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Stop The Violence – LGBT Rights Are Human Rights: An Historic US Sponsored Conference

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TIRANA, ALBANIA – This past week, dozens of LGBT activists from countries in and around southeastern Europe gathered at the Tirana International Hotel for a precedent-setting event: “Stop the Violence: LGBT Rights are Human Rights,” the first LGBT conference ever sponsored by the U.S. government in a foreign country. Over two and a half days filled with panels, meals, cocktails, and even an art exhibition in Tirana, Albania’s capital city, the activists, most of them young, shared stories and best practices on topics like engaging with law enforcement and using social media. They also talked with U.S. Embassy representatives from their respective countries about how the LGBT community and American officials can work together to advance the principle of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s now-famous statement “gay rights are human rights.” It was no coincidence that the second half of the event’s title echoed this statement, the essence of which often imbued the conference with an air of excitement, resolve, and joy.

But the first half of the conference’s title, “Stop the Violence,” was a reminder of the stark contrast between the event and the reality of life for many of the activists in their home countries, most of which are still working to transform into well-functioning, accepting democracies.

Consider Albania. In this small Balkan country, just two decades removed from the fall of a communist regime that was largely intolerant of difference, the LGBT movement is scarcely three years old, boasts only a few hundred active members, and faces continuous challenges. Rewind to March, for instance, when the country’s Deputy Defense Minister Ekrem Spahiu announced that, if the LGBT community in his country attempted to hold a Pride parade, “they should be beaten with truncheons.” Two months later, when a small group of activists staged a bike rally on the International Day Against Homophobia in heavy rain and Tirana’s chaotic traffic, their route was further disrupted when people waiting on the sidewalk threw homemade smoke bombs into the street.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the LGBT conference in Tirana, while not a secret, was also was not widely publicized. “I’ll be honest, most Albanians don’t know this conference is going on,” a representative of the U.S. embassy told me. “We didn’t push it. If we had, we might have faced some negative response.”

The same could have been said in most any country in the region if it had hosted the conference, as an image of Europe posted on the wall outside the event’s main room revealed. The “rainbow map,” prepared by the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Trans Association (ILGA) earlier this year, indicates how well-constructed national laws are to protect and provide for the LGBT community. Generally speaking, as one moves east across Europe, the situation gets worse and worse. On a scale of -12 (terrible) to 30 (excellent), Albania receives only a 6, as do Bulgaria, Romania, and Serbia. Kosovo, Poland, and Greece rank at a 2, while Russia, Macedonia, and Moldova are at -4 or lower.

But weak legal systems are only part of the picture. Homophobia driven by traditional norms, nationalism, and religion is an enormous obstacle for the inchoate LGBT communities. In 2008, for instance, activists who had gathered on a bus to stage a demonstration in Moldova were trapped inside by hundreds of angry, screaming protesters, many of them religious. (The vast majority of Moldovans are Orthodox Christian.) Nine phone calls to the police went unanswered. Since then, the LGBT community has focused more on unplanned demonstrations like flash mobs, which, according to one activist, only attract backlash afterward “from the bigots and homophobes who missed the party.”

Another activist, Zdravko Cimbaljevic of the group LGBT Forum Progress in Montenegro, one of the former Yugoslav republics, reported a beating based on his sexual orientation to a police officer who did not want to recognize that he was gay. In particular, although Cimbaljevic’s attacker had called him “faggot,” the officer did not want to put the word in his report. “‘Why do you need that?’” Cimbaljevic recalled the officer asking. “People don’t want to believe there is a LGBT community in Montenegro,” he added.

 


The law is not so omnipowerful,” one activist from Bulgaria told the conference. “Laws are written to European standards and implemented to Balkan standards,” noted another.


 

Then, there is the problem of LGBT rights being set aside or ignored with the excuse that a country is in a democratic transition and has bigger fish to fry. “‘There are so many problems in Albania. They are just a small group,’” said Delina Fico, a straight activist in Tirana, imitating many people’s reaction to the push for LGBT rights. Similarly, another human rights defender in Albania said people often tell her, “It’s too early. We are a poor country.”

