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Posts Tagged ‘hate crimes’

Catching up to Reality on Blood Donations by Gay Men

March 7th, 2010 No comments

When Obama was seeking the Presidency, the GLBT community had a well-defined punch list of action items, and he promised big things on all of them: repeal of DADT; repeal of DOMA (although he doesn’t support marriage equality); passing ENDA; passing inclusive hate crimes law (the only hole punched so far). A few others, notably the administrative implementation of the-then recent repeal of the insane prohibition against HIV-positive immigrants, were perhaps further down on the list, but also up for discussion. Conspicuously absent from the mainstream agenda has been an item of interest to the public health community: lifting of the ban on gay blood donors.

So I was buoyed to see that just a few days ago, a group of sixteen U.S. Senators sent a letter to FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, urging the agency to reconsider its twenty-seven-year-old lifetime ban (“deferral” is the quaint term used, but it’s politely Orwellian in this case) on blood donations for men who have had even one sexual encounter with another man.

The policy is long overdue for an overhaul. As the letter notes, the policy is inconsistent with various other exclusions, and is an artifact of a time when all that was really known of HIV infection — and we weren’t even calling it that, in 1983 — is that it disproportionately struck gay men. Even today, MSM (“men who have sex with men,” which is the term used by the CDC because it focuses on sexual behavior, rather than on orientation) are prohibited, forever, from donating blood if they have had sex, even once, with another man, at any time since 1977. The Senators’ letter points out the many inconsistencies in the policy, including the fact that there’s no exclusion of those who have had high-risk, unprotected heterosexual sex, no matter how recently. Even more absurdly, those who have had heterosexual sex with those known to have HIV are only deferred for one year; not for 33! And “sex” isn’t defined when it comes to MSM: the safest kind of protected sexual acts are, in theory, treated the same as the riskiest.

It should go without saying that none of this can be justified from a public health perspective.

These inconsistencies should be enough to sink the policy which, as the letter notes, has lately been repudiated by the major blood banking organizations, most significantly including the Red Cross. But the problems are much deeper and more serious than even the letter recognizes. A few years ago, I discussed the issue in detail in this law review article. Here, I’ll summarize the arguments I made there that weren’t explicitly raised in the letter.

First, while the CDC is careful to distinguish behavior — men having sex with men — from identity, the FDA policy undermines this sound epidemiological distinction by effectively collapsing the two. By excluding any man who’s had any kind of “sex” (not defined!) with even one other man during the past thirty-plus years, the FDA has created a policy that isn’t about relevant behavior, but about some weirdly expansive view of (gay) sexual orientation. Because if it were about behavior, the line would have been drawn in an entirely different place; say, for a year after specifically identified, high-risk behavior.

Second, the policy undermines trust in public health in a few related ways. Obviously, as a practical matter the policy isn’t enforceable, and the sheer breadth of it has doubtless caused many to ignore it. People aren’t stupid: Gay men who know they have an HIV-negative serostatus might give blood, understanding that they pose no threat. (According to this very unscientific poll over at 365gay.com, almost 200 of 800 respondents admitted to having lied about their sexual practices on the questionnaire.) But by attempting to fence them out, the FDA has sent gay men an unwelcome message that could undermine the community’s trust in other ways. One important public health principle is that it recognizes the long-term value of respecting the dignity of all populations.

Why has the policy persisted for so  long? One argument seems sensible, at first blush: If the exclusion were changed to, say, one year, there would be some infinitesimal increase in the number of HIV-positive blood transfusions (well less than one in a million, it’s estimated), so why do anything to increase the risk? But the “let’s not do anything if there’s a tiny risk of harm” canard — which, by the way, is also prevalent in arguments against marriage equality — wouldn’t be, and hasn’t been, applied to any other category of people, or of conduct. Of course there will be some tiny uptick, not  because of the three-week window period between infection and ability to identify it, which any contemplated new rule would  easily accommodate, but because of the irreducible human error associated with the process: If you add more people, some will get through who should not. But this could be said of any proposal to add donors; it’s just that “MSM” have had such a draconian policy applied to them for so long that the donor baseline is essentially zero for this group.

It seems that uprooting this policy is fairly far down on the priority list for the LGBT community. Indeed, this story seems to have attracted but little attention. But messages matter. The radical, embarrassingly outdated FDA policy sends a terrible signal that ought to concern us. It’s good to see that someone is finally suggesting action. Will Obama back them up?

