A lawmaker in Belgium last week became Europe’s highest-ranking transgender politician.
The Brussels Times reported Prime Minister Alexander De Croo named Petra De Sutter as one of his government’s seven deputy prime ministers. The newspaper said De Croo also appointed De Sutter, a member of Groen, the Flemish Green Party, as his civil service minister.
King Philippe on Thursday swore in De Croo’s new government.
De Croo and De Sutter are both from Belgium’s Dutch-speaking region. De Sutter is also a former member of the European Parliament.
“I am proud that in Belgium and in most of Europe your gender identity does not define you as a person and is a non-issue,” tweeted De Sutter on Sunday. “I hope that my appointment as minister and deputy prime minister can trigger the debate in countries where this is not yet the case.”
De Sutter ended her tweet with the hashtag “fight transphobia.”
A gay man from Guatemala who has asked for asylum in the U.S. runs a project that helps LGBTQ asylum seekers in a Mexican border city.
Estuardo Cifuentes arrived in Matamoros, which is across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, Texas, at the end of July 2019 and asked for asylum in the U.S. based on the persecution he said he suffered in Guatemala because of his sexual orientation. Cifuentes on Sept. 24 during a Zoom interview told the Washington Blade he spent a few days in U.S. Customs and Border Protection custody before he was sent back to Matamoros under the Trump administration’s “return to Mexico” (MPP) policy that forces asylum seekers to await the outcome of their cases in Mexico.
“I went back to Matamoros without knowing anything, without knowing anything about the process,” said Cifuentes.
Cifuentes told the Blade he met Gaby Zavala, founder of Resource Center Matamoros, a group that provides assistance to migrants who live in Matamoros soon after he returned to the Mexican border city.
Cifuentes said Resource Center Matamoros and other U.S.-based organizations helped him find housing and legal assistance for his asylum case. Cifuentes told the Blade that he, Zavala and others also began to discuss ways to help LGBTQ migrants who live in a sprawling migrant camp adjacent to the Gateway International Bridge over the Rio Grande that connects Matamoros with Brownsville.
Rainbow Bridge Asylum Seekers was born.
“We managed to coordinate it, we set goals and we ran with the project,” said Cifuentes.
Cifuentes said some of the 14 LGBTQ migrants with whom Rainbow Bridge works live in the Matamoros camp. He told the Blade that Resource Center Matamoros, among other things, provides the migrants with whom he works access to health care providers and lawyers who can help them translate their asylum forms into English.
“Rainbow Bridge is a bridge between other organizations,” he said.
“Since the onset of the refugee encampment in Matamoros, Tamaulipas (the Mexican state in which Matamoros is located), the need for safe spaces for asylum seekers living in the camp from the LGBTQ+ community became a top priority for Resource Center Matamoros,” Zavala told the Blade. “After several attempts to provide that space within the encampment, it became more obvious that creating a specific program whose only focus was the LGBTQ+ members was necessary, so I put the effort in obtaining significant funding to initiate a first-of-its-kind program in the city of Matamoros, Tamaulipas, which is now known as Rainbow Bridge.”
Zavala said she found a “private donor” who provided financial support for the project.
“Once I achieved that, we selected an inspiring asylum seeker, also a member of the LGBTQ+ community with extensive experience in program development as an owner of his own ’empresa’ or business back in his country of Guatemala to direct the program,” she said.
Cifuentes, 32, and his partner of six years ran a digital marketing and advertising business in Guatemala City.
He said gang members extorted money from them. Cifuentes said they closed their business after the gang members attacked them.
Cifuentes said Guatemalan police officers attacked him in front of their home when he tried to kiss his partner. Cifuentes told the Blade the officers tried to kidnap him and one of them shot at him indirectly. He said the police placed him under surveillance under the incident and private cars drove past his home.
“This forced us to leave Guatemala,” said Cifuentes.
Cifuentes told the Blade he decided to ask for asylum in the U.S. because he has relatives in this country and “I can continue my life there.”
“That was the idea … I can go there with them,” he said. “I learned about the asylum process later.”
The State Department advises Americans not to travel to Tamaulipas state because of “crime and kidnapping.” The Mexico-U.S. land border remains closed to non-essential travel because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Cifuentes’ next hearing in his asylum case is scheduled to take place on Oct. 30, but he said it “is dependent” upon coronavirus levels in Matamoros and if the immigration courts in Brownsville will be open. Cifuentes nevertheless said he will continue to help LGBTQ asylum seekers such as himself who remain in Mexico.
