South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem released a national advertisement on Thursday promoting legislation that targets transgender youths.
Without saying the word “transgender” or “trans,” the ad promotes a bill that Noem, a Republican, introduced last month. The measure would prevent trans girls from playing on any female sports teams at school, including club teams.
Noem, the first woman to serve as South Dakota governor, said it would be “the strongest law in the nation protecting female sports.”
“In South Dakota, only girls play girls’ sports,” the ad begins. “Why? Because of Gov. Kristi Noem’s leadership. Noem has been protecting girls’ sports for years and never backed down.”https://iframe.nbcnews.com/Qt6aXee?_showcaption=true&app=1
Noem wrote on Twitter that the ad, which promotes her 2022 re-election campaign, will appear on prime-time national news shows Thursday evening.
But last month, she made an about-face, introducing the new bill, which mandates that students compete on sports teams that match the sex listed on their birth certificates “issued at or near the time of the athlete’s birth.”
“Common sense tells us that males have an unfair physical advantage over females in athletic competition,” the governor said in a statement at the time.
“I am certain that Governor Noem would much rather talk about this issue than her pandemic response,” said Gillian Branstetter, a longtime trans advocate and the media manager for the National Women’s Law Center. “We have significantly larger problems, for example, problems that exist! Those would be good problems to solve as opposed to conjuring fictional ghosts of a changing society and attempting to exploit people’s ignorance.”
Major sports organizations, including the NCAA and the International Olympic Committee, allow transgender and nonbinary athletes to compete on teams that correspond to their gender identity under certain conditions. The IOC updated its guidelines on transgender athletes in November, removing policies that required competing trans athletes to undergo what it described as “medically unnecessary” procedures or treatment.
However, South Dakota and 29 other states introduced restrictions on trans athletes last year, according to the Human Rights Campaign, an advocacy group. Ten states have passed laws restricting trans athletes, with nine doing so last year.
Since the start of the new year, state lawmakers in at least seven states have proposed laws that would limit the rights of transgender and nonbinary youths. Several of those measures mirror Noem’s bill, blocking trans students from competing on school sports teams that align with their gender identity.
Nearly seven years after the Supreme Court ruled same-sex marriage the law of the land, New Jersey enacted a law Monday to protect this relatively new right throughout the Garden State.
Prior to the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Obergefell v. Hodges — which legalized sex-marriage nationwide in 2015 — New Jersey’s state courts had already struck down a same-sex marriage ban in 2013.
But as a majority of the Supreme Court’s conservative justices appeared open to overturning Roe v. Wade last month, new fears that the court could also make an about-face on the Obergefell ruling have prompted some lawmakers to enshrine same-sex marriage into state law.
“We’ve been fighting for marriage equality for decades, and to turn back the clock would be devastating,” New Jersey Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, who co-sponsored the newly passed bill, told NBC News. “I can’t emphasize enough the fact that we need to safeguard it in light of what’s happening on a federal level today.”
Both chambers of the New Jersey Legislature passed the bill last month, and New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, signed it into law Monday.
“Despite the progress we have made as a country, there is still much work to be done to protect the LGBTQ+ community from intolerance and injustice,” Murphy said in a statement. “New Jersey is stronger and fairer when every member of our LGBTQ+ family is valued and given equal protection under the law.”
Last month, the Supreme Court heard 90 minutes of oral arguments concerning a Mississippi law that would ban almost all abortions in the state after 15 weeks of pregnancy. A majority of the court’s conservative justices appeared prepared to uphold the law and possibly overturn Roe v. Wade — the 1973 landmark decision holding that women have a constitutional right to have an abortion before fetal viability, usually around 24 weeks.
The prospect of the 1973 ruling being overturnedhas prompted fears among lawmakers and LGBTQ advocates that the justices might also walk back precedent on a range of other cases, including Obergefell.
