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Late-night host James Corden gave Lambda Legal a great big shout out.

DROP MIC, WALK OUT

A Lambda Legal lawyer and other advocates quit the presidential advisory council on HIV/AIDS. It went viral.

First, presidential candidate Trump declined to meet with AIDS activists.

Then, the day of President Trump’s inauguration, the Office of National AIDS Policy (ONAP) website came down.

Months into his term, Trump had failed to appoint anyone as director of ONAP. It all was signaling an utter lack of interest in stopping the epidemic, which had been a priority under Obama.

But for Scott Schoettes, the openly HIV-positive director of Lambda Legal’s HIV Project, plus another five of the 25-member Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS (PACHA), the last straw was Trump’s pressure on Congress to destroy Obamacare. In just two years, Obamacare expanded its Medicaid component for people living with HIV from 36 to 42 percent. 

“When I saw him championing something that was going to be horrible and not even caring what exactly was in the bill, just wanting to be able to say he’d done a deal and gotten rid of Obamacare, that was when I realized I couldn’t be effective from within this government,” says Schoettes.

Shortly thereafter, on June 17, he and those other five members of PACHA, which since 1995 had advised presidents on HIV/AIDS policy, gave a very public resignation in Newsweek. “We have dedicated our lives to combating this disease,” they wrote, “and no longer feel we can do so effectively within the confines of an advisory body to a president who simply does not care.”

Two of them, Alabama’s Gina Brown and California’s Grissel Granados, are also living with HIV. The mass resignation got huge media coverage, including from late-night show host James Corden (of “Carpool Karaoke” fame), who, in a pointed stunt, sent Trump nearly 300 copies of the AIDS film Philadelphia to educate him on the disease.

“WE HAVE DEDICATED OUR LIVES TO COMBATING THIS DISEASE AND NO LONGER FEEL WE CAN DO SO EFFECTIVELY WITHIN THE CONFINES OF AN ADVISORY BODY TO A PRESIDENT WHO SIMPLY DOES NOT CARE.”
—  From the resignation letter

Schoettes, who had been on PACHA since 2013, said that he and some other members had discussed quitting right after the election. “But then we thought, ‘Okay, this is going to be challenging, but it’s worth a try and there’s good to be done from the inside.”

Red flags abounded. At PACHA’s March meeting, the group worked on a letter of introduction to Trump urging that Medicaid expansion remain in place and that any new health bill continue to ensure that people with chronic conditions weren’t discriminated against.

“But then we were told by the administration not to address the letter to the president”—as is traditional—“but to Dr. Tom Price, the secretary of Health and Human Services,” says Schoettes. 

The group got a reply from the acting undersecretary. It ignored the letter’s key points and talked mainly about maintaining robust funding for the Ryan White CARE Act, which was (and remains) the health care payer of last result for people living with HIV nationwide.

PACHA has always been limited to an advisory role. It criticized Bill Clinton for his ban on federal funding for HIV-preventing needle exchange programs and expressed frustration with George W. Bush, who stacked the council with Christian conservatives who promoted abstinence-only sex education instead of time-proven condoms.

The Obama administration took the council most seriously, organizing it into subcommittees that focused on components of the country’s first-ever comprehensive National HIV/AIDS Strategy. A heavy focus was put not only on reducing infections among high-risk groups, such as gay and bisexual Black men, but on closing the gap between people with HIV and people who are diagnosed and in steady care and treatment.

“Obama came in with an agenda on the domestic epidemic that had not been seen before,” says Schoettes. “His administration understood that for the strategy to be successful, it needed buy-in from the HIV/AIDS community, and PACHA helped create the buy-in. It really felt like we were in dialogue with them.”

Those days appear to be gone. In the Trump era, says Schoettes, pressure, including public protest, will have to shift to Congress to do the right thing. “We have to stay angry and advocate from the outside,” he says. “As well as on the state and local levels. We still have a bunch of states that didn’t expand Medicaid and we have to continue working on that.”

But it will likely have to happen without the support of the White House. “The work we need to do will still get done by folks on the ground,” says departed PACHA member Granados, 30, who got HIV from her mother in the womb and now works in HIV prevention at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. “But it’s that much more difficult when we don’t have federal allies.” 

Follow the work of Lambda Legal’s HIV Project at lambdalegal.org/issues/hiv

TRUMP’S TRANSGENDER TWEETS FROM HELL

He dropped a bombshell. Now Lambda Legal and OutServe-SLDN are suing.

“Please be advised,” the highly unpopular president wrote in three tweets on July 26, “that the United States Government will not accept or allow Transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military. Our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming victory and cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail. Thank you.”

The tweet ricocheted through the networks of up to 15,000 active-duty transgender servicemembers—a tiny percentage of the military. “It was devastating,” says Sasha Buchert, a Lambda Legal staff attorney who concealed her transgender identity while serving in the military in the 1980s. “A lot of folks told me they were so distraught and overwhelmed that day that they just left work crying without talking to anyone.”

The tweet, which came a year after then-President Obama greenlighted opening up the military to transgender people—it is still technically not hiring openly transgender recruits—was met with bipartisan condemnation in Congress and from an array of advocacy and civil rights groups, including Lambda Legal. Those close to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who was given only a day’s notice on the announcement, said he was appalled.