“I have the opportunity to understand, to know what it is like to be there, to understand what it is like to be a member of the community, to understand and know what it is like to be a migrant under MPP,” said Cifuentes. “There are many challenges and there are still more vulnerable people who have had less opportunities.”
“I have the opportunity to provide this help,” he added.
Alinson is one of the asylum seekers with whom Rainbow Bridge works.
He is a 41-year-old gay man of African descent from Colombia who has asked for asylum in the U.S. because members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia attacked him because of his sexual orientation and race. The U.S. sent Alinson back to Mexico under MPP in order to await the outcome of his case.
Alinson on Tuesday told the Blade during a telephone interview from Matamoros that Rainbow Bridge brought him to the hospital last week for a brain scan and an electrocardiogram after he suffered a brain hemorrage. Alinson said Rainbow Bridge has also provided him with food and housing outside of the camp.
“It is supporting me,” said Alinson, referring to Rainbow Bridge.
Cifuentes has created a PayPal account that accepts donations for Rainbow Bridge. The link is here.
A journalist in Honduras who publicly condemned anti-LGBTQ violence has been killed.
CNN en Español reported two men on a motorbike shot Luis Almendares three times in Comayagua, a city that is less than two hours northwest of Tegucigalpa, the Central American country’s capital. on Sunday. Almendares died at a Tegucigalpa hospital the following day.
Honduran media reports indicate the two men shot Almendares while he was doing a Facebook Live video.
Criterio, an online Honduran newspaper, reported Almendares “was very known in the municipality of Comayagua for denouncing business owners and the area’s politicians, in particular on issues of corruption and drug trafficking.”
One of Almendares’ colleagues told CNN en Español that he had been receiving death threats because of his work. Sources in Honduras with whom the Washington Blade spoke on Tuesday also confirmed Almendares publicly condemned violence against LGBTQ Hondurans.
One source said Almendares condemned an attack against a transgender woman that took place in Comayagua on Sept. 6. Almendares six days later in a Facebook post he titled “To be Gay in a Country of Machos” wrote about a gay man who was attacked inside a Comayagua bar with a machete.
The post notes police officers and a judge refused to help the man after the attack. Almendares urged his Facebook friends to help the man pay the $89.65 (2,200 Honduran lempiras) he owed to the clinic that treated him.
It is not immediately clear if Almendares’ public condemnations of violence against LGBTQ Hondurans specifically contributed to his death. Reporters Without Borders and other groups note Honduras remains one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists.
CNN en Español reported 86 journalists have been killed in Honduras since 2001, and 90 percent of these murders have not been prosecuted.
Santi Carvajal, a trans woman who hosted a program on a television station in Puerto Cortés, a city on Honduras’ Caribbean coast, was shot to death in July 2019.
Violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity remains commonplace in Honduras, which has one of the world’s highest per capita murder rates. Activists say President Juan Orlando Hernández’s government has either done little to address the problem or made it worse.
“We condemn the crime that took the life of journalist Luis Almendares,” reads a statement that María Andrea Matamoros Castillo, a government spokesperson, shared on her Twitter page on Monday. “The Honduras National Police’s Special Unit immediately launched an investigation.”
“Those responsible will feel the full weight of the law,” adds the statement that notes authorities have leads in Almendares’ murder. “Our solidarity with the family.”
A group of transgender activists are working to open a shelter for homeless trans and gender non-conforming people in New Orleans.
Milan Nicole Sherry, co-director of House of Tulip, told the Washington Blade on July 27 during an interview at her Uptown New Orleans home that she expects the shelter will open in the city next spring or summer.
“We wanted to create a forever home for our community, a space where there were no barriers, a space where they could actually come and get the resources that they need, get the love and nurturing that they need,” said Sherry as her husband, Za’hair Martinez, listened.
Sherry and Mariah Moore, a trans activist who also lives in New Orleans, first came up with the idea that became House of Tulip — Tulip is an acronym that stands for Trans United Leading Intersectional Progress — earlier this year after the coronavirus pandemic largely shut down the city’s hospitality and tourism industries.