To be sure, there have been improvements in the regions. The conference itself was an indication of the LGBT movement’s growing prominence and transnational cooperation. Activist organizations are growing in size, courage, and reputation in several countries: Albania, for instance, now has three groups, whereas up until 2009, it had none. (Xheni Karaj, executive director of one of these group’s, came out on national television not long ago in order to defend a gay friend to whom a government official had said, “If you were my son, I would put a bullet in your brain.” Karaj retorted, “It is because of people like you that we are still in the closet.) Moreover, earlier this month, the European Court of Human Rights, the continent’s premier judicial voice on human rights, ruled in favor of Moldova’s LGBT community, which was denied the right to stage Pride seven years ago. And broadly speaking, many countries have passed or are working on new anti-discrimination laws and penal codes to better protect the LGBT community.

Another problem, however, is the assumption by state authorities that adopting new laws will solve the problem of discrimination—or at the very least, quiet their critics. These critics include the European Union, which countries in the region either belong to already (Romania and Bulgaria, for instance) or aspire to join. Acceding to the EU comes with a set of requirements, including human rights protections. But many activists at the conference pointed out that their governments and even EU officials are often satisfied with the passage of laws, even if these laws are not implemented. “The law is not so omnipowerful,” one activist from Bulgaria told the conference. “Laws are written to European standards and implemented to Balkan standards,” noted Remzi Lani of the Albania Media Institute, which is sympathetic to the LGBT cause.

Then, there is the lack of communication between government and LGBT community members in the process of writing new laws. At the conference, an official from Montenegro announced that the government had begun working on a law to recognize same-sex partnerships. It was the first Cimbaljevic had heard of this, although his organization has been advocating for the same issue. “I’m really shocked that the government is working on a law for same-sex partnerships and we don’t know about it,” he said.

In short, then, LGBT work in this region is characterized by strides forward, shoves backward, and, often, disheartening sidestepping. Activists’ efforts certainly propel the movement forward in societies where being open about one’s sexual orientation can pose serious physical and emotional risks. (As Tudor Kovacs, a Romanian activist, put it, “We aren’t activists for ourselves. We are activists for those who will never be activists.”) Yet often, these efforts are stymied or forced to pause while governments consider what, exactly, they are prepared to do with regard to some of their most vulnerable citizens.

A brief conversation with a young Bulgarian activist neatly illustrated this situation. He had taken a break from helping plan the fifth Pride in his country’s capital, Sofia, to attend the Tirana conference. Just a week prior, the government had officially registered his organization. There was much to celebrate. Yet at the last Sofia Pride, five volunteers were followed home and beaten up. And to date, Bulgaria has not recognized sexual orientation as a possible motive for hate crimes. “This is what we are fighting for,” the young man said over lunch. “[The government] is revising the penal code this year.” Raising his glass and shrugging, he added, “So we’ll see.”

Image, top, via Facebook by U.S. Embassy-Tirana 

 

Seyward Darby is a freelance writer currently living in Kosovo. She is working for a local human rights group on LGBT and freedom of expression projects with support from the Coca-Cola World Fund and Kirby-Simon Fellowship Program at Yale University. Her organization receives some funding from the U.S. government. 

 

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News

Democrats Discredit GOP Claims on IVF as Republicans Try to Regain Ground After Fallout

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One week after the Alabama State Supreme Court ruled frozen human embryos are “children,” causing several medical institutions to pause their in-vitro fertilization (IVF) programs, Alabama and the GOP have seen tremendous nationwide anger, upset, and confusion from the left and the right over the decision, the Christian nationalist chief judge, and the Republican Party that set this in motion.

Now, GOP lawmakers and political groups are trying to regain ground after some Republicans quickly embraced the decision that, as White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre predicted Tuesday, would cause “exactly the type of chaos that we expected when the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and paved the way for politicians to dictate some of the most personal decisions families can make.”

“As a reminder,” Jean-Pierre added, “this is the same state whose attorney general threatened to prosecute people who help women travel out of state to seek the care they need.”

President Joe Biden condemned the Alabama ruling: “The disregard for women’s ability to make these decisions for themselves and their families is outrageous and unacceptable.”

But U.S. Senator Tommy Tuberville (R-AL) cheered his state’s Supreme Court, while appearing to not fully grasp what IVF is.

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“I was all for it,” he said of the Alabama Supreme Court ruling, calling young people “our number one commodity.”

But when pressed, Tuberville declared, “I’d have to look at the entire bill, how it’s written, I have not seen it,” referring not to legislation but the ruling.

