Lambda Legal News

Find Your State

Know the laws in your state that protect LGBT people and people living with HIV.
Jeff Mateer, who compared marriage equality to bestiality, was nominated to the federal bench. After public outcry and Lambda Legal’s work on the Hill and in the media, his nomination was withdrawn.
Jeff Mateer, who compared marriage equality to bestiality, was nominated to the federal bench. After public outcry and Lambda Legal’s work on the Hill and in the media, his nomination was withdrawn.

RECKLESS ENDANGERMENT

Trump is stacking courts with judges who could roll back LGBT civil rights by half a century.

In Impact’s last issue, we wrote about how the Trump administration is working quickly to stack federal benches with extremist, ultraconservative judges. Take, for example, newly installed Sixth Circuit judge John Kenneth Bush, a Kentucky lawyer who’s compared abortion to slavery, once said that Rep. Nancy Pelosi should be gagged and used the word “faggot” in a speech in Louisville.

Others who have been in the wings include Jeff Mateer (who was nominated to a district court in Texas), who has called transgender children part of “Satan’s plan,” compared marriage for same-sex couples to bestiality and supported “conversion therapy” for gay youth.

"THESE NOMINEES ARE EMERGING AS THE CIVIL RIGHTS THREAT OF OUR TIME."

There’s Steven Grasz (now confi rmed to the Eight Circuit Court of Appeals), who serves as the director of the board of the Nebraska Family Alliance, which has repeatedly targeted the LGBT community.

And then there’s Mark Norris (nominated to a district court in Tennessee), who has supported state legislation to prohibit cities from passing laws protecting LGBT people from discrimination— and to permit mental health counselors to refuse to treat LGBT clients under the guise of religious liberty.

“These nominees are emerging as the civil rights threat of our time for LGBT people,” says Lambda Legal fellow Yuvraj Joshi. “Trump may be around for just four years, but some of these nominees will last 40.”

Another scary development? In November, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, Republican of Iowa, announced that he was pushing through with the confi rmation hearing for David Stras, a far-right nominee to the Eighth Circuit, despite the objections of a senator from Stras’ home state, Minnesota. Grassley’s decision fl ew in the face of century-old Senate practice: confi rmation hearings don’t proceed without approval from the candidate’s home-state senators.

“What Grassley did is a dangerous precedent,” says Lambda Legal staff attorney Sasha Buchert. “They might do this soon to senators in more liberal states, such as Sen. Feinstein in California and the Ninth Circuit.”

What’s more, says Buchert, “these nominees are mostly white men who don’t refl ect the diversity of the communities they’re going to serve, which are mainly in the South.” Lambda Legal, with its LGBT and civil rights partners, is working overtime doing background research on these nominees and alerting senators to how extreme they are.

Lambda Legal’s research led to Fifth Circuit nominee Don Willett being called out for mocking a transgender high school softball player with a tweet. Even though Willett was confi rmed, three nominations were also withdrawn, including Mateer’s, thanks to public outcry and Lambda Legal’s tireless work on the Hill and in the media.

Buchert urges readers to follow nominees at lambdalegal.org/judicialnominees and to call their senators, demanding that they block Trump’s extremist picks. Readers can also post that link to social media to urge friends to do the same thing. “This is a judicial crisis,” says Buchert. “At the rate we’re going, one in eight litigants could be in front of a Trump judge by this time next year.”

Liam Pierce
After Liam Pierce‘s HIV test came back positive, his job offer was withdrawn.

HIV UPDATES: FIGHTING WORKPLACE INJUSTICE IN LOUISIANA, MODERNIZING DRACONIAN LAWS IN CALIFORNIA

Liam Pierce never thought that being HIV-positive would impede him from being a great sheriff’s deputy. Pierce, 46, was diagnosed with HIV in 2003, but his treatment has been effective. He has never had HIV related complications, and he served as an area paramedic, firefighter and police officer for many years.

No wonder he got the job as sheriff’s deputy in New Iberia, Louisiana, in 2012. There was just one final part of the application process: a medical exam and an HIV test. But after the test came back positive, as Pierce knew it would, the job offer was rescinded.

“It was a punch in the gut,” he says. “It hurt. I’m able to do the job and serve the community without any risk. It’s frustrating that people are still not educated properly and don’t understand how HIV is and is not transmitted.”

He reached out to Lambda Legal, which took his case. “It seems there are employers who think that HIV-positive fi rst responders present a transmission risk,” says Scott Schoettes, Lambda Legal’s HIV Project director. “This is one of the cutting-edge issues in employment when it comes to HIV,” he says, adding that health care workers with HIV are also still often targeted.

Lambda Legal brought the case to Louisiana’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which last year declared that evidence supported Pierce’s claim against the sheriff ’s office. But the EEOC has no enforcement power and the sheriff refused to take corrective action, such as instituting HIV education for staffers. So Lambda Legal filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana—and is currently awaiting a response from the opposing counsel.