“Many of the folks within our community, specifically transgender and non-conforming people who work in the service industry in New Orleans found themselves at risk of losing their jobs,” said Sherry.
House of Tulip Treasurer Dylan Waguespack is also the president of Louisiana Trans Advocates’ board of directors.
Waguespack and three other activists in March created the TGNC Peoples COVID Crisis Fund of Louisiana to help trans and gender non-conforming people in Louisiana pay for food, medication and housing during the pandemic. The fund has raised more than $20,000, but Sherry told the Blade it soon became clear the lack of housing in New Orleans was a long-term problem.
House of Tulip on its website notes a third of trans people in Louisiana “report experiencing homelessness at some point in their lives.”
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development notes the average rent for an apartment in the New Orleans metropolitan area during the first quarter of this year was $1,110 a month. The U.S. Census notes New Orleans has a 24.6 percent poverty rate.
Sherry noted poverty rates are even higher among the city’s Black trans residents. She also told the Blade they are more vulnerable to discrimination and violence because of their gender identity.
Louisiana’s hate crimes law includes sexual orientation, but not gender identity. Two Black trans women — Draya McCarty and Shakie Peters — were found dead earlier this summer in Baton Rouge and Amite City respectively.
“There’s no reason why, even in 2020, that we are seeing the amount of homelessness that we’re seeing in community,” Sherry told the Blade. “There’s no reason why in 2020 we should still be seeing the amount of violence that we’re seeing in this community, but we’re here and this is where we’re at.”
Sherry said GED and job training programs and access to mental health care are among the additional services to which House of Tulip clients will have access.
“This is not just providing folks with just housing,” she said, noting Tulip in the shelter’s name stands for Trans United Leading Intersectional Progress.
The GoFundMe campaign that House of Tulip has launched has thus far raised $412,995. More than 7,000 people have donated to the effort.
“Community has always taken care of community; we have done it since 50 years ago when Stonewall first started,” said Sherry. “Community has always taken care of community; even through times of pandemic, even through a time of Trump … we’ve always shown up for one another, so I’m not surprised that this community has really shown up once again and yet again.”
‘I have nothing to lose, but everything to gain’
Sherry, 29, grew up on New Orleans’ West Bank with nine siblings.
She told the Blade she grew up in a “dominantly male household.”
“I grew up with dealing with a lot of misogyny, toxic masculinity and things of that nature,” said Sherry.
Sherry in 2009 graduated from high school. Sherry the following year became a founding member of BreakOut!,a group that, among other things, works to end police harassment of LGBTQ youth.
“There was literally a time here in New Orleans where you could not walk down the street as a Black trans woman without literally being snatched off of the streets and then thrown into jail and charged with solicitation of prostitution, crimes against nature,” she said. “It was so easy to target and literally harass our community.”
Sherry further noted “as a trans woman, even in my moments where I could have gotten damn near the dog shit beaten out of me, I will not call the police because I had known just from experience … that calling the police did not work out in our best interests.”
“So police, you know, were just never our friends,” she added.
Sherry celebrated her 29th Birthday on July 23.
She told the Blade she was unable to celebrate previous Birthdays because she either could not afford it or was in jail. Sherry also noted a Black trans woman’s average life expectancy is 35 years.
“I have never envisioned myself where I am today,” she said. “To be honest I didn’t expect myself to be alive.”
Sherry said she lived on Tulane Avenue eight years ago with other trans women and sex workers. Sherry told the Blade she and other tenants paid their rent by the week.
“Literally when I say I have nothing to lose and everything to gain, I have nothing to lose, but everything to gain,” she said.
Sherry, who lives with HIV, told the Blade she has also struggled with addiction and mental health issues.
“If I wanted to be a bitch, I can justify about all of the trauma and just, but when you know better you do better,” she said. “I’m not going to cause the same harm that’s been caused over and over and over again.”
Martinez, a native of St. Augustine, Fla., who describes himself as a “trans masculine man,” praised his wife and Moore for their work on House of Tulip. Martinez also applauded trans women who supported him in his life.
“They are the ones who paved the way for me to be Za’hair,” he said. “It’s only right for me to follow the leadership of my wife and Mariah and to have their back.”
The American Civil Liberties Union in a press release notes the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond ruled the Gloucester County School District’s policies that prohibited students from using bathrooms and locker rooms that did not correspond with their “biological gender” and denied them transcripts that correspond to their gender identity are unconstitutional. The 4th Circuit in its 2-1 decision also said the regulations violate Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.
