Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Winnipeg Manitoba Gay-Straight Alliance Members Say Group Saves Lives, Bill Prohibiting Louisiana From Discriminating Against Gay, Lesbian, And Transgender Employees Fails To Get Out Of House Committee, Texas Attorney General Abbott Says Domestic Partnership Benefits Violate State Constitution Banning Same Sex Marriage, Wisconsin Church Cancels Former Green Bay Packers Safety LeRoy Butler Speech After Parent Complains That He Supported Just-Out NBA Player Jason Collins, Collins Number 98 Jersey Sales Surge, Smith College Group To Deliver Petition Asking Administrators To Amend Admissions Policy On Transgender Applicants

In Manitoba, students from one Winnipeg school are speaking out in support of controversial anti-bullying legislation introduced by the provincial government earlier this year. A number of Manitoba groups have come down on either side of Bill 18, new anti-bullying legislation to be in place in the province by this fall. The legislation calls for gay-straight alliances to be made available in schools, should students want them. A number of faith-based groups have said the act infringes on their religious rights, while others have said the legislation is an important step in counteracting bullying in Manitoba schools. Maples Collegiate students have had access to a GSA for the last three years. Student Sydney Davies said the group saved her life, reports CBC News. Davies said a few years ago she was struggling with her sexuality and almost took her own life. “Coming to the GSA made things so much better,” Davies said Wednesday. She said she found support from teachers and students in a safe space, and it made all the difference. Every Wednesday in room 131, Maple’s Collegiate GSA meets to try and build awareness for and educate the rest of the school on lesbian, bisexual, transgender and two-spirited issues. “We provide knowledge and that’s such a huge thing because the opposite of ignorance is knowledge,” said Davies. But not everyone in the province wants to see GSAs available to students. Religious schools and groups in Steinbach, Manitoba, have come out in staunch opposition to the legislation. Steinbach city council even passed a motion to petition the province to stop the legislation from going through. “I really think it’s idiotic because that’s just being homophobic. It’s just saying those schools do not want support for people who are trans or gay,” said Davies. “They do not want people to have a safe environment.” And safe environments, according to, Lynda Brethauer Ventonm, is what GSAs are all about. Venton founded the Maples Collegiate GSA and said GSAs are important for students who need them to be able to develop and reach their full potential. “If they’re worried about coming out to family, ‘Am I gay? Am I trans? Am I born in the wrong body?’ If that’s their entire focus, and they have no one to talk to about it, of course it’s going to affect their learning, their marks, their mental health,” said Venton. Provincial officials have said they will not back down from the legislation and want to see it in place before classes begin this fall.

In Louisiana, a House committee shot down a bill Wednesday designed to prohibit the state from discriminating against gay and transgender employees. House Bill 85 by Rep. Austin Badon (D-New Orleans) would have barred discrimination against state workers because of their sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression. The committee voted 6-3 against the bill, reports the Times-Picayune. Badon and gay-rights advocates said the measure is necessary because those groups face significant discrimination in the workplace. The bill, which would have applied to only employment with the state government, would have provided means for employees who believe they had been discriminated against to appeal to the state Civil Service Commission or file suit. Those complaints would have been handled in the same way the state currently handles discrimination based on political beliefs, sex or race. That type of discrimination is banned under the state Constitution. Religious groups, including the Louisiana Family Forum, testified against the bill, arguing it would confer special rights on gay and transgender workers.