Before the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide, 37 states and U.S. territories had already legalized marriage equality. But of those, only 19 had legalized the nuptials through state legislation, according to an NBC News analysis. Therefore, if the Supreme Court were to overturn Obergefell, same-sex marriage would be prohibited in the majority of the country and vulnerable in states where it was not written into law.
“The Supreme Court right now is showing us that nothing is guaranteed,” West Virginia Del. Cody Thompson said. “A lot of things that we take for granted right now, that we think are enshrined and are safe, ultimately now we’re realizing are not safe and are not necessarily always going to be there for us unless we remain vigilant.”
In response to the court’s oral arguments on reproductive rights, Thompson and fellow West Virginia Del. Danielle Walker — who are the Legislature’s only out LGBTQ lawmakers — said they will introduce a bill this month to codify same-sex marriage into law, similar to the legislation New Jersey enacted this week. West Virginia legalized same-sex marriage through litigation in 2014, but it never enshrined the right through legislation.
While the court’s seeming willingness to overturn Roe v. Wade has sparked fears among some state lawmakers, lawyers who argued in favor of gay rights in landmark LGBTQ cases shot down the notion that the high court would overturn the same-sex marriage decision even if given the opportunity to do so.
“I appreciate that you have legislatures who are trying to step in and do what they can to update their laws,” said Mary Bonauto, who argued on behalf of same-sex couples in Obergefell and now serves as the civil rights project director at GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders, or GLAD. “We all just have to be careful to avoid giving credence to the idea that reversing Obergefell is inevitable. We are not expecting this. It would be outrageous.”
Bonauto added that Obergefell was “constitutionally correct” because the court has repeatedly made clear that “marriage is a choice for the individual to make and not the government” and is “part of equality.”
Over the last several decades, the court has struck down laws when states tried to prevent people from marrying on the basis of their race, criminal history and their ability to pay child support payments.
Paul Smith, who argued in favor of gay rights in Lawrence v. Texas, which struck down state laws criminalizing consensual same-sex activity in 2003, agreed with Bonauto, saying it is “unlikely” that the court would overturn Obergefell because it is “incredibly popular.”
Support for same-sex marriage among Americans reached an all-time high last year, according to a June Gallup Poll, with 70 percent of Americans — including a majority of conservatives — in favor of it.
“The court would be shooting itself in the foot if it were to do this,” Smith said.
Regardless, in 2020, following the Supreme Court’s rejection of an appeal from Kim Davis, a former Kentucky county clerk who denied marriage licenses to same-sex couples, two of the court’s conservative justices, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, issued a blistering rebuke of the Obergefell ruling and signaled that they would be open to reversing it.
The justices said Davis “may have been one of the first victims of this Court’s cavalier treatment of religion in its Obergefell decision, but she will not be the last,” adding that the high court “has created a problem that only it can fix.”
Some legal experts pointed to this statement and some of the court’s more recent rulings involving same-sex couples as evidence that marriage equality remains vulnerable.
“The justices have been asked to chip away at the equality and liberty of same-sex couples in a variety of different contexts, and the Supreme Court has not done an adequate job in recent years of rebuffing those efforts,” said Camilla Taylor, director of constitutional litigation for LGBTQ civil rights organization Lambda Legal. “And so, certainly our opponents feel like they have an open invitation right now.”
Throughout the first week of the year, state lawmakers in at least seven states proposed laws that would limit the rights of transgender and nonbinary youths.
Republican lawmakers in Arizona, Alabama, Indiana, Kentucky, Oklahoma, New Hampshire and South Dakota introduced at least nine measures that target trans and nonbinary youths, such as their ability to participate in sports, receive gender-affirming care or use the bathroom.
“Unfortunately, I think we’re getting ready to watch a race to the bottom among legislators who are in a competition to see who can do the most harm to trans kids,” said Gillian Branstetter, a longtime trans advocate and the media manager for women’s advocacy group the National Women’s Law Center. “It is a hostile and dangerous trend that I’m sure we’ll see continue through the year.”