Gavin Grimm was a sophomore at Gloucester County High School when he filed a federal lawsuit against the district’s bathroom policy.
The 4th Circuit in 2016 ruled in Grimm’s favor.
The U.S. Supreme Court was scheduled to hear oral arguments in his case in 2017, but the justices remanded it to the 4th Circuit after President Trump rescinded guidance to public schools that said Title IX requires them to allow trans students to use bathrooms based on their gender identity.
U.S. District Court Judge Arenda L. Wright Allen of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia last August ruled in favor of Grimm. The Gloucester County School District appealed the decision.
The 4th Circuit issued its decision two months after the Supreme Court in a landmark ruling said Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 bans employment discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation. The Supreme Court in 2019 declined to hear a case that challenged a Pennsylvania school district’s policy that allows trans students to use bathrooms based on their gender identity.
“All transgender students should have what I was denied: The opportunity to be seen for who we are by our schools and our government,” said Grimm in the ACLU press release. “Today’s decision is an incredible affirmation for not just me, but for trans youth around the country.”
ACLU of Virginia Legal Director Eden Heilman also welcomed the 4th Circuit ruling.
“For the last five years, Gavin has been fighting for transgender students to ensure no one else deals with the discrimination he faced in high school,” said Heilman. “The court rightfully stood with him to rule that trans students deserve to go to school with dignity, respect, and equal protection under the law.”
Trevor Project Vice President of Advocacy and Government Affairs Sam Brinton in a statement described the ruling as a “tremendous victory for transgender equality.”
“When transgender and non-binary students are denied access to school facilities or documents consistent with their gender identity, they are not only denied basic dignity and respect, but also fundamental human rights,” they said. “This decision reaffirms that anti-transgender discrimination is, in fact, illegal under the law.”
Puerto Rico Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González Colón and former U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) on Monday stressed the fight against HIV/AIDS remains a bipartisan issue.
“This is a health issue,” said González during a Zoom call that AIDS United organized. “This is not about a certain group of the community. This is not about a specific gender. This is about health care. This is about health.”
González is a Republican non-voting member of the U.S. House of Representatives who is a member of Puerto Rico’s pro-statehood New Progressive Party. California Congresswoman Barbara Lee, who chairs the Congressional HIV/AIDS Caucus, late last year named González co-chair of the group.
González on Monday said more than 40,000 people in Puerto Rico live with HIV. She also noted she and Lee in March introduced a bill that would repeal laws that criminalize people with HIV/AIDS and discriminate against them.
“This is something that goes across party lines,” she said. “This is something that affects everybody … we should be doing something about it.”
Ros-Lehtinen, who was born in Cuba, in 1989 became the first Latina woman elected to Congress. She represented portions of South Florida in the House until her retirement in 2019.
Ros-Lehtinen co-chaired the Congressional HIV/AIDS Caucus until Lee named González as her successor.
“Jenniffer understands the issue,” said Ros-Lehtinen on the call, referring to González.
Ros-Lehtinen acknowledged the HIV/AIDS pandemic has “heavily impacted” South Florida.
González herself announced hours after she participated in the AIDS United call that she had tested positive for coronavirus.
Ros-Lehtinen noted she and Lee had vastly different positions on a variety of issues, but “on this subject and on many other subjects, there are no party labels.”
“You have the disease, there’s no discrimination,” said Ros-Lehtinen.
“I believe in equality,” she said. “I’m living in Puerto Rico where 3.2 million Americans are disenfranchised. They cannot vote for president. They cannot vote for their senators. They don’t have equal representation in Congress. I can’t be selecting how equality is going to be defined or what issues are equal or what not.”
“Equality is equality,” added González. “Health care is equality and in that sense I should be representing my island and all the people, including the people with HIV.”
The AIDS United call coincided with the first day of the Republican National Convention.
President Trump in his 2019 State of the Union address vowed to end the HIV/AIDS epidemic within a decade. Advocates with whom the Blade spoke at the time expressed skepticism and noted, among other things, Trump in 2017 abruptly fired all members of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS without explanation.