On the Brink of Hate Crimes Law Protecting the LGBT Community

October 27th, 2009 No comments

Tomorrow, President Obama is expected to sign the hate crimes bill (smuggled into an essential military spending measure) that will, at last, extend the reach of protection to those attacked and seriously wounded or killed because of gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, or disability.

Before I offer an opinion on the measure, it’s worth pausing for a moment at the imminent passage of the first significant piece of federal legislation enacted on behalf of the LGBT community. Whatever one’s belief about the value of this law as opposed to others in the pipeline (or not) designed to address the community’s needs, it’s appropriate here to pause and offer thanks and respect for the advocates who worked tirelessly for this, including, of course, Judy Shepard. Of course, this had better not be the only thing the Obama Administration does, but I’ll leave that alone for today.

I’ve likely spent more time thinking about the wisdom of hate crimes legislation than is healthy. For a long time, I had trouble with it; to an extent, I still do. There’s something to the argument that violent crimes are just violent crimes; that, by trying to dig more deeply into impermissible motives, the prosecutor runs the risk of punishing conduct the law didn’t intend to target, or, worse, targeting conduct because of its speech content rather than the serious physical consequences it produces.

Sometimes, those offering these arguments aren’t doing so in good faith — they oppose only this hate crimes bill, but not protecting victims of crimes committed because of race, religion, or national origin. Sorry, but given the prevalence of anti-queer (and I’m using the term advisedly here) violence, this is just a specious assertion: If anyone needs hate crimes protection, it’s the most outrageous gender “outlaws.” Even more “mainstream” gays are targeted at a rate that’s high even among despised groups. Worse, the LGBT community is the victim of a great number of the most serious cases.

Some, though, make the principled  conservative case against hate crimes law. Andrew Sullivan is prominent among these. (He’s addressed the issue on many occasions, but particularly persuasively, on what are really philosophical grounds,   here.) But I’m less concerned about the metaphysical basis of “hate” than he is. Instead, I look at the situation this way: What we (collectively) are saying in bumping up the penalty for a crime against a protected group is that: (1) Words can’t be punished in themselves, but when those words are linked to criminal action, they become something else; and (2) That “something else” is sufficiently upsetting to the community that we want to both stand with the victims and send a message to the those who might engage in similar behavior.

The trick, of course, is to use the words to prove a heightened degree of criminality. But the fact that we’re using words instead of some other indicator of intent shouldn’t be dispositive, unless one is willing to cling to the obvious fiction that we can never punish anything related to “words.” We punish fraud, defamation, and “fighting words,” to name a few. And words are routinely used to define crimes, and to establish motive and intent.

Once that’s out of the way, then we’re in familiar territory: Deciding how culpable particular acts are. And these are judgments we make all the time. Here is David Gibson:

“[T]he law is full of degrees of criminality. Premeditated murder is not viewed in the same way as a crime of passion, just as rape is treated as an especially heinous type of physical attack that is meant to degrade a victim, and so is deserving of appropriate penalties….

“[T]hese attacks can inflict [damage] on an entire community. Just as a serial rapist on the loose sows fear among all women (and their families) and curbs their freedom, so too a hate crime “is meant to terrorize a community, not solely to victimize an individual,” as Judy Shepard, the mother of Matthew Shepard, put it.

“If blacks or Jews or Latinos or Christians — or gays and lesbians — cannot live in a neighborhood or walk the streets without fear of attack, then that climate of fear inhibits the free and full functioning of individuals and society. Laws not only make penalties to inflict on perpetrators who violate societal norms, they also make a statement about what a society values.”

This is pretty good. It’s also, I think, an answer to the charge that hate crimes perpetuate the victimization of the named group. The better argument is that, properly implemented (but will they be?), these laws send the strong message that victimizing Group [N] isn’t tolerated. Over time, this signal can diminish the anti-gay (and other) violence it seeks to address.

I did say earlier that I’m not fully comfortable with hate crimes laws. Although I agree with the Supreme Court that any ‘chilling effect’ on constitutionally protected speech is so minimal as to be of little concern, I do have a concern about prosecutors and jurors becoming overzealous (but this is likelier, I’d bet, with crimes based on almost anything other than sexual orientation or gender identity.) And if there is this tendency to prosecute for political gain, then we can expect the scapegoats to be poor and uneducated people, especially those on the extreme margins, such as transgendered persons of color.

