state and local government who will ensure politicians look to improve the lives of Texans, not further marginalize them. Jalen’s victory is a rejection of the homophobic and racist politicking so fashionable in Austin and it will inspire more LGBTQ Black leaders to run and win.”
McKee-Rodriguez graduated from the University of Texas at San Antonio, (UTSA) with a BA in Communication in 2017 and will graduate with a Masters of Education in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies this year. McKee-Rodriguez married his husband Nathan, a pharmacy technician, in 2018, and the couple owns a home in the suburban San Antonio Northeast Crossing neighborhood.
The White House announced Thursday that President Joe Biden has nominated Catherine Lhamon to serve as the Assistant Secretary of the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education.
Lhamon currently serves as a Deputy Assistant to the President and Deputy Director of the Domestic Policy Council for Racial Justice and Equity at the White House, where she manages the President’s equity policy portfolio. She is a former attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, (ACLU) and served as chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights from 2017 to 2021.
She has also served as Legal Affairs Secretary to California Governor Gavin Newsom.
Her portfolio at Education, where she previously served in the same position under former President Barack Obama, will include LGBTQ rights, sexual misconduct and racial discrimination in the nation’s K-12 schools, universities and colleges. Lhamon was Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the Department of Education, to which President Obama nominated her and the Senate confirmed her in 2013.
“I am thrilled that President Biden is nominating Catherine Lhamon to serve as Assistant Secretary of the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education. Catherine has devoted her career to ensuring equity is at the core of all her work,” U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said in a statement released by his office Thursday.
“She has a strong record of fighting for communities of color and underserved communities, whether as the current Deputy Director of the Domestic Policy Council, the former chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, or as a civil rights educator at Georgetown University. We are thrilled to have Catherine serving as Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights and know she will continue to fight for fairness, equity, and justice for all of America’s students.”
Lhamon has also litigated civil rights cases at National Center for Youth Law, Public Counsel Law Center, and the ACLU Foundation of Southern California. Lhamon taught federal civil rights appeals at Georgetown University Law Center in the Appellate Litigation Program and clerked for the Honorable William A. Norris on the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
“Catherine Lhamon is the right choice to lead the Department of Education’s civil rights division at such a critical time for the country and the agency. There is much work to do in order to roll back the harmful policies and legacies of Betsy DeVos, from her attacks on transgender students to her unconscionable revocation of discriminatory discipline guidance and rewrite of Title IX rules,” Adele Kimmel, Director of the Students’ Civil Rights Project at Public Justice told the Blade in an email.
“During her previous tenure in the same job, Catherine embraced equality, enforced Title IX and ensured students had an ally inside the federal government. She will do so again, and the Senate should move to quickly confirm her so she can begin the work of restoring the Department’s commitment to protecting the civil rights and dignity of students and implementing the Biden Administration’s pledge to undo the damage that DeVos has done,” Kimmel added.
Born in Virginia and raised in California, Lhamon graduated from Amherst College and Yale Law School. Lhamon and her husband and two daughters are transitioning between California and Maryland.
The disgust, anger, and recriminations over gay New Year’s Eve parties in this seaside resort area of the Mexican state of Jalisco and neighboring Riviera Nayarit, continues to spread in gay online social media — particularly in numerous Twitter threads and on Instagram. One Instagram account, @gaysovercovid has repeatedly called out party goers and party organizers.
Local media outlets in Jalisco and many Mexican social media users are also outraged.
The @gaysovercovid Instagram account has faced wave after wave of backlash from gay influencers many of whom are now embroiled in the controversy after having their Instagram posts publicly disclosed and then shamed by the anonymous account holder. There have been financial rewards offered to anyone who can unmask the account owner’s identity.
The account used the built-in abilities for tracking the influencers’ Facebook locations and Venmo transactions in an effort to uncover where they were attending parties. That brought about severe condemnation from those exposed while others celebrated that the account exposed the bad behavior of gay men.
In one example, in response to a social media post that depicted a Cedars-Sinai ICU registered nurse as a participant, social media users tracked the pictures to an Instagram account (@legstrong) listed for 25-year-old Armstrong Nworka. The Blade determined from online searches Tuesday, including Facebook using the handle ‘@legstrong’ and his surname, Nworka had profiled himself as gay, an RN, and employed at Cedars-Sinai in Beverly Hills.
One of the comments left on his page read: “Disgusting, you give us gay people a bad name. You’re truly nothing more than a plague rat.” Nworka has since taken his Instagram account private. Nworka did not respond to a Blade request for comment.
The Blade also reached out to Cedars-Sinai and was told that there would be no comment on personnel matters.
The ‘plague rat’ comment was mild in comparison to the thousands of other vitriolic responses to other party attendees and especially organizers, labeled by critics as ‘super-spreaders,’ who openly defied both U.S. and Mexican public health mandates and restrictions to help stem the spread of COVID-19.