The Texas Constitution bans the city of Austin, Travis County and area school districts from offering domestic partner benefits to employees in same-sex relationships, according to a legal opinion released Monday by Attorney General Greg Abbott. Domestic partnerships, as recognized by the local governments, are close enough to the definition of marriage to violate a constitutional amendment banning same sex unions that 76-percent of Texas voters approved in 2005, the opinion stated. “By creating domestic partnerships and offering health benefits based on them, the political subdivisions have created and recognized something not established by Texas law,” the opinion said. Lawyers for Austin and Travis County have begun researching the opinion to help political leaders determine if it should be followed. Attorney general opinions attempt to determine how Texas courts would rule on a legal matter, but only the courts have the definitive say on constitutional questions. Failure to follow Abbott’s opinion, however, could invite lawsuits over the benefits. The issue arose up late last year after the Pflugerville Independent School District announced it would offer domestic partner benefits to unmarried employees, including same sex couples. The Austin school district later indicated it intended to offer a similar benefits package next school year. State Sen. Dan Patrick (R-Houston) asked Abbott to study the issue, noting that “it is clear to me” that the benefits — also offered by San Antonio, Fort Worth and El Paso — violated the constitutional amendment banning recognition of same-sex unions in Texas. The Austin Statesman reports that Patrick praised the opinion Monday. “The voters of the state of Texas decided overwhelmingly that marriage is between one man and one woman in 2005,” he said. “This opinion clearly outlines that cities, counties and school districts cannot subvert the will of Texans.” Lawyers for Travis County, which has offered domestic partner benefits for 16 years, will discuss the opinion with county commissioners at next week’s meeting, Judge Sam Biscoe said. “If something we’re doing is illegal, we would change it immediately,” Biscoe said. But the county does not have to acquiesce to Abbott’s opinion if its attorneys disagree with the arguments, he added. The Austin City Council will receive a similar briefing from its lawyers at its May 9 meeting, but city attorney Karen Kennard said late Monday that Austin does not intend to change its benefits package “at this time,” telling council in a memo that, “With all due respect to the attorney general, we believe his opinion on this question is not correct.” City Manager Marc Ott was to send a note to city employees Tuesday that “underscores our commitment to our current group health benefits program, which we believe allows the city to attract and retain the very best employees,” Kennard said. Pflugerville school officials declined to comment on the opinion. The benefits to be offered by Austin schools will be part of discussions with employee associations and will not be finalized until August, when the district budget is completed, spokesman Alex Sanchez said. “We will continue to have those conversations. We will absolutely take that (opinion) into consideration and be able to bring it to the table when we have those conversations,” Sanchez said. In his opinion, Abbott noted that state law prohibits county officials from issuing marriage licenses to people who are currently married, couples who are closely related or if one applicant is under 18, except in limited circumstances. Domestic partner benefits are offered based on similar criteria, he said. “The domestic partnership status resembles marriage in these respects,” Abbott wrote. “Applying the ordinary definition of ‘similar,’ a court is likely to conclude that the domestic partnership legal status … is ‘similar to marriage’ and therefore barred by the Texas Constitution.” Abbott acknowledged that two pending cases at the U.S. Supreme Court could change the legal landscape, rendering the state constitutional ban unenforceable. The cases involve California’s ban on same-sex marriage, which was struck down by an appeals court, and a section of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, a 1996 law that denies federal benefits to same sex couples. Rulings are expected by the end of June.