The Trump administration’s record on LGBTQ rights issues has been sharply criticized. Outgoing Puerto Rico Gov. Wanda Vázquez Garced, who is a member of González’s party, has also faced intense criticism from activists in the U.S. commonwealth and elsewhere over her administration’s LGBTQ rights record.
Ros-Lehtinen on the call noted former Vice President Biden, like Trump, has also pledged to end the HIV epidemic.
“This is a human issue,” said Ros-Lehtinen. “It’s not a Republican problem or a Democratic problem. We’ve got to come together to solve it.”
AIDS United President Jesse Milan, Jr., who has lived with HIV for 38 years, agreed.
“Ending this epidemic is clearly a bipartisan issue,” he said.
HIV/AIDS service providers in Florida say the coronavirus pandemic has further exacerbated health care and economic disparities that many of their clients face.
Tatiana Williams is the co-founder and executive director of Transinclusive Group, a Fort Lauderdale-based organization that serves transgender people in South Florida. Williams is also the co-chair of South Florida FLUX, which advises AIDS Healthcare Foundation on trans-specific issues.
Williams on Aug. 11 told the Washington Blade during a telephone interview from Fort Lauderdale the pandemic “just really highlighted some of the challenges that are happening within the transgender community.”
“A lot of our clients were already dealing with unemployment, dealing with a lack of access to health care, dealing with a lot of these issues,” she said.
Williams said her organization’s Transinclusive Emergency Crisis Fund has been able to provide clients emergency housing and a host of other services that include help paying utility bills and medications.
“You had a lot of our clients working in these nightclubs that were closed down, so a lot of them immediately went into a position of survival mode and not having access to a lot of things,” she said. “With COVID, it just turned their lives upside down.”
Williams said problems with Florida’s unemployment system delayed payments to many Transinclusive Group clients who lost their jobs because of the pandemic. Williams told the Blade they “were behind” once they began to receive unemployment checks, and this delay created “gaps” in their medications.
“A lot of health care providers weren’t working at full capacity,” she said. “A lot of them weren’t even returning calls, so a lot of the clients, especially HIV-positive clients, hadn’t received care, so we had to go into the telemedicine mode and we were linking people back to care.”
Other HIV/AIDS service organizations in Florida have made similar adjustments in response to the pandemic.
Arianna Lint is a Peruvian woman with HIV who founded Arianna’s Center, a Wilton Manors-based organization that serves trans women with HIV.
She told the Blade on Aug. 3 during an interview at her office the pandemic has made her organization’s work “more difficult because we have (had) to invest more time” with teaching clients how to use technology to access health care. Lint said Arianna’s Center has also had to visit clients at their homes.
Stephen Fallon, co-founder and director of Latino Salud, another Wilton Manors-based organization that serves LGBTQ Latinos with HIV, during a July 23 Zoom call with other HIV/AIDS service providers that AIDS Healthcare Foundation organized said the majority of health care providers in his area remained open “to some extent” during the lockdown imposed when the pandemic began. Fallon said testing agencies were closed during this period.
“We were getting deluged with all the folks who needed testing services who couldn’t go anywhere,” he said.
Scott Pridgen is executive director of AH Monroe, an organization that serves people with HIV/AIDS in the Florida Keys.
AH Monroe has offices in Key West, Marathon, Tavernier and Key Largo.
Pridgen on Aug. 12 told the Blade during a telephone interview from Key West the pandemic has forced his organization to operate its offices virtually, “which is new because a lot of our case management, especially our older population that is living with HIV have other co-morbidities that require more of a physical, hands-on type of care versus doing it virtually.”
“We’ve had to take that into consideration,” said Pridgen.
The pandemic began during the height of the Keys’ tourism season, which Pridgen said is “when people make their money to carry them through during the slow season.”
Pridgen told the Blade that AH Monroe has been able to provide short-term mortgage, rent and utility assistance through grants from the CARES Act, the Housing Opportunities for Persons with AIDS (HOPWA) program and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Office of HIV Housing.
“The biggest need due to COVID-19 in Monroe County is housing, paying rent for someone or mortgages,” said Pridgen.
Pridgen added Keys residents “who’ve never asked for anything, ever, ever, (are) in line at the food bank or you’re handing them a bag of groceries.”
AIDS Healthcare Foundation Regional Director Dawn Averill is based in Pensacola, but works throughout Florida and the Deep South. Averill on the July 23 Zoom call echoed Pridgen’s observations about the pandemic’s impact.