And when told that women will now not be able to have IVF treatments, Tuberville repeatedly replied it was “unfortunate.”

On Thursday night, speaking to a group of religious broadcasters, Donald Trump denounced the Alabama ruling and vowed to protect IVF. On Friday, the beleaguered Chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) issued a memo directing Republicans to defend IVF. Also Friday, the Attorney General for the state of Alabama, mentioned earlier by the White House Press Secretary, effectively suggested he would ignore the state supreme court’s ruling, promising to not prosecute IVF families, as ABC News reported.

But Democrats are making clear that despite whatever claims or promises Republicans make, the IVF ruling is the direction conservatives are taking the Republican Party.

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“First Republicans banned abortions so women couldn’t terminate a pregnancy. Now they are coming for IVF so women can’t begin a pregnancy. The GOP agenda is about one thing: government control of women,” observed U.S. Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) (photo).

CNN congressional correspondent Lauren Fox reports a new NRSC memo “instructs [GOP] candidates to reject clearly and concisely government attempts to restrict access to IVF.”

Just hours later, Sen. Murphy responded, saying, “umm the chairman of the NRSC sponsored the bill to ban IVF.”

He added, “newsflash: no matter what they tell their candidates to pretend, when they get power they use it to control women.”

The NRSC’s goal is to help get Republicans elected to the U.S. Senate. It is chaired by Sen. Steve Daines of Montana, a MAGA Republican and member of the Senate’s Pro-Life Caucus.

As Bloomberg’s Matthew Yglesias notes, Senator Daines is an original co-sponsor of the Life at Conception Act.

The Center for American Progress’ Colin Seeberger adds, Daines “quite literally has been a longtime co-sponsor of the Lifetime at Conception Act, which would establish legal protections for the unborn just as the Alabama Supreme Court ordered and has led to the suspension of fertility care across AL.”

Meanwhile, Media Matters’ Matthew Gertz notes that the “text of GOP‘s most recent platform claims that ‘the unborn child has a fundamental right to life which cannot be infringed’ and calls for a constitutional amendment that would ban all abortions — and jeopardize IVF — by granting 14th Amendment rights to fetuses.”

READ MORE: Why Was GOP’s Star Witness Re-Arrested? He May Have Been Trying to Flee the Country: Report

Indeed, as The New York Times reported, far-right Christian conservative Tony Perkins, head of the Southern Poverty Law Center-designated anti-LGBTQ extremist group Family Research Council, called the Alabama Supreme Court ruling a “beautiful defense of life and the Alabama Constitution.”

Friday afternoon Donald Trump followed up his vow to protect IVF with a social media post that claims in part, “Under my leadership, the Republican Party will always support the creation of strong, thriving, healthy American families. We want to make it easier for mothers and fathers to have babies, not harder! That includes supporting the availability of fertility treatments like IVF in every State in America. Like the OVERWHELMING MAJORITY of Americans, including the VAST MAJORITY of Republicans, Conservatives, Christians, and Pro-Life Americans, I strongly support the availability of IVF for couples who are trying to have a precious baby.”

Former Obama senior advisor Dan Pfeiffer responded, asking: “Why would anyone believe this? In 2016, Trump pledged no cuts to Medicaid and then spent four years trying to gut the program.”

And as Axios reports, “House Democrats’ main super PAC is promising to pour money into attacking Republicans on fertility treatments in the wake of a controversial, first-of-its-kind Alabama Supreme Court ruling, Axios has learned.”

“Trump’s call came a day after President Biden’s re-election campaign blamed him for the ruling, noting his appointment of conservative justices to the Supreme Court, which overturned Roe v. Wade,” Axios adds. House Majority PAC, in a memo set to be released Friday, listed nearly a dozen current and former House Republicans in competitive districts who have co-sponsored at least one version of the Life at Conception Act between 2021 and 2023.”

See the social media posts and video above or at this link.

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Why Was GOP’s Star Witness Re-Arrested? He May Have Been Trying to Flee the Country: Report

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The re-arrest of Alexander Smirnov, the former FBI informant who allegedly may have provided House Republicans with Kremlin propaganda that was the basis for their efforts to impeach President Joe Biden and attack his son Hunter, raised some eyebrows on Thursday.

