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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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BREAKING NEWS

Republican Attempts to Create Special Religious Rights Fail as Bipartisan Historic Same-Sex Marriage Bill Passes Senate

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Far right activists and organizations for months have been falsely claiming legislation to protect same-sex marriages would destroy different-sex marriages and take away religious rights from ordinary Americans, but early Tuesday evening on a bipartisan basis the Senate passed the Respect for Marriage Act, 61-36.

The legislation itself is very simple. It essentially leaves in place the status quo on marriage from the Supreme Court’s 2015 Obergefell ruling. Should right wing Supreme Court justices strike that ruling down, the Respect for Marriage Act would require the federal government and states to recognize any marriages that were legal when they were entered, now and in the future.

35 states currently still have same-sex marriage bans on the books. If the Supreme Court overturns Obergefell, many of those could become law immediately.

READ MORE: Franklin Graham’s Ugly Lie Ahead of Senate Vote on Same-Sex Marriage Bill

In order to overcome a Republican-led filibuster Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer on Monday agreed to allow three GOP Senators to offer amendments to the legislation, amendments that would have created special religious rights to discriminate.

An amendment from Senator James Lankford (R-OK) failed, as did one from Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Mike Lee (R-UT). 60 votes were needed for each.

Sen. Lee’s was seen by some as the most extreme, and was strongly supported by the anti-LGBTQ hate group Family Research Council and former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

READ MORE: 37 Senators Just Voted Against a Bill Protecting Same-Sex and Interracial Marriages. All Were Republicans.

Heritage Foundation president Kevin Roberts, in a false claim, had said: “The ‘Respect for Marriage Act’ contains so many infringements and encroachments on religious freedoms and on conscience that Republicans should unite solidly against it. Instead, it should be called the ‘Destruction of Marriage Act.'”

Far right evangelical activist Franklin Graham falsely claimed the “bill strikes a blow at religious freedom for individuals & ministries & is really the ‘Destruction of Marriage Act.'”

The Pennsylvania Family Council wrongly called it “a bill that would redefine marriage and attack religious freedom & Christian social services.”

But despite GOP fear-mongering, the legislation has religious protections built in, protections so strong 20 faith-based organizations including the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Mormon Church, have supported its passage.

The bill now heads back to the House for a final vote, and then to President Joe Biden, who has said he will sign it into law.

 

 

 

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'WAY LATE'

‘Punditry, Not Leadership’: McConnell Slammed for Refusing to Say if He Would Support Trump in 2024

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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is refusing to say if he would support Donald Trump if he becomes the Republican Party’s presidential nominee in 2024. McConnell spoke in broad terms about antisemitism and white supremacy Tuesday afternoon, a full week to the day after the former president had dinner with the antisemite Kanye West, and the white supremacist Nick Fuentes, but could not bring himself to disavow Trump by name.

“First, let me just say, there is no room in the Republican Party for antisemitism or white supremacy,” McConnell said as he began a press conference, his first remarks about Trump’s dinner with West and Fuentes. “Anyone meeting with people advocating that point of view, in my judgment, are highly unlikely to ever be elected President of the United States.”

McConnell did not mention Trump, and moments later, when CNN’s Manu Raja specifically asked about the former president, McConnell would only repeat his previous statement.

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“Look, let me just say again, there is simply no room in the Republican Party for antisemitism or white supremacy, and that would apply to all of the leaders in the party who will be seeking offices,” he told CNN’s Raju.

Many were critical of McConnell’s refusal to denounce Trump.

Boston Globe opinion writer Abdallah Fayyad said, “McConnell will absolutely back Trump if he wins the GOP nomination.”

Previously, McConnell had said he would support Trump if he is the GOP’s nominee.

“Notice how McConnell said such a person is ‘highly unlikely’ to be elected, rather than manifestly unfit. He needs to keep his rhetorical options open for Trump getting the nomination again,” observed Media Matters’ Eric Kleefeld.

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Law professor and former president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF), Sherrilyn Ifill says, “McConnell, Pence, McCarthy and the other folks clutching their pearls today stood beside this man. Distancing from Trump over ‘the dinner’ is way late.”

Political consultant and writer Jamison Foser criticized the Republican Minority Leader, saying: “‘Will not likely be elected’ is punditry, not leadership. McConnell will support Trump if Trump is the Republican nominee; everything else is his attempt to distract from that.”

Before McConnell’s remarks, Ifill had taken the media to task.

“The most dispiriting aspect of the discussion about Trump’s meal w/those two odious ppl is that I thought there was consensus that Trump is a white supremacist. In which case 3 white supremacists had dinner. Why is Trump getting portrayed as an innocent who was snookered?”