“We’re actually seeing a lot of fear,” said Averill, referring to people with HIV/AIDS. “They’re fearful to go to the grocery store. They’re fearful to come to the office, to get their blood drawn, to see their families.”
Averill also noted “significant health disparities” in rural and urban areas that factor into health outcomes for people with HIV/AIDS.
State Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, who represents portions of Orlando in the Florida House of Representatives, on Aug. 14 noted to the Blade during a telephone interview that HIV rates in Florida are higher among trans people, people of color, undocumented immigrants and other vulnerable groups. Smith said efforts to curb the coronavirus’ spread have had a disproportionate impact on these populations.
“Quarantines and other COVID-related restrictions are also pushing people with HIV who are already vulnerable into isolation away from friends, chosen family,” he added.
South Florida remains state’s coronavirus epicenter
The Florida Department of Health on Tuesday said there have been 579,932 confirmed coronavirus cases in the state. Statistics also indicate the pandemic has killed 9,758 people in Florida.
Miami-Dade and Broward Counties remain the pandemic’s epicenter in Florida, with 25 and 12 percent of the state’s total cases respectively. Statistics indicate the coronavirus has killed 2,126 people in Miami-Dade County and 1,025 people in Broward County.
The Florida Department of Health reported 15,300 new coronavirus cases on July 12, compared to 3,838 new cases on Monday. A press release notes the rate of positive tests in the state on Tuesday were below 10 percent for the sixth consecutive days.
Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis nevertheless continues to face widespread criticism over his response to the coronavirus. Many of the HIV/AIDS service providers with whom the Blade spoke noted he has not imposed a statewide mask order and moved too quickly to reopen Florida.
“He’s shown time and time again that he is a politician over everything,” Equality Florida HIV Advocacy Coordinator Alejandro Acosta told the Blade on Aug. 14 during a telephone interview from Wilton Manors. “He makes health care decisions based on his politics and his personal beliefs and that is not conductive for a good public health outcome.”
Smith, who is also Equality Florida’s Central Florida Outreach Coordinator, told the Blade he welcomed DeSantis’ decision in March to lock down nursing homes and other long-term care facilities in order to curb the pandemic’s spread. Smith was nevertheless critical of the governor’s overall response.
“We’re the world’s epicenter of the pandemic and we still don’t even have a statewide mask order, which costs us nothing,” Smith told the Blade.
Smith also expressed concern over the Department of Health’s decision to reassign employees who worked on HIV and STI-related issues to fight the coronavirus.
The Department of Health on Tuesday declined to make anyone available to the Blade for an interview about efforts to protect vulnerable Floridians with HIV/AIDS during the pandemic.
“COVID-19 requires an unprecedented response at both the state and local level,” said the Department of Health in an email.
The Department of Health has yet to respond to a follow-up email about Smith’s concerns.
“We have an HIV workforce in Florida,” Smith told the Blade. “As a direct result of COVID-19, we’re just kind of seeing this trend of diversion of scientific and public attention away from HIV in Florida. That’s what has me concerned.”
“We could come out of the other end of this pandemic and realize that we have another public health crisis on our hands,” he added. “It’s a recipe for disaster if we don’t focus and if we don’t veer course when it comes to staying committed to HIV prevention.”
The State Department has appealed a federal judge’s ruling that said it must recognize the U.S. citizenship of a gay Maryland couple’s daughter who was born in Canada via surrogate.
U.S. District Judge Theodore D. Chuang in June ruled in favor of Roee Kiviti and Adiel Kiviti of Chevy Chase, Md., who legally married in California in 2013. Their daughter, Kessem Kiviti, was born in 2019. The State Department on Aug. 13 appealed Chuang’s decision to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va.
Lambda Legal; Immigration Equality and Morgan Lewis, a private law firm, represent the Kivitis. The two advocacy groups also represent Derek Mize and Jonathan Gregg, a gay couple from Atlanta who sued the State Department after it refused to recognize the U.S. citizenship of their daughter, Simone Mize-Gregg, who was born in England via surrogate.
The couples maintain their children are U.S. citizenships under Section 301(c) of the Immigration and Nationality Act that states “a baby born abroad to married parents is a U.S. citizen at birth when both parents are U.S. citizens and one of them has resided in the United States at any point prior to the baby’s birth.”