Smirnov, once considered House Republicans’ Jim Comer and Jim Jordan’s star witness, was re-arrested even after a magistrate judge ordered him released, and at his attorneys’ offices, raising eyebrows from even national security experts, insisting there had better be a good reason for it.

Now, according to a noted legal expert, it appears there was.

“A California judge seems to be suggesting [Smirnov’s] lawyers are complicit in his efforts to flee, in a remarkable line ordering detention for the FBI source whose lies propelled Biden impeachment efforts,” writes professor of law and MSNBC legal contributor Joyce Vance, a former U.S. Attorney.

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U.S. District Judge Otis D. Wright II in his order wrote on Thursday: “It has come to this Court’s attention that counsel for defendant has sought an emergency hearing in the District of Nevada to arrange the release of Defendant Smirnov, likely to facilitate his absconding from the United States.”

After detailing Smirnov’s arrest and release, Judge Wright ordered his re-arrest, adding: “The U.S. Marshal Service is advised there is to be no deviation from this Order.”

Just Security’s Adam Klasfeld calls Judge Wright’s order “wild,” and adds that Smirnoff’s lawyers released “a terse statement about the extraordinary order.”

“They did not respond to questions about the language in the judge’s order suggesting a ‘likely’ aim to ‘facilitate’ their client ‘absconding from the United States.'”

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Vaccine-Laced Lettuce and Tomatoes? Tennessee GOP Lawmaker Worried

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A Tennessee Republican state lawmaker says he’s worried Tennesseans might overdose on vaccines if they eat too many tomatoes.

State Rep. Scott Cepicky claims vaccines can already be added to foods like lettuce and tomatoes, and to tobacco products, so he has filed legislation to require grocery store items containing vaccines to be labeled.

“University of California Riverside has already perfected the ability to put human vaccines into our lettuce right now,” Rep. Cepicky told his fellow lawmakers Wednesday while discussing his legislation. “Also, tomatoes, has the ability to do that also per UC Berkeley. And then big tobacco, RJ Reynolds and stuff has perfected the ability to put a human vaccine in tobacco products.”

NCRM could find no evidence supporting his claims, although researchers starting in 2021 were studying if it is possible to do so.

Cepicky, who has been endorsed by U.S. Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), warned, “there is no law, deeming those that when you go into a grocery store, you should know as a consumer, this head of lettuce is a head of lettuce. The head of lettuce right next week could contain a vaccine in it. All we’re saying is if it does have the vaccine in it, make sure it’s listed as a pharmaceutical so people can get the proper dosage.”

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Facing some pushback from Democratic Rep. John Ray Clemmons, Cepicky went on to say, “This is more of a consumer protection bill right here, is to make sure that if you’re going in to buy tomatoes, and there’s a polio vaccine in there, that you are aware of what you’re buying has a polio vaccine. The problem you have is if it’s not treated as a pharmaceutical, being the size and difference between you and me, how many tomatoes do I have to eat to get the proper dosage versus how many tomatoes that you have to eat? And if you eat too many do you get a overdose?”

Asked if his legislation was necessity, Cepicky added, “Well, if you’d have a child that is allergic to a certain vaccine, and it’s not disclosed, when you go to buy that, that vegetable, whatever it is, and your child dies from that, I would think that having place is going to make sure that that is treated as a pharmaceutical so that the consumers know exactly what they’re buying.”

Anti-vaxers gained a foothold during the COVID pandemic, spreading false claims about vaccines. Last year the fact-checking website Snopes deemed it “false” that “mRNA from COVID-19 vaccines has entered the food supply via genetically modified plants bred to contain it or through the consumption of vaccinated livestock.”

“Claims regarding COVID-19 vaccines ‘in your salad‘ have persisted on the internet and recirculated due to misreadings or misinterpretations of several press releases or scientific research,” Snopes added, “Mike Flynn, during a September 2021 podcast appearance, referenced this research, describing it as ‘putting the vaccine in salad dressing.'”

READ MORE: Kremlin Infiltration of Congress Alleged by Ex-Trump Prosecutor: Republicans ‘Duped or in on It’

Flynn, the former Trump U.S. national security advisor, is a far-right Christian nationalist and Trump MAGA activist.

Tennessee lawmakers voted to move Rep. Capicky’s forward.

Watch Rep. Capicky’s remarks below or at this link.

 

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