In Wisconsin, Former Green Bay Packers safety LeRoy Butler was scheduled to speak at a church, but his appearance was canceled because he congratulated NBA player Jason Collins, who came out this week and declared he was gay. Shortly after sending congratulations to Collins on Twitter, Butler got a call from officials at a church where he was scheduled to give an anti-bullying presentation this summer, he told the Journal Sentinel on Wednesday. Butler thought the call was to discuss event details. He said that he speaks to several churches every year, and that sponsors usually help the church raise money to cover his fee - in this case $8,500 - and in turn, donations are collected during the event to benefit the church. Instead, Butler was told by church officials that they would cancel the presentation unless he removed the tweet, apologized and asked God's forgiveness. "This is what bothers me the most. They said, 'If you ask for forgiveness and remove the tweet and you say something to the effect that you don't congratulate (Collins) then we'll let you do the engagement and get the speaker's fee, and I said I'm not doing that," Butler said Wednesday. "Every gay and lesbian person will say 'You know, LeRoy doesn't speak up for the weak or the silenced. He doesn't stand for anything as a man and he did it for money.' Why would you ask me to reduce my integrity like that?" he continued. He was so bothered by the exchange that he took to Twitter on Tuesday night to discuss it, where it was noticed by the National Football Post, which first reported the story. Although Butler confirmed the church is in Wisconsin, he declined to share its name or approximate location. He said he didn't think his tweet to Collins was religious or political. "This is a man's personal story. I've always been on the record saying if there was a gay person in the Packer locker room, I would have played with them. All I care about is if you can run and jump, and can you win Super Bowls," Butler said. Still, he said he wasn't too surprised that such a statement got a reaction. "I was surprised it was me, because that's why I moved to this state, I want to be a role model for all kids, I don't say which ones, not just straight kids. I don't judge them,'" he said. He said he pointed out to the church's pastor that the church's attempt to force him into something was an example of bullying. "This is a form of bullying, what you're doing. You're trying to get me to do something I don't want to do," Butler said. "He disagreed, and I said, 'We agree to disagree' and he said 'No, I'm right and you're wrong.’” The church has since tried to reach Butler to apologize. Butler said that he would accept the apology, if offered, but that he will never work with the church again. Later Wednesday, Butler tweeted: "I found out what happened; I guess some parents went to the church and complained about my tweet for support of Jason Collins, so sad."

Washington Wizards center Jason Collins’ jerseys got a boost in online sales after he became the first openly gay athlete on a major U.S. team sport. Team spokesman Scott Hall told ABC News that 100 percent of custom jerseys ordered from the team’s online store bore Collins’ name and number, 98, on the back, after Collins revealed his homosexuality in an article published on Sports Illustrated’s website on Monday. Collins began the first-person article, “I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay.” While Hall could not reveal how many custom Collins jerseys were sold, he said that the team’s general merchandise sales and online traffic spiked following Collins’ announcement. In a statement, the Wizards said they were proud of Collins and “his decision to live his life proudly and openly,” adding, “He has been a leader on and off the court and an outstanding teammate throughout his NBA career. Those qualities will continue to serve him both as a player and as a positive role model for others of all sexual orientation.” Collins told ABC News Monday night that, “I know that I, right now, am the happiest that I’ve ever been in my life. A huge weight has been lifted. I’ve already been out to my family and my friends, but just to, you know, sort of rip the Band-Aid off and come out on my own terms. I hope that every player makes a decision that leads to their own happiness.”

In Northampton, Massachusetts, Smith Q&A, an on-campus group that focuses on raising awareness about transgender issues at Smith College, has announced plans to deliver more than 4,000 signatures from their petition to Smith College’s Office of Admissions on Thursday. According to, the online petition drive followed the college’s refusal to consider the application of Calliope Wong, a male-to-female transgender high school student from Connecticut. A letter dated March 5 to Wong from Smith Dean of Admission Debra Shaver and posted on the student’s Tumblr blog states that the reason for the rejection is that she is listed as male on her Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form. The FAFSA form is a standard report used by colleges to determine eligibility for loans and needs-based awards. “As you may remember from our previous correspondence, Smith is a women’s college, which means that undergraduate applicants to Smith must be female at the time of admission,” Shaver stated in the letter. In March, the college’s rejection of Wong drew national attention after generating reports on the Huffington Post and in USA Today. At the time, Laurie Felason, Smith’s vice president for public affairs, e-mailed the Republican the section of the college’s policies on gender identity and expression. That document states that the college has students who identify as transgender and that it does not decide who is a woman, but “relies upon the information provided by each student applicant.” It also states that any student who completes the college’s graduation requirements regardless of gender identity, gender expression or sexual orientation is awarded a Smith degree. The Smith Q&A petition urges Smith College to adopt admissions policies that are welcoming and supportive to all transgender women applicants. The group said it plans to deliver the signatures to the Smith admissions office Thursday at 4:00 pm.

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