“It’s sad that we have to continue this legal battle,” said Roee Kiviti in a press release that Lambda Legal issued on Monday.
“Once again, the State Department is refusing to recognize Roee and Adiel’s rights as a married couple,” added Immigration Equality Executive Director Aaron C. Morris. “The government’s attempts to strip Kessem of citizenship are unconstitutional, discriminatory, and morally reprehensible.”
A State Department spokesperson on Monday declined to comment.
“We decline to comment on pending litigation,” the spokesperson told the Washington Blade in an email.
A massive explosion that killed more than 200 people in Beirut on Aug. 4 nearly destroyed the offices of Lebanon’s oldest LGBTQ advocacy group.
Helem’s offices are located less than a mile from the city’s port where the explosion took place. Helem Executive Director Tarek Zeidan on Monday told the Washington Blade during a Skype interview the blast damaged buildings up to 10 miles away.
“You can imagine how close we were,” said Zeidan. “Nothing much of inside the center remains: Doors, windows, fixtures, furniture, everything was blown out.”
Zeidan said the explosion injured several Helem staffers.
“They had to be taken to the hospital that night for their wounds to be stitched, but thankfully no one lost their life,” he said.
Helem was founded in 2001.
Its offices are located in Beirut’s Mar Mikhael and Gemmayzeh neighborhoods, which Zeidan described to the Blade as “the most vibrant … most LGBT-friendly neighborhoods in the entire Arab World, much less in Lebanon and in the city.” Zeidan said a lot of bars, coffee shops, art galleries and nightclubs were located in the area.
“All of that has been destroyed,” Zeidan told the Blade. “The entire area has been brought down.”
Zeidan said most of the buildings in the area that remain standing are not structurally sound. Zeidan added “nothing inside” Helem’s offices “is salvageable.”
Zeidan and his partner live more than a mile away from the blast’s epicenter.
Zeidan told the Blade the explosion caused “one entire side of the house to sort of implode inwards with all the glass” and “the living room fixtures blew inside as well.” Zeidan said his partner was in the room “that sort of exploded, but thankfully he wasn’t hurt.”
“I was not in the house,” said Zeidan. “I just came back and saw the carnage and went down and saw the same.”
Initial reports indicate a fire that ignited more than 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate stored in Beirut’s port since 2013 sparked the blast. The explosion took place against the backdrop of Lebanon’s economic and political crises that the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated.
Zeidan on July 22 was in Helem’s offices when he spoke with the Blade in a Zoom call about the impact the crises and the pandemic has had on Lebanon’s LGBTQ community.
“You’re not exaggerating when you say things are really bad,” said Zeidan.
Zeidan noted to the Blade that Helem at the beginning of the pandemic launched food and clothing drives.
Zeidan during the Zoom call also said Helem was working to create what he described as a “community kitchen” to provide people in need with hot, nutritional meals twice a week. Zeidan also said Helem worked with the American University of Beirut to create a clinic within its medical center that would provide free diagnostic services to LGBTQ people.
Helem is among the organizations that participated in last October’s anti-government protests that forced then-Prime Minister Saad Hariri to resign. Prime Minister Hassan Diab and his Cabinet on Monday resigned amid growing outrage over the blast.
Zeidan is among those who police tear gassed on Sunday during anti-government protests in Beirut. Zeidan’s voice was hoarse when he spoke with the Blade on Monday.
“Yesterday it wasn’t outrage,” he said. “It was rage. It was rage against everybody: Not just the people responsible, not just the people that ran the port, not just the political sponsors. It was rage against subsequent governments, of subsequent bad governance and corruption and murder and theft and the deliberate impoverishment of the Lebanese people and the fattening of the pockets of the political elite and ruling class.”
Zeidan told the Blade the Lebanese people have launched their own relief efforts without assistance from their country’s government. Zeidan said Helem volunteers and staff “immediately joined” them.
“Many of our volunteers are out on the streets cleaning up debris or assisting the makeshift community kitchens,” he said. “We’ve dedicated funds to support people who are seeking shelter from the community, particularly because so many places are unlivable, even if they are structurally sound.”
OutRight Action International launches Helem fundraiser
“We are going to survive and the center will survive,” Zeidan told the Blade.