 

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News

‘Beyond Horrific’: Tucker Carlson’s Fox News Producer Is an Out Gay Man Helping ‘Ramp Up’ Hate Says LGBTQ Journalist

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Fox News propagandist Tucker Carlson, whose nightly show frequently has the largest reach of any on cable news, regularly attacks the LGBTQ community with fear-mongering and hate-filled segments about gay people, transgender people, “groomers” and the latest target: “drag queen story hours.”

His senior executive producer, who oversees Carlson’s media empire at Fox News, is a married, out, gay man named Justin Wells, according to veteran journalist and SiriusXM Progress host Michelangelo Signorile, who is calling it “beyond horrific to think a gay man has helped to shape and widely disseminate a message of hate against LGBTQ people.”

Last week, in the wake of the horrific anti-LGBTQ hate crime mass shooting Carlson hosted a guest, the head of the so-called “Gays Against Groomers,” who told Fox News viewers the attack on LGBTQ people at a gay bar in Colorado Springs was “predictable” and warned that these hate crime massacres will continue, “until we end this evil agenda” of gender-affirming care.

Carlson has repeatedly hosted Jaimee Mitchell, the Gays Against Groomers founder who fear mongers against LGBTQ people, with the apparent consent of Wells, who “helped promulgate the kind of hate that leads to violence,” says Signorile.

READ MORE: Watch: Chasten Buttigieg Says Tucker Carlson Is Focusing on ‘Hate’ After Host’s Latest Anti-Gay Attack on His Husband

“It’s unlikely that any narrative would get broadcast by Tucker without significant buy-in from Justin,” Angelo Carusone, President and CEO of media watchdog Media Matters, told Signorile.

Indeed, referring to the Colorado Springs mass shooting massacre, Signorile noted it is “the same kind of nightclub at which Wells, in years past, danced the night away in Miami Beach and elsewhere, liberating himself from the world outside and surely never imagining he’d be shot dead.”

“Now he’s aided the extremists who deny that sense of safety and liberation to every future generation of queer people,” says Signorile, explaining that “Wells runs the entire Tucker Carlson operation, and is responsible for imprinting the Tucker Carlson brand, which is all about emboldening white heterosexual male grievance, furthering the racist conspiracy of ‘replacement theory’ and pushing an increasingly virulent anti-LGBTQ agenda.”

READ MORE: Tucker Carlson Serves Up 12-Minute Long Homophobic Hate-Filled Rant Attacking Pete Buttigieg Over ‘Equity’

One of Carlson’s frequent LGBTQ targets is Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, who he has called an “unqualified ‘kid’ who ‘breastfeeds,’ and has no business running the agency,” as Mediaite reported.

“And as Carlson further pushed white nationalism, attacked transgender people and embraced Hungary’s authoritarian leader Victor Orban,” Signorile reports, “Wells, in 2021, was named a Vice President at Fox News, in charge of all Carlson product that airs on Fox News TV as well as on Fox’s streaming network, Fox Nation.”

Signorile says, “it’s quite stunning that Wells would work for Carlson, who has a well-known history of visceral homophobia. That’s something that came to light again last year when it became known that Carlson had offered a tribute to Dan White, the assassin of San Francisco supervisor and gay civil rights leader Harvey Milk, in his college yearbook back in 1991, as well as to the late vociferously anti-gay Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina, who whipped up homophobia during the height of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s.”

READ MORE: Tucker Carlson Once Allegedly Bragged He Belonged to a ‘Society’ Named After the Man Who Assassinated Harvey Milk

“I wrote about those jarring revelations when they surfaced last year,” he continues, “as well as about what I dubbed Carlson’s ‘pathological obsession with homosexuality’ throughout his career. Carlson has expressed revulsion at homosexuality, and in one incident he reveled in a violent response. In a TV interview in 2007 he described having smashed a man’s head ‘against the stall’ in a public rest room, after the man ‘bothered’ him.”

“Wells, as a gay man, only emboldens Carlson further,” Signorile concludes. “He gives him permission to launch the ugly attacks and helps Carlson validate, for himself (and likely for executives at Fox News), the vitriol he espouses. That makes Justin Wells’ presence as the powerful gay man behind Tucker Carlson all the more newsworthy. And all the more dangerous.”

Signorile notes that his reporting is not an outing.

“This story is not, however, about a warped closet case, tormented by self-loathing, hiding his true self while bashing those like him. And thus, this story is not an outing, which involves exposing someone who covers up their sexual orientation while publicly presenting as heterosexual — though it certainly may be a startling revelation to a great many. It is, rather, about connecting the dots regarding a reality that seems to have been hiding in plain sight.”

You can read Signorile’s entire report on his Substack newsletter.

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