“If we don’t end up resolving the case through negotiation, we’ll take it to trial,” says Schoettes.

And that’s fine with Pierce, who has chosen to go public with the case. “My husband and I were concerned about the response we’d get from future employers and the community,” he says. “But we wanted to fight the stigma by being open. It helps when people see someone with HIV who works every day and is active and healthy.” He has a new job where his manager knows he has HIV and has no issue with it.

In other HIV news, California governor Jerry Brown in October signed legislation developed and championed by Lambda Legal and several other advocacy groups to reform outdated laws that unfairly criminalized and stigmatized people living with HIV.

The old laws singled out people living with HIV for felony convictions, including a felony penalty enhancement for sex workers (or their clients) regardless of whether they engaged in any activity that could actually transmit HIV. To enforce that law, another provision compelled people convicted of solicitation or prostitution to undergo an HIV test given by the state. The HIV-based criminal laws were most disproportionately used against women of color and often led to prison sentences of three to eight years.

The new law, S.B. 239, updates California criminal law to approach HIV transmission as it does transmission of other serious communicable diseases, which result in at most a misdemeanor conviction.

“This change can be transformational for the rest of the country, because it’s a model for how other states should reform these outdated laws,” says Schoettes. According to the Center for HIV Law and Policy, hundreds of people living with HIV in the past decade have been arrested or charged under laws in roughly half the states that single out HIV for criminalization, or that apply general felony laws to people living with the virus.

Lambda Legal is working to reverse such laws in states including Florida, Idaho and Illinois, says Schoettes. California joins Iowa and Colorado among states that have already dialed back such laws, most of which were passed in the 1980s or 1990s.

The updates are good news for Danny Cruz, a former member of the Sex Workers Outreach Project who worked in recent years on getting the laws reversed in California. “I’ve had sex worker friends tell me they didn’t want to get tested for HIV,” he said, “because if they knew they had it, they could be up for a felony.”

Rowan Feldhaus
Rowan Feldhaus passed away in 2017. Lambda Legal fought for his legal name change and achieved a victory for him and all transgender people in Georgia.

A PIONEERING LIFE CUT SHORT

“I knew even when he was a child that he was not born in the right body,” says Melissa Feldhaus, the mother of Rowan Feldhaus. Assigned the gender of female at birth, Rowan “never seemed happy in a female setting,” continues Melissa, a team member with a meal-prep company in Augusta, Georgia. “When his brothers started doing Cub Scouts, he didn’t understand why he couldn’t. Girl Scouts just wasn’t his thing.” The summer before senior year in high school, he did basic training in the Army Reserves.

In the fall of 2014, Feldhaus— then 23 and a student at Augusta University—was watching TV with his mother. “It was an Oprah Winfrey show about a little kid that was transgender,” Melissa says. “And Rowan looked at me and said, ‘What would you say if I told you I were trans?’ I told him that I wouldn’t love him any less. That I’d probably love him more because he’d recognized who he was and it was time he fi nally lived that way.”

Working with health providers at both his college and Fort Gordon, Feldhaus started psychotherapy and, in a year, got the go-ahead to start taking testosterone. He came out as transgender to friends, as well as to his manager and coworkers at a nearby Wyndham hotel. “He didn’t lose friends,” Melissa says. “If anything, he gained them.”

Everything was going OK, until March 2016. Feldhaus filed in county court to change his name legally. The judge, J. David Roper, told him that “Rowan Elijah,” in his own opinion, was not sufficiently “genderneutral.” Roper went so far as to suggest other names.

Roper even said to him, “I don't know anybody named Elijah who's female. I'm not going to do that.”

“This was outrageous,” says Dru Levasseur, who directs Lambda Legal’s Transgender Rights Project. “Putting your own opinion on someone’s name change isn’t the legal standard.”

Feldhaus’s name change was denied. Shortly thereafter, Roper refused the name-change request of another man, Andrew Baumert, who is also trans and who had known Feldhaus since high school. Lambda Legal proceeded to fight for Feldhaus and Baumert in court. Following the court’s consolidation of their cases, the Georgia Court of Appeals unanimously reversed Roper’s decisions in January 2017.

Feldhaus and Baumert were elated. But their legal efforts, which played out in the news, weren’t supported by everyone. Feldhaus and his mother once left a Crossfit workout session together to find a death threat on their car.

Still, it was a victory for Feldhaus in his transition journey. The next was to have a hysterectomy: not just for gender transition purposes, notes Melissa, but for additional medically necessary reasons, as well.

Though this surgery is commonly performed, Feldhaus began experiencing serious bleeding shortly after and tragically died of septic shock days later at the age of 25. Since then, says Melissa, “every day is a rollercoaster. His room is still there. His sister is actually living in it.” (Rowan is survived by three other