Holder adresses HRC
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder told a Human Rights Campaign audience in New York [Feb. 8] that, beginning [Feb. 10], he “will — for the first time in history — formally instruct all Justice Department employees to give lawful same-sex marriages full and equal recognition, to the greatest extent possible under the law.” But there have been some mixed assessments of how big this news really is.
Holder said his new policy is a response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling last June in U.S. v. Windsor. Many of the federal government’s agencies have issued new regulations in response to that ruling, striking down the key provision of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).
Holder said the new policy would have “important, real-world implications for same-sex married couples that interact with the criminal justice system.” Specifically, he noted same-sex spouses would now have the same rights as spouses in heterosexual marriages not to testify against their spouse in a civil or criminal trial. Same-sex couples will be able to file bankruptcy jointly. Federal prisoners with same-sex spouses will be eligible for visits from their spouses, escorted trips to attend their spouse’s funeral. And public safety officers with same-sex spouses will receive the same benefits as their heterosexually married peers.
The mainstream media reportedly the news widely. HRC President Chad Griffin called it a “landmark announcement” that “will change the lives of countless committed gay and lesbian couples for the better” and has “more profound” effects in the long-term.
Jon Davidson, legal director for Lambda Legal, says the announcement is “quite significant.”
“It instructs all government attorneys to respect all marriages of same-sex couples, regardless of the laws of their state of residence to argue for recognition of their marriages for all purposes,” Davidson said.
But Gary Buseck, legal director of Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, said the “substance” of the announcement was less impressive. Buseck said many of the benefits touted as part of the new policy were already in place, adding that while there is important “symbolism” in the announcement, “bankruptcy was a done deal several years ago and the other items are good but certainly not far-reaching.”
In June 2011, the largest federal bankruptcy court in the United States ruled in re: Balas that DOMA violates the equal protection guarantee of the U.S. Constitution. In a strongly worded decision, the 20 judges participating in the decision ruled unanimously “there is no valid governmental basis for DOMA.” By then, Holder had already advised the courts that the DOJ would not defend DOMA and House Speaker John Boehner decided not to appeal the decision.
“It seems like Holder is spinning it as his agency — DOJ — coming on board with respect for our married couples and adopting a place of celebration rule,” Buseck said. “I didn’t immediately see it as a big deal that DOJ was somehow officially coming on board with the general trend post-Windsor. But perhaps I am not giving them enough credit.”
In his other remarks [of Feb. 8], Holder told the Human Rights Campaign fundraiser audience in New York City that he thinks the struggle for LGBT rights has reached “a new frontier in the fight for civil rights.”
“This is no time to rest on our laurels,” Holder said. “This is no time to back down, to give up, or to give in to the unjust and unequal status quo. Neither tradition nor fear of change can absolve us of the obligation we share to combat discrimination in all its forms. And, despite everything that’s been achieved, each of us has much more work to do.”
A first look at Sochi
LGBT visibility during the first few days of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, included some high profile political “messages,” two gay inclusive television commercials, and several surprise choices by both Russian games organizers and openly gay athletes.
It was Olympic organizers at the speed skating stadium who chose to play the iconic gay anthem “YMCA” over the public address system during Saturday’s competition. And it was openly lesbian athlete Daniela Iraschko-Stolz who reportedly told reporters, “I don’t think it’s a good idea to make protests here, no one cares.”
Most Americans are getting their Olympic coverage via NBC’s nightly broadcasts of selected, edited events, as well as some live coverage during the day. Although broadcast of some of the first events began on Thursday, February 6, the most-watched programming started with the opening ceremony Friday night.
NBC led its opening ceremony coverage with an interview taped by anchor Bob Costas via satellite with President Obama on Thursday. In that interview, Costas asked the president why he, the vice president, and First Lady did not attend. President Obama said they all had busy schedules and “a lot going on,” and pointed out that he hasn’t attended any other Olympics since taking office in 2009.
Costas pointed out that the president chose three openly gay athletes to be part of the 10-member U.S. presidential delegation to the opening and closing ceremonies, saying that seemed to be sending a message. President Obama acknowledged he was.
“There is no doubt we wanted to make it very clear that we do not abide by discrimination in anything, including discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation,” said President Obama. (The full interview is available at NBC’s Olympics website, nbcolympics.com/video.)
International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach seemed to chide President Obama with his own remarks at the opening ceremony. Although he said the Olympics are about “embracing human diversity in great unity,” he called on “political leaders of the world” to “have the courage to address your disagreements in a peaceful, direct, and political dialogue and not on the backs of these athletes.”