The majority of this week’s measures mirror the two types of legislation that dominated last year’s record number of anti-trans bills: measures that block trans kids from competing on school sports teams that align with their gender identity and those that restrict their access to gender-affirming care.
Last year, bills prohibiting health care for trans youth were introduced in more than 20 states, with two states — Arkansas and Tennessee — signing them into law, according to a tally from the American Civil Liberties Union. And out of the more than 30 states to introduce restrictions on trans athletes last year, nine states enacted the legislation into law, according to advocacy group the Human Rights Campaign.
Supporters of the bills have largely argued that they want to prevent young people from making medical decisions they might later regret and to protect the rights of cisgender girls and women in school sports.
“It is unfortunate that we see this as removing the rights of any people,” Republican state Rep. Rhonda Milstead, who introduced South Dakota’s trans sports ban this week, told NBC News in an email. “If competitive sports are made to be fair, there is a place for everyone to compete according to the biology they were born with.”
Conversely, major sports organizations, including the National Collegiate Athletic Association and International Olympic Committee, allow transgender and nonbinary athletes to compete on teams that correspond to their gender identity under certain conditions. The IOC updated its guidelines on transgender athletes in November, removing controversial policies that required competing trans athletes to undergo what it described as “medically unnecessary” procedures or treatment.
Another type of measure proposed this week aims to block trans kids in South Dakota from using multi-occupancy shower rooms, restrooms or locker rooms. However, Republican state Rep. Fred Deutsch, who introduced the bill, denied that the bill involved trans youth and disparaged the concept of gender identity.
“All across the country, including in South Dakota, laws and policies are being changed to redefine sex in a manner that denies the material reality of sex,” Deutsch wrote in an email. “This bill is designed to ensure that, at least in South Dakota, we maintain a definition of sex that actually reflects reality.”
The South Dakota proposal would also allow students to sue their school district if they encounter trans students in any of these settings or if a teacher permits trans students to use single-sex bathrooms that align with their gender identity.
In other words, the proposed legislation relies on “bounty-type penalty systems” modeled after Texas Senate Bill 8, a controversial law that permits private citizens from across the country to sue abortion providers in Texas, said Chase Strangio, the deputy director for transgender justice at the ACLU LGBT & HIV Project.
Strangio predicted that legislation with similar clauses will be a common theme of 2022.
“One concern that people have moving forward is, ‘How are lawmakers going to try and avoid accountability and judicial review?’ I think one way is to limit government enforcement of their laws and sort of deputize private individuals to act as government officials to essentially be the people enforcing the law through private lawsuits,” Strangio said.
While state lawmakers have been aggressive in their efforts to limit the rights of transgender and nonbinary youths in recent years, Americans overwhelmingly oppose anti-trans laws: Two-thirds of Americans and majorities among every political ideology and age group oppose laws that would restrict transgender rights, a 2021 PBS NewsHour/NPR/Marist poll found.
Major medical associations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association and the Pediatric Endocrine Society, have also openly opposed bills that limit trans rights, with the AMA warning that they could cause “tragic health consequences, both mental and physical.”
Concerning mental health specifically, LGBTQ advocates have long warned that the bills have been damaging to the already vulnerable group of youths.
A 2021 survey conducted by The Trevor Project, an LGBTQ youth suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization, found that 1 in 5 trans and nonbinary youths attempted suicide within the past year.
Last year’s slew of anti-trans bills cannot be directly attributed to the decline in mental health of LGBTQ youths. However, a separate report from The Trevor Project last year showed that crisis lines experienced a surge in calls from young people living in Texas, which considered over 50 bills targeting trans kids last year, according to advocacy group Equality Texas.From January through August, the organization received nearly 4,000 crisis calls from trans and nonbinary Texan youths, a 150 percent increase compared with the same time period in 2020.