Thus, some radically left groups oppose hate crimes laws, too, and find unexpected common ground with the more conservative voices in the LGBT movement. Here is an especially strong statement of this critical position, expressed by the Sylvia Rivera Law Project in opposition to a proposed New York State bill that included hate crimes protection:

“Hate crime laws are an easy way for the government to act like it is on our communities’ side while continuing to discriminate against us. Liberal politicians and institutions can claim “anti-oppression” legitimacy and win points with communities affected by prejudice, while simultaneously using “sentencing enhancement” to justify building more prisons to lock us up in. Hate crime laws foreground a single accused individual as the “cause” of racism, homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, or any number of other oppressive prejudices.

“Anything that expands the power of a system that damages our communities so severely is against our long-term and short-term interests. Any legal weapon that’s created to make our justice system more harsh and punitive cannot be trusted in the hands of institutions that have shown their prejudices and corruption time and time again.”

Read the full Sullivan article against this letter, and find yourself asking whether the costs are worth whatever benefits might accrue. Reasonable people might disagree.

On and On and On….

October 12th, 2009 No comments

Here’s a story you likely know, at least in broad outline:

During his campaign, Obama promises progress on gay rights. Once in office, his rhetoric cools and — to be charitable — he doesn’t seem to be moving very fast. Then he makes things much worse with a dreadful brief his Justice Department files in defending the Defense of Marriage Act. Critics (including this one) erupt.

Chastened, Obama signs a memorandum extending a few lousy benefits to partners of federal employees. Then the lifting of the ban on HIV-positive travelers moves closer to reality. Hate crimes law should be a reality any day now, but other promises, like the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT)” and (especially) the Defense of Marriage Act remain just…promises.

Then, this past Saturday night, Obama headlines the gay dinner-to-end-all-dinners — the HRC soiree in DC — where he “opens” for the ubiquitous Lady Gaga.1 His speech makes more concrete (but with no timeline) his goal of repealing DADT and of passing ENDA (the federal non-discrimination law).

Some bloggers continue continue to howl. “When”? “Give us concrete times and dates!” In this vein, Andrew Sullivan titles his post on the speech “Much Worse Than I Expected.”2   Others read it differently. Nan Hunter, for example, thinks that the focus on DADT has occluded Obama’s subtle but important move towards the language of moral equality. (Her post is really worth your time; so is her blog, in general.) Sullivan would say (and has, in almost these words): “We know the man can give a great speech. Now he needs to shut up and do something.”

There’s the story. Now the question: Where to stand?

I’m trying to find some way of accommodating these two truths: First, Obama is an advocate (except on marriage). Second, so far and perhaps for good, he isn’t willing to expend much political capital on LGBT rights; so he moves slowly or (perhaps in the case of DOMA), not at all. This is advocacy in name (and soaring rhetoric) only.

Here are a few suggestions to help maintain your sanity. So far, they are working for me:

  1. Focus on the states, where marriage equality will continue to play out. Right now, Maine is hugely important. If Question 1, asking the voters to repeal the recently enacted marriage equality law, is voted down, then the right can’t argue about courts — or, weirdly, even legislatures — subverting the will of the people. Of course, some leadership from Obama wouldn’t hurt in this regard, either. (So far, silence).
  2. Be practical — not ridiculous, as in waiting for 2017 to render judgment, but realistic. If we get hate crimes and ENDA this year, as well as the regulatory repeal of the HIV travel ban, and the end of DADT next year, I’d swallow my disappointment over DOMA (not for long) and congratulate Obama on some actual accomplishments. (As I wrote here in summarizing the remarks of Chai Feldblum and others, getting legislation through Congress is tough because of the difficulty of getting their time and attention.)
  3. Continue agitating, and criticizing the Administration. Consider supporting organizations other than the HRC, at least until they can show something, anything, for their decades of black-tie fund-raising efforts.

Maybe this is too timid, maybe I’m too critical, maybe…I should go to bed.

  1. Who sang a freshly kitted-out version of John Lennon’s “Imagine” that stands with the Elton John/Bernie Taupin retread of “Candle in the Wind” (to fit Princess Diana’s memorial) in the “lazy songcraft” pantheon. I’m sure the guests would rather have heard “Pokerface.”
  2. Some context is useful here. Earlier, Sullivan had leveled HRC Pres Joe Solomonese for a letter he’d sent out supporting Obama, and suggesting that we wait until 2017(!) to evaluate his Presidency. Although some of the post is needlessly incendiary (esp. the title), Sullivan was right in the essentials, and it’s hard not to read Obama’s speech in light of the HRC’s bland acceptance of almost anything he says or promises to do.