However, many people were attempting to find politics on the backs of the athletes, literally. When the German team entered the stadium wearing multi-colored uniforms, NBC co-anchor Meredith Vieira immediately characterized them as “rainbow-colored” but then quickly added that, when the uniforms were unveiled last October, the German team officials made a point of saying they were not a statement in regards to Russia’s anti-gay laws.“So, if you’re thinking that this was a statement about that,” said Vieira, in an unusually strident tone, “it is not.”
Vieira said nothing as members of the Greek team, the first to enter the stadium, paraded in wearing white gloves with rainbow colored fingers.
Although some activists had predicted gay athletes and their supporters might wear “P6” or rainbow pins during the Olympics, there were very few clear signs of anything gay on the televised Olympics. Openly gay snowboarder Cheryl Maas of The Netherlands took a fall on one of her runs and, after she stood the obligatory few minutes in front of a “Sochi 2014” wall to await her score, she walked away holding her gloved right hand in front of the camera. Because Maas is gay and the glove had what appeared to be a unicorn and a rainbow-colored target on it, some interpreted that as a moment of LGBT visibility.
Another openly gay athlete (there are only seven among the 2,800-plus athletes competing in Sochi), Austrian ski jumper Daniela Iraschko-Stolz reportedly told reporters, “I don’t think it’s a good idea to make protests here, no one cares.
“I know Russia will go and make the right steps in the future,” said Iraschko-Stolz about the country’s anti-gay laws, according to an Associated Press report, “and we should give them time. I am here as a sportswoman. I always say I’m together with my woman now and don’t have any problems, not in Russia or with the Austrian federation.”
One of the more prominent televised moments of visibility came in the form of two commercial advertisements for Chevrolet. One showed a large number of different family configurations, including what appeared to be a two-dad family and a two-mom family. The ad said that, “While what it means to be a family hasn’t changed, what a family looks like has.” Then it offered Chevy Traverse, “for whatever shape your family takes.” The company also aired a second commercial showing happy life moments, including a gay male couple at a wedding ceremony.
Three sponsors of the IOC also issued statements of opposition to Russia’s anti-gay laws — AT&T, DeVry University, and the Chobani yogurt maker.
Some media have suggested Russian President Putin might have been delivering a “message” at Friday’s opening ceremony in his choice of former Olympic skater and current Member of Parliament Irina Rodnina to help light the Olympic torch. While at first glance, Rodnina’s credentials seemed to make her an obvious choice for the task, news media soon picked up on her notoriety. As the UK newspaper, The Guardian, reported last September, Rodnina last fall posted a photo on Twitter that showed President Obama and the First Lady together and, because the president had a big bite of food in his mouth, his face was oddly contorted. Rodnina photoshopped a banana onto the photo’s foreground, making it appear the president and First Lady were mesmerized by the prospects of a banana.
In reaction to that photo, U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul last September published a message on Twitter, calling Rodnina’ post “outrageous.” The Guardian story at the time noted that “Racism is rife in Russia, and black football players often face racial abuse involving bananas.”
“It is difficult to see the image as anything but racist,” said a Chicago Tribune article Sunday.
Dmitriy Chernyshenko, head of the Russian Olympic committee, said his “panel” chose Rodnina and did so solely because of her Olympic legacy.
And it was also difficult to figure out what Putin and Russian organizers were trying to say Friday night, if, in fact, Putin was controlling all the messaging at the opening ceremony. A singing group widely identified as a “pseudo-lesbian” band called T.a.T.u. (which reportedly means ‘this girl loves that girl,’ according to the Daily Beast) performed a song called “Not Gonna Get Us” — reportedly about two schoolgirls in love — as the Russian team marched to their seats at the opening ceremony. The two female singers walked onstage hand in hand.
And it probably startled many in the speed skating arena when the iconic gay anthem “YMCA” started coming through the public address system Saturday. According to Associated Press, the stadium crowd was “dancing and hopping to the disco hit,” which was among 4,600 songs approved by the Sochi organizers for use during the Games.
Meanwhile, off-camera, and covered by some media, was the detention and arrest by police of more than a dozen people in St. Petersburg, 1,200 miles away from Sochi, on Friday for holding up rainbow flags and a banner that said “Discrimination is incompatible with the Olympic Movement.”
—Lisa Keen is a well-known, well-respected and award-winning gay journalist who spent 18 years as editor of the Washington Blade. See more news from Keen and other select veteran gay journalists at keennewsservice.com