Going forward, Branstetter urged trans and nonbinary Americans to “stand up and fight with every breath that we have” but acknowledged that the drumbeat of anti-trans legislation can sometimes trigger a “sense of doom.”
“It’s very dark, and there’s a strong sense among trans people that we are having the door slammed in our face just as we got our foot in the door,” she said.
“Jeopardy!” champion Amy Schneider made history again on Friday, becoming the highest-earning female contestant in the game show’s nearly 57-year run.
The engineering manager’s 18th consecutive win brought her total earnings to $706,800, bumping her above Larissa Kelly to become the show’s top-earning female player.
Kelly, a science fiction writer and academic who built up a record $655,930 through regular season play and tournament competitions, applauded Schneider’s historic win on Twitter.
“Well, it was fun to hold a Jeopardy record for a few years…but it’s been even more fun to watch @Jeopardamy set new standards for excellence, on the show and off. Congratulations to Amy on becoming the woman with the highest overall earnings in the show’s history!” she wrote.https://iframe.nbcnews.com/fOv9xz6?_showcaption=true&app=1
Schneider responded, tweeting: “Thanks so much, I’m honored to be in your company, and I look forward to some day watching the woman who beats us both!”https://iframe.nbcnews.com/RSvqMQI?_showcaption=true&app=1
The Oakland, California, native’s record-breaking win marked the second time she made game show history this year. Last month, Schneider became the show’s first transgender contestant to qualifyfor the Tournament of Champions, an annual competition among 15 players who have earned the most money from the prior season.
Despite the historic nature of her win for the LGBTQ community, Schneider has said she does not want her gender identity to be her entire persona.
“I didn’t want to make too much about being trans, at least in the context of the show,” she wrote in a Twitter thread last month. “I am a trans woman, and I’m proud of that fact, but I’m a lot of other things, too!”
Schneider’s Friday win also made her the fourth-highest earner in a single season, according to a tally on the show’s website. Her earnings put her behind only Ken Jennings, James Holzhauer and Matt Amodio — who earned $2,520,700, $2,462,216 and $1,518,601 in a single season, respectively.
On Monday night, Schneider nudged her earnings up to $745,200 with a 19th consecutive win.
If she wins again Tuesday, Schneider will make game show history for a third time this year, tying with supply chain professional Julia Collins, who won the most consecutive games among the show’s female contestants in 2014.
A Colorado man launched a Facebook page to help solve cases involving LGBTQ people who are missingor have died but have yet to be officially identified.
Lazarus Rise, who is transgender, started the Missing and Unidentified LGBT Individuals Facebook page in April 2020. He was inspired to do so after discovering a decades-old case of a missing woman who investigators originally thought was cisgender but later discovered she was transgender.
The unidentified trans woman was found dead and was believed to have been killed in Clermont, Florida, in 1988. Investigators learned she was transgender after her body underwent DNA testing in 2015, upending the case.
“How many other people are out there like that — unidentified — that could have been trans, but you never know it because they can’t speak for themselves anymore?” Rise asked during an interview with KUSA, an NBC affiliate in Denver. “So, it really started making me think about all the people that have gone missing and unidentified that no one ever noticed or cared about it.”
LGBTQ people — and transgender and gender-nonconforming people in particular — disproportionately face discrimination and violence in the United States. At least 50trans or gender-nonconforming people, the majority of them Black, have died by violence this year, making 2021 the deadliest year on record for trans people, according to the Human Rights Campaign, which has been tracking fatal anti-trans violence since 2013.
Rise’s missing LGBTQ persons Facebook page acknowledges this, noting that while the page is dedicated to finding all missing LGBTQ people, it has a “strong focus on missing and unknown transgender/gender non-conforming individuals.”
Missing people the page has recently highlighted include Aubrey Dameron — a 25-year-old Indigenoustrans woman who went missing in Grove, Oklahoma, in March 2019 — and Baby James Dawson, a Black trans woman who went missing in Caldwell, Texas, in October 2020.