“IT WAS DEVASTATING.” SERVICEMEMBERS "JUST LEFT WORK CRYING."

Lambda Legal and another group, OutServe- SLDN, have filed suit against the standing ban. “We’re ready to litigate this,” says Buchert. She says that the ban would violate constitutional rights of due process and equal protection.

Trump’s claim that transgender servicemembers’ medical costs would be too high are bogus, she says. A RAND corporation study last year found that overall military costs would rise a mere .04 to .13 percent if they included transgender health coverage. Moreover, Buchert notes, a Palm Center study found that it would cost the military 100 times more to discharge and replace transgender members.

Buchert thinks Trump dropped the tweet partly to shore up his conservative base amid abysmal approval ratings, the lowest of any modern president at this point in his term. “He can see his numbers plummeting.” She calls the tweet a misfire, noting a Reuters/Ipsos poll taken after his tweet finding that a majority of Americans supported transgender inclusion in the military.

From transgender servicemembers, says Buchert, “we’ve heard there’s been an outpouring of support from colleagues who say, ‘Hey, we’ve got your back, even if the president doesn’t.’ But they’re still living in fear that real policy could issue from this.”

Meantime, she says, it’s important for people to reach out to their legislators to let them know the importance of transgender troops serving openly without fear.

“Lawmakers have said again and again that they didn’t recognize the harm of having to serve in secrecy until they actually met with an openly serving transgender person,” she says. “That’s really important work that needs to continue.”

DANGER IN THE COURTS

Trump is trying to stack federal benches with extremist judges who could roll back LGBT and other civil rights for a generation.

In May, President Trump nominated to a federal court of appeals John Kenneth Bush, an arch-conservative Kentucky lawyer who, in his blog under the pseudonym “G. Morris,” had compared abortion to slavery. He’d called then- Secretary of State Hillary Clinton a “nanny” and Rep. Nancy Pelosi “mama,” adding she should be gagged. He’d used the word “faggot” in a speech in Louisville.

And in 1993, he’d coauthored a legal brief saying that women had no right to be accepted at Virginia Military Institute because their developmental needs were incompatible with the school’s training. (The Supreme Court overturned the ban three years later.)

During his Senate confirmation hearings, even some Republicans expressed concern over his extreme views. “That gave us some cautious optimism” that he’d be blocked, says Yuvraj Joshi, Lambda Legal’s Fair Courts Project Fellow. “We hoped some Republican senators could move past party interest to recognize the grave threat Bush posed to the rights of women, communities of color and LGBT people.”

But it didn’t work out that way. Not one Republican senator opposed Bush— not one Democrat voted for him either—and he now sits on the powerful sixth circuit, which covers Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee.

And Bush, says Joshi, is just one example of a wave of nominees with anti-civil-rights records that the Trump administration is trying to pack onto the federal courts, where 139 out of about 890 seats remain open. Trump’s successful installation of extreme conservative Neil Gorsuch is only the tip of the iceberg. If the Trump administration succeeds, “this will profoundly change the face of the judiciary for a generation in ways that will harm many, including people of color, women and the LGBT community.”

Many of Trump’s nominees are part of the Federalist Society, a powerful and conservative legal group, and espouse an “originalist” interpretation of the Constitution that allows for little interpretation beyond the exact words written in 1789.

“That means,” explains Joshi, “that unless there have been explicit amendments, individuals have no more rights today than they did in 1789, which writes LGBT people right out of the ideals of liberty and equality.”

Consider some of the other nominees: Damien Schiff, chosen by Trump for the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, blogged that Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy was “a judicial prostitute” for “selling his vote in exchange for the high that comes from the aggrandizement of power and influence and the blandishments of the fawning media.” Justice Kennedy authored four landmark decisions from the last two decades recognizing the equal rights and dignity of LGBT people.

Then there’s federal claims court nominee Stephen C. Schwartz. He’s one of the lawyers who argued before the Supreme Court against Gavin Grimm, the Virginia transgender student claiming it is unconstitutional for his school to ban students from using the bathroom that aligns with who they are.

“Federal claims court has a lower profile,” says Joshi, “but Schwartz is only 34. He’s obviously being groomed for higher courts.” Schwartz has yet to go before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Lambda Legal, along with dozens of other groups, has been publicly urging senators to oppose Trump’s most extreme anti-LGBT nominees. “And come the midterm elections of 2018,” says Joshi, “we trust our constituents will remember how particular Senate votes have led to the confirmation of judges who, a few years ago, would have been considered patently unqualified.”

But also needed, he says, is the kind of public pressure on senators to block extreme candidates that was put on them in the recent successful fight to stop the dangerous GOP health care bill. “Judges that Trump installs will last a lifetime. People have to understand the stakes and fight bad nominees just as hard as bad policies.

Lambda Legal is currently developing a broader campaign to challenge Trump’s red-flag nominees.

And it’s important to do so, Joshi adds. “The courts are the only check against the assault on LGBT rights we’re seeing from the administration and from certain states. There’s just too much to lose if we lose the courts.”

Readers can stay up to date at lambdalegal.org/issues/fair-courts-project