Palm Springs resident and gay circuit party impresario Jeffrey Sanker held the largest New Year’s Eve weekend bash, which included several events. Originally set to take place in Puerto Vallarta, apparently ignoring the pleas from local health authorities, elected officials as well as residents, Sanker’s White Party Entertainment company was forced to move the event to neighboring Riviera Nayarit after the Jalisco state government banned mass gatherings and implemented more restrictive coronavirus measures.
In a text to ticket holders, Sanker’s company told attendees not to reveal the location of the party, nor could they take any photos or videos of the event. The text said the steps were necessary because they “do not want this getting out and causing any issues with the public.”
That text was screenshot and then posted by @gaysovercovid as well as other accounts, which prompted one local news outlet in Puerto Vallarta, the Puerto Vallarta News, to editorialize on its social media accounts prior to the events:
“If you are interested in still visiting the COVID Superspreader New Years Eve Celebration where foreigners come to our community and throw big parties and leave COVID while causing our businesses to close and people lose their jobs- […] COVID isn’t causing businesses to suffer, it’s the actions of people. We are tired of it. We have supported this event in past years and given it positive coverage, but this year it’s irresponsible and should be canceled.”
In a phone call with an editor at PVN on Tuesday, the Blade was told that the area’s main healthcare facility, Puerto Vallarta Hospital was at 100% occupancy with COVID-19 patients and that the state of Jalisco had reached 65% positivity rate.
Officials in Jalisco uniformly condemned the fact that so many had traveled from the United States just to party without seeming to care about the consequences for local residents, many of whom are employed as staff in the restaurants, bars, hotels and transportation systems.
“They came to have sex, to dance it seems and to make party without regard to spread of COVID,” one government source told the Blade. “They have no sense of responsibility — don’t care about peoples here,” he added.
As part of the weekend long event, the PV Delice, a catamaran that featured a live band and open bar, began taking on water and sank off the coast of Puerto Vallarta on Dec. 31, around 5 p.m. while crew members frantically called for help to rescue passengers. Video posted on Instagram, Tik-Tok and Facebook documented at least 10 other boats rushing to aid the sinking vessel and plucking 60 victims out of the choppy water.
Witnesses told local news outlets that the boat was filled with White Party celebrants and was overcrowded. The boat sank to the bottom of the bay and there were no reports of injuries.
One passenger, a gay man from Chicago, Emilio Blanco, told the local LGBTQ news outlet, Out and About PV, “It was like the Titanic, it went all down slowly. I think the crew just didn’t know how to maneuver the catamaran very well, the sea was not very rough nor was it too windy. We were about to sail back to Puerto Vallarta, but the catamaran barely moved. I saw at least 10 small boats coming to help, I jumped in a private boat whose owners were graceful enough to send their captain help out. It was quite a scary situation.”
A spokesperson for Adrián Bobadilla García, head of the municipal agency of Puerto Vallarta, told the Blade Tuesday that the municipal government had made numerous notifications to the public regarding mandatory use of masks and maintaining social distance in public. He said that the boardwalk during the holiday however, wasn’t closed nor were the beaches. He conceded that enforcement was not as stringent as it should have been.
A majority of gay party attendees reportedly stayed in Puerto Vallarta. As a result, beaches were jammed mostly with maskless celebrants. One local resident who provided pictures and video to NBC Palm Springs said it was a “superspreader nightmare.”
“It is with sadness and anger that we have Americans at the height of a pandemic surge travel to Mexico to participate in New Year’s Eve parties knowing that people of color are disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19,” said City of Huntington Park, Calif. Councilman Eddie Martinez, who also heads the Latino Equality Alliance.
“The action of these travelers has now put hotel workers, servers, janitors, and drivers at risk for the disease as well as to possibly put an additional strain on the hospital system in both Mexico and the United States. Party promoters and sponsors need to be held accountable if their actions result in more deaths for families, especially within the LGBTQ community,” Martinez added.
The never-ending war by LGBTQ+ creators to protect their accounts against bullies who manipulate the automated fiefdom that is Instagram, has once again claimed another casualty as two gay Instagrammers had their account disabled with no apparent hope of appeal.
The reason is that the social media company, owned by Facebook, is built on a system that makes it nearly impossible to restore an account, have a fair hearing with human interaction, or even receive email communications to dispute the company’s seemingly arbitrary decisions to disable or delete an account.
This allows the anti-LGBTQ+ trolls who target LGBTQ+ people nearly free reign.
There is a long history of the Instagram “systems” targeting LGBTQ people, based on the ability of online trolls to be able to manipulate those systems. In May of 2017, Joe Putignano, the author of the bestseller “Acrobaddict” and a gay man who is also a Cirque du Soleil performing artist, model, and a Broadway performer wrote in the Huffington Post,
“We have learned that Instagram does not investigate pictures or accounts that get removed; it is based on an algorithm and bot from a number of reports that deem the account to be either inappropriate or unfit. Instagram claims to take their harassment and bullying seriously; however in a world where LBGTQ people are still considered “inappropriate” where anything we do is considered “adult content” or “pornographic,” then this raises the question “Is our community actually truly safe from discrimination and harassment?”