“There is such a lack of representation, especially with queer, Black and brown people,” Rise told KUSA. “No one really cares, and it is such an injustice. So if I could do whatever I can and just put my articles out there and just get people to read and talk about it, then I’m doing my job.”
Rise added that he hopes the page will ensure that missing and unidentified LGBTQ people are identified by their correct names and pronouns.
“Trans people, they fight hard for their identities and their names, so it’s the least I could hope is to give that back to them in hopes that they can be respected in death,” Rise said.
A report released last month by the Human Right Campaign found that in approximately 80 percent of the reported transgender fatalities since 2013, victims were initially misgendered by the media or law enforcement. And in at least 30 of the 50 trans fatalities recorded this year, police initially misgendered victims and used their birth names, an NBC News analysis found.
In participation with the NFL’s My Cause My Cleats fundraiser, Nassib created the rainbow cleats this season to spotlight the LGBTQ youth suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization the Trevor Project.
As part of the campaign, players can custom design their own cleats to raise awareness for the nonprofit organizations of their choice. Players then auction off the cleats to raise money for the groups. https://iframe.nbcnews.com/mQeU0Lh?_showcaption=true&app=1
Cyd Zeigler, LGBTQ advocate and co-founder of the LGBTQ sports site Outsports.com, celebrated Nassib’s support, conceding that visible support for the LGBTQ community is a rarity among NFL players.
“I have been, for a couple of years, pointing to the fact that no NFL players ever choose LGBTQ causes and it’s a real source of disappointment,” Zeigler said of the cleats campaign, which began in 2016. “People talk about the importance of allies and I say all the time, that we can’t wait for allies to show up, that LGBTQ people have to push for our own visibility and our own equality.”
Before this year, Miami Dolphins receiver Preston Williams was the only NFL player out of hundreds to highlight LGBTQ causes. Williams dedicated his cleats in 2019 to the Miami-based LGBTQ advocacy group Pridelines.
Nassib’s cleats featured the Trevor Project’s name printed in bright orange and the number to its suicide prevention lifeline: 1-866-488-7386. He previously donated $100,000 to the group when came out earlier this year.https:
But Nassib was not the only player to support LGBTQ causes this year. Cleveland Browns fullback and LGBTQ ally Johnny Stanton, whose uncle is gay, created rainbow cleats in support of Athlete Ally, which promotes LGBTQ inclusion in sports.
“No one should feel unwelcome on the field or the court. If just one person being an ally can help them feel more comfortable, then I’m happy to be that person,” Stanton said in a statement the NFL shared on Twitter last week.
More than 600 best-selling authors, publishers, bookstore owners and advocacy groups Wednesday condemned the recent wave of LGBTQ- and race-related book bans in public school libraries across the country.
Over the last several weeks, lawmakers, school officials and parents in at least 10 states — including New York, Texas and Virginia — have sought to rid books about the lived experiences of Black and LGBTQ people from elementary, middle and high schools.
Some who are challenging the books argue that they contain graphic illustrations of LGBTQ sexual experiences or portray an unflattering image of the country’s history with race.
But in a joint statement, signatories — led by the National Coalition Against Censorship, an alliance of 57 American nonprofit groups that advocate for free expression — called the effort to ban the books an “organized political attack” that “threatens the education of America’s children.”
“Libraries offer students the opportunity to encounter books and other material that they might otherwise never see and the freedom to make their own choices about what to read,” the statement read. “Denying young people this freedom to explore — often on the basis of a single controversial passage cited out of context — will limit not only what they can learn but who they can become.”
The group included more than 50 independent bookstores, nearly 80 advocacy groups, top American publishing companies (including Penguin Random House and Scholastic) and dozens of authors, including bestselling children’s book author Judy Blume.
Books about race, sexual orientation and gender identity have historically been challenged in schools, but over the last several weeks, school libraries have seen a surge of opposition.