“We’re worried about the community and our friends and neighbors and people in the heart of the city,” he added.
OutRight Action International notes 100 percent of the fundraiser’s proceeds “will be passed on to Helem to use for the support of the LGBTIQ community, the center’s relief efforts, and any other urgent needs on the ground.” OutRight Action International Executive Director Jessica Stern on Monday reiterated her organization’s support of Helem.
“Helem, the oldest LGBTIQ organization in Lebanon, was severely damaged in the recent explosion in Beirut. Helem is working to rebuild, while also struggling to support countless LGBTIQ people who have been left homeless, and engage in city-wide relief efforts,” Stern told the Blade in a statement. “OutRight’s mission is to work with local LGBTIQ organizations around the world to promote LGBTIQ equality.”
“When crisis strikes, it is our duty and honor to do what we can to support local activists,” added Stern.
A person with HIV who is in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody says they are afraid the coronavirus will kill him.
“With my condition, God forbid, if I get coronavirus, I don’t know if I will make it,” the ICE detainee told the Washington Blade on July 29 during an interview.
The detainee has been in ICE custody at a privately run detention center in the Southeast since last October. The detainee is originally from a country in Africa with laws that criminalize people with HIV and members of the LGBTQ community.
The detainee asked the Blade not to identify them by name to protect their privacy. They also requested the Blade not identify the country from which they originate and the facility in which they remain in ICE custody because of fear of retaliation and any potential impact their decision to speak publicly could have on their asylum case.
“It would be a death sentence if I were sent back home,” said the detainee.
The detainee told the Blade there have been coronavirus cases in their detention center, including a man from India who tested positive before his scheduled deportation.
“They were taking him out to deport him,” said the detainee. “They closed our unit down for a month.”
The detainee said there are 96 detainees in his unit. They told the Blade that ICE quarantined them after another detainee tested positive for the coronavirus.
“We were not able to leave the unit,” they said.
They told the Blade that staff brought food to the unit when it was locked down. The detainee said they are now able to access the yard for an hour a day.
‘It’s not safe’
ICE on its website notes as of Monday there were 908 detainees with confirmed coronavirus cases.
There were 21,888 people in ICE custody as of July 31. Statistics on ICE’s website note 21,085 detainees have been tested as of July 31.
Immigration Equality and Lambda Legal are among the advocacy groups that have demanded ICE release detainees with HIV because of the pandemic.
ICE in April released four men with HIV who had been detained at privately run detention centers in Louisiana and Arizona. ICE in the same month also released Iván and Ramón, two Cuban men with HIV represented by Immigration Equality and Lambda Legal, from a privately run detention center in Texas.
“We are relieved that Iván and Ramón don’t have to spend one more day in the dangerous conditions of ICE detention, terrified of contracting COVID-19,” said Immigration Equality Legal Director Bridget Crawford after their release.
A federal judge in California has ordered ICE “to identify and track all ICE detainees with risk factors” and consider whether they should be released.
Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf in April said ICE would consider the release of detainees who are at increased risk for the coronavirus on a “case-by-case basis.” An ICE spokesperson a few weeks after Wolf’s comments said their agency had released upwards of 700 detainees “after evaluating their immigration history, criminal record, potential threat to public safety, flight risk and national security concerns.”
ICE in March suspended in-person visitation at its detention centers. ICE in previous statements says it continues to provide detainees with soap for showering and handwashing, sanitizer and masks.
“The health, welfare and safety of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainees is one of the agency’s highest priorities,” says ICE on its website. “Since the onset of reports of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), ICE epidemiologists have been tracking the outbreak, regularly updating infection prevention and control protocols, and issuing guidance to ICE Health Service Corps (IHSC) staff for the screening and management of potential exposure among detainees.”
“ICE continues to incorporate CDC’s COVID-19 guidance, which is built upon the already established infectious disease monitoring and management protocols currently in use by the agency,” adds ICE. “In addition, ICE is actively working with state and local health partners to determine if any detainee requires additional testing or monitoring to combat the spread of the virus.”
Illinois Congressman Mike Quigley in June told the Blade that ICE is “ignoring” social distancing guidelines from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and not providing “protective gear or hygiene products” to detainees. The detainee with whom the Blade spoke last week also said there is no socially distancing at the detention center where they are in ICE custody.
“There’s no such thing right now as socially distancing,” they said.