He then added, “My own account, @joeputignano, had 264.2K followers and disappeared last week when Instagram decided to delete it without word or warning. I woke up in the morning, and it was gone. I was someone who had been harassed since the inception of my account and had been very public about that harassment because I was trying to get help to stop it. It wasn’t a minor harassment either; it was an army of people with fake accounts using homophobic slurs and remarks to report every photo I posted.”
Like most people caught up in the never-ending vortex of non-communications and auto-response, Putignano, also received no answers. However after a concerted campaign of Facebook posts and publicity the social media company relented and reactivated his account.
For husbands Matthew Olshefski and Paul Castle, not unlike Putignano, they now also face the never-ending battle with the social media giant trying to regain access and reestablish their account disabled due to the anti-LGBTQ forces that bully the community at large and Instagram which makes no allowances to stop this scenario from repeating.
Shortly after Matthew and Paul went on their first date in 2016, they started sharing their stories and talents on the internet.
Paul is an artist with a rare form of blindness, and Matthew is a classical violinist who survived a cult in his childhood years. Bonded by their love of the arts, and a shared understanding of “overcoming the odds”, not only did Matthew and Paul become social media influencers: They fell in love and got married.
Along the way, their combined creative forces garnered 100,000 instagram followers, 150,000 TikTok followers, 200,000 Facebook followers, and over 15 million YouTube views.
Matthew shared his beautiful violin music; Paul shared his paintings and illustrations; and together they shared a love story built on unconditional support and a deep admiration for each other.
When the pandemic forced the world indoors last March, Matthew and Paul started their own podcast called “His and His” which touts itself as a “conversation between husbands.” Each week, Matthew and Paul discuss different topics relating to their experiences as gay men. From coming out, to dealing with homophobia, to getting married.
“We had no idea our podcast would resonate with so many people around the world. We have received countless messages from listeners thanking us for giving them the courage to be themselves,” says Paul. “We were so humbled.”
At the launch of their podcast, Matthew and Paul also started a joint Instagram page simply called “Matthew and Paul” where they shared daily pictures along with essay-style posts about their lives together.
“I was stunned by the reaction to our Instagram page,” says Matthew. “I had no idea our stories would bring hope to so many people. Every day we received hundreds of messages from people around the world, thanking us for being so open about our lives and experiences.”
Within a handful of months, the Instagram page grew to 33,000 followers.
“We’ve been creating social media content for over 4 years. This was the fastest growth we’ve ever seen. Something was really connecting with people,” says Paul. “We were thrilled to be representing a same-sex relationship in such a positive way.”
Matthew and Paul’s social media presence began to shift from hobby, to part-time work, and finally to a full-time job. By May of 2020, social media influencing was their primary source of income.
Then, on the morning of December 20, 2020, Matthew and Paul logged onto their shared Instagram account only to find…nothing.
It was gone.
“Your account has been disabled for pretending to be someone else.”
Matthew and Paul were stunned. Pretending to be someone else? For the past 4 years, all Matthew and Paul had aimed to do was be their most authentic selves. It was, in fact, the most frequent comment from their fanbase.
“It’s ironic that we were accused of being someone else,” says Paul, “when our fans and followers thank us for being ‘real’ on a daily basis.”
The next window prompted Matthew and Paul to submit photo identification and await an email from Instagram within 24 hours. An email never came.
“While we waited for the email, we did some research online and discovered people in similar situations waited over 2 months to hear back from Instagram” says Matthew, “and others never heard back at all.”
Meanwhile, their many fans were concerned and confused. What happened to the daily pictures and stories of love that had provided them with so much hope?
“We love bringing this kind of content to the world,” says Paul. “But it’s more than just a bunch of pictures and posts; it’s a message of equality and representation in a world where homophobia still thrives.”
They have been left wondering: Was the takedown an act of discrimination?
“We want answers,” adds Matthew, “but more importantly, we want to get back to what we were doing, being our most authentic selves.”
This is not an issue that occurs in isolated circumstances either it is widespread on the Instagram platform. Adding to the frustrations of LGBTQ users who have lost access to their accounts is the fact that like most of the IT/Internet companies in the San Francisco Bay area which have gone remote as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and its continuing grip on California and elsewhere, Instagram is not staffed except remotely.
A source knowledgeable of the company’s operations but not authorized to speak to the media told the Blade that almost complete reliance on the automated systems and next to no human oversight as a result of the remote virtual work environment has developed into a backlog of disputed decisions on accounts that have been disabled- as a direct result of the algorithms being tripped by repeated so-called ‘complaints’ over content in particular.
The Los Angeles Blade has reached out to Instagram for comment but has not received a response.