Last month, the governors of Texas and South Carolina urged state school officials to ban several books that contain “pornography” and “obscene” content. A school board member in Flagler County, Florida, filed a criminal report with local authorities after finding copies of “All Boys Aren’t Blue” —a young-adult memoir detailing the trials of being a Black queer boy — in her district’s school libraries. And in Virginia’s Spotsylvania County, school board members voted to have books with “sexually explicit” material removed from school library shelves, with two board members calling for the books to be incinerated.
“I’ve worked at ALA for two decades now, and I’ve never seen this volume of challenges come in,” she said. “The impact will fall to those students who desperately want and need books that reflect their lives, that answer questions about their identity, about their experiences that they always desperately need and often feel that they can’t talk to adults about.”
Queer advocates who signed on to the statement echoed Caldwell-Stone’s concerns with regards for the LGBTQ community.
“Every LGBTQ young person needs to see themselves in stories about their lives, to let them know they belong just as they are,” Sarah Kate Ellis, the president and CEO of GLAAD, an LGBTQ media advocacy organization, said in a statement. “All leaders must speak up against hostile rhetoric and behavior targeting vulnerable young people and books about their lives, and prioritize protecting children and safe spaces for all to learn.”
Author Kelly Yang signed on to the statement after her children’s novel “Front Desk,” about a Chinese-immigrant experience, was challenged by school administrators in Plainedge, New York, and York County, Pennsylvania, in September.
She said she was pushing back because growing up, she never saw herself represented in books.
“I remember living through that and feeling so incredibly lonely,” Yang said. “We finally made this great progress and the fact that this can be so easily wiped out by these book bans, and to have all of these books be pulled and in some cases burned, it sort of feels like an existential crisis. It just feels like we could be erased at any moment, and that’s a dehumanizing feeling.”
Federal prosecutors arrested a man Monday who they said threatened to attack this year’s New York City Pride March with “firepower” that would “make the 2016 Orlando Pulse Nightclub shooting look like a cakewalk.”
Officials from the FBI and the New York Joint Terrorism Task Force announced that Robert Fehring, 74, was charged with mailing dozens of letters threatening to assault, shoot and bomb LGBTQ-affiliated individuals, organizations and businesses, including New York City’s annual Pride festival.
After executing a search warrant at his home in Bayport, New York, last month, law enforcement agents recovered photographs from a Pride event on Long Island this year, two loaded shotguns, hundreds of rounds of ammunition, two stun guns and a stamped envelope addressed to an LGBTQ-affiliated attorney containing the remains of a dead bird, federal prosecutors said.
“Fehring’s alleged threats to members of the LGBTQ+ community were not only appalling, but dangerous, despite the fact he hadn’t yet acted on his purported intentions,” Michael J. Driscoll, the assistant director-in-charge of the FBI’s New York Field Office, said in a statement.
A criminal complaint released Monday said Fehring had sent more than 60 threatening letters to members of and organizations affiliated with the LGBTQ community since 2013 and as recently as September.
In many of the letters, he describes LGBTQ individuals as worse than the “bottom of the pig-pen” or states that “even animals know better” than to engage in same-sex activity, according to the complaint.
Notably, the complaint stated that Fehring threatened that there would “be radio-cont[r]olled devices placed at numerous strategic places” at the 2021 New York City Pride March with “firepower” that would “make the 2016 Orlando Pulse Nightclub shooting look like a cakewalk,” referring to the massacre at the gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, which left 49 people dead and dozens injured.
NYC Pride, which runs New York City’s Pride march, “received threatening letters earlier this year and reported them,” the organization’s executive director, Sandra Pérez, told NBC News in an email.
“We are cooperating in any way we can, and we remain committed to the safety and well-being of the LGBTQIA+ community,” she added.