Obama’s (Mini) Down Payment on Gay Rights: Federal Domestic Partner Benefits

June 17th, 2009 No comments

The issue of causation confounds philosophers and scientists alike, but allow me to identify one instance of clear cause-and-effect that few would dispute: The furor over the DOJ’s filing of the motion to dismiss in the DOMA case — not to mention the hemorrhaging of financial support for the upcoming DNC fund-raiser — led directly to President Obama’s actions tonight. Here’s what happened:

The actual legal step is teensy. Federal employees get a few crummy benefits; not the truly valuable stuff like health care or retirement benefits. Obama barely mentions the benefits  he’s able to confer with the stroke of a pen, because they’re mostly peanuts. (Not to those directly affected, though. During Equality Forum, I spoke to Michael Guest, the moderator of a panel on LGBT Rights and Challenges in Russia. Guest is the former U.S. Ambassador to Romania, and he discussed his constant frustration with how his same-sex spouse couldn’t do any of the simple  things that spouses of opposite-sex couples could, including attending basic learning  sessions on “do’s and  “don’t’s” for spouses living in other countries. My  conversation with Guest is worth its own post; maybe someday soon….)

But Obama’s action wasn’t about these benefits; they were just the handiest vehicle for his now desperately needed effort to calm the LGBT community. There were two ways for him to have done so: He could have delivered a major, sweeping  speech on gay rights, with a mea culpa for the vilified DOJ brief (for which he’s ultimately accountable). In my fantasy world, I  still hope that he might deliver such a speech, and a few posts ago, I took the liberty of writing one for him.  The model for that is the “race speech” he gave last year here in Philadelphia.

This brief signing ceremony cum photo op was the alternative. It wasn’t a grand “gay rights” speech, focusing instead on DOMA — not coincidentally, the act that was the subject of the recent firestorm — and on the smaller steps, like the Domestic Partners Benefits and Obligations Act, that could be taken leading up to DOMA’s repeal.

Given its focus on DOMA, as a short speech it was good. He neither apologized for nor explained the DOJ brief, but he did acknowledge that he hadn’t done anything yet: “Among the steps we have not taken is repeal of DOMA.” He then reminded us that, yes, he still supports repealing a statute that is “discriminatory” and “interferes with states’ rights.”

The “states’ rights” reason is important to the legal ear. Recall that DOMA does two things: It allows states to refuse recognition of sister states’ same-sex marriages, and denies federal marriage benefits to same-sex couples even if validly married in their home states. The DOJ’s argument in defense of the second provision was the one that drew all of the outrage, arguing, as it did, that the government shouldn’t spend federal tax money on the “novelty item”  that is same-sex marriage, and (incredibly) that same-sex couples weren’t being discriminated against by being excluded from federal benefits. Tonight, Obama effectively stepped back from these arguments by saying that DOMA should  be repealed precisely because it doesn’t respect a state’s decision to confer the status of marriage on same-sex couples. Not bad, although likely lost on non-lawyers (unless you are lucky enough to be reading this!)

Beyond DOMA, his rhetoric was more general, and — happily! — more reminiscent of his campaign’s. There’s “more work to do to ensure that government treats all of its citizens equally.” He’s committed to fighting “injustice and intolerance in all its forms to bring about that more perfect union.” There, he consciously echoed the race speech, which began with this quote from the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution: “We  the people, in order to form a more perfect union….” (The speech also ended with the idea of “perfecting” that union.)

And then, in further answer to the question: “What the hell are you doing on LGBT issues?”, he committed his administration to working “tirelessly” to secure the repeal of DOMA.

Will this action succeed in quelling the outrage? It’s impossible to tell at this point. For once, I’ve purposely refrained from reading other blogs before posting this, because I wanted to voice my own first reaction, unaffected by the cacophony that’s surely out there. My guess is that it buys him a little time — not much — to actually start working on the signature LGBT issues of his campaign. If DOMA gets moved to the front of the pack (ahead of supposedly easier sells, like hate crimes and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act), that would be real progress.

But the honeymoon is over.