Prosecutors also detailed an incident in which Fehring allegedly sent a letter threatening the organizer of the Long Island Pride event in East Meadow, New York. The letter called the organizer a “freak” and stated, in part, “You are being watched. No matter how long it takes, you will be taken out…. high-powered bullet…. bomb….knife…. whatever it takes.”
Last month, Fehring waived his Miranda rights and allowed federal prosecutors to interview him, according to the complaint. During the interview, he acknowledged that he authored certain letters under investigation and that he had a general animosity toward the LGBTQ community, according to the complaint.
There is “a sick overdose of that stuff being shoved down everybody’s face on the paper, on the TV and all over the place and I’m not a fan of any of the homosexuality, homosexual thing,” he said.
Fehring is expected to make his initial appearance in court Monday afternoon.
Canada this week banned conversion therapy, a debunked treatment that aims to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
A bill making it a crime to subject Canadians of any age to the discredited practice became law Wednesday after Canada’s Parliament passed the measure this month.
“It’s official: Our government’s legislation banning the despicable and degrading practice of conversion therapy has received Royal Assent — meaning it is now law. LGBTQ2 Canadians, we’ll always stand up for you and your rights,” Canadian President Justin Trudeau wrote on Twitter. https://iframe.nbcnews.com/M7hDVJs?_showcaption=true&app=1
The Canadian law is the latest instance of a growing global effort to eradicate conversion therapy, a practice that ranges from religious counseling to electric shock therapy and has been associated with “severe psychological distress.”
Canada’s ban follows that of Germany, Malta, Ecuador, Brazil and Taiwan. Some of the nations, such as Germany, have passed bans exclusively for minors, whereas others, like Malta, have passed bans for all citizens.
In the United States, 20 states and the District of Columbia have restrictions in place for minors, according to the Movement Advancement Project, a nonprofit think tank. Three states — Florida, Alabama and Georgia — are in a federal judicial circuit with an injunction that blocks conversion therapy bans.
In addition to Canada, France’s Senate voted in favor of legislation this week that would also criminalize the practice, with prison sentences of two to three years and fines up to $50,000.
In 2019, the American Medical Association voiced its support for state and federal efforts to ban conversion therapy, saying that it “has no foundation as scientifically valid medical care and lacks credible evidence to support its efficacy or safety.”
And last year, the United Nations called for the practice to be banned internationally and released a detailed report on the practice’s global implications.
“The attempts to pathologize and erase the identity of individuals, negate their existence as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans or gender diverse and provoke self-loathing have profound consequences on their physical and psychological integrity and well-being,” the report stated.
LGBTQ advocates hailed the Canadian law’s passage.
“To the survivors who have fought for years for a safer, more equal future: thank you and congratulations. This is your moment,” No Conversion Canada, a Canadian nonprofit coalition to end conversion therapy, wrote on Twitter this week.
As Covid-19 brought nearly every corner of the Earth to a halt early last year, researchers around the world scrambled to develop a vaccine to fend off the deadly respiratory coronavirus. And just several months later — in a process that normally takes years — several vaccines were ready for worldwide distribution.
In comparison, about 40 years since the earliest reports of what became known as AIDS, scientists are still scratching their heads to develop a vaccine against the virus that causes the life-threatening disease — HIV.
But as the anniversary of the first Covid-19 vaccine shots approaches, experts say the brisk development of the lifesaving and highly effective coronavirus vaccines may have brought researchers closer to cracking the code to develop an HIV vaccine.
“There’s a lot of new energy and buzz among scientists looking at how quickly some of the Covid science got done,” said Rowena Johnston, the vice president and director of research at amfAR, an international nonprofit AIDS research group. “I think there’s been a lot of soul-searching about how the scientific enterprise can be improved so that we can better serve the people we’re trying to help.”
Before the coronavirus vaccines, the most rapidly developed vaccine ever created — from sampling to deployment — was for the mumps in the 1960s. The process took about four years.
The federal government has conducted five large-scale Phase 3 HIV vaccine trials, all of which have failed. Its third Phase 3 trial was notable for increasing the likelihood of HIV infection among those who were vaccinated.
Scientists largely blame HIV’s unrelenting evolution inside the body.
“The scale of mutations that HIV produces are beyond anything that’s even in the same realm of what coronavirus does,” Johnston said. “If you mapped out a genetic tree of all the different variants of HIV inside the body of one person, it’s about as equivalent of all the genetic variations of all the influenza virus of all people around the world during one year.”
Therefore, HIV is always one step ahead of the antibody response that failed vaccines trigger in the body, said Dr. Ronald Desrosiers, a professor at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine, who was one of the first scientists to study SIV — the monkey disease from which HIV is thought to have originated.
“The antibodies that’s present in a person can neutralize the virus that was present three months ago, but it can’t neutralize the virus that’s replicating at the current time,” Desrosiers said. “It would be predicted to make development of a vaccine very, very difficult, and those predictions have come true.”
But however elusive an HIV vaccine may be, scientists — including Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the chief medical adviser to the president — say it is “likely” that one could develop from the pioneering technology used to make coronavirus vaccines.
Two of the coronavirus vaccines, those made by the pharmaceutical companies Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, were the first vaccines ever to successfully trigger immune responses using messenger RNA, or mRNA, a genetic material that our cells read to make proteins. The mRNA coronavirus vaccines have proven to be more effective at fending off the virus than the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which resembles more traditional influenza vaccines and does not use mRNA.
Moderna announced in August that it would soon launch a Phase 1 clinical trial for two new mRNA-based HIV vaccines, giving scientists fresh hope.
“If it were just another way to deliver the vaccine ingredients, I would say it would probably have no chance of succeeding where others have failed,” Johnston said.
However, what has piqued Johnston’s interest is that the mRNA coronavirus vaccine is delivered in the body through its lipid nanoparticles. Johnston said the lipid nanoparticles not only help deliver the drug but also act as an adjuvant, a substance that helps strengthen a drug’s effect. And in this case, the adjuvant stimulation effect is working at “a greater extent than any conventional vaccine,” she said.
“When I learned that, it really did give me some hope that finally we have a really, truly a new concept to test in HIV,” she said. “So let’s put our optimistic hats on and hope that this might be the thing that gets us over the finish line.”
Aside from the scientific advancements it sparked, some experts say, the coronavirus pandemic may also indirectly help the HIV vaccine effort by generating more interest in science.
“The world has now increased its scientific literacy. I think the opportunity to build on that in HIV and make people more vaccine-aware and engage in vaccine research and introduction has grown exponentially,” said Mitchell Warren, the executive director of AVAC, a nonprofit organization promoting global HIV treatment.
But others worry that the enthusiasm to stave off the coronavirus pandemic may have come at a cost to HIV research.
When the pandemic pummeled the globe last year, many of the world’s leading HIV researchers shifted gears to the coronavirus. For instance, Johnson & Johnson tapped Dr. Dan Barouch of Harvard Medical School, who has studied HIV for over 15 years, to help develop its coronavirus vaccine.
Overall, scientists who did not pursue Covid-19-related research initiated 36 percent fewer new projects last year compared to 2019, according to a study by Northwestern University that was published in October.
“Sometimes people chase the exciting new thing, they follow the dollars. But we need to get people back to HIV, or there will be a price,” said the director of the Infectious Diseases Initiative at Georgetown University, Jeffrey S. Crowley, a former director of the White House Office of National AIDS Policy.
Regardless of whether the coronavirus will lead to scientific improvements or setbacks, some scientists say defeating HIV will rely more heavily on commonsense global health practices.
“Any pandemic is a day away, and we sort of learned that initially with HIV, but this pandemic has brought that home in an extremely strong way,” said Dr. Kenneth Mayer, a Harvard Medical School professor who is the medical research director of Fenway Health. “What happens in one part of the world doesn’t stay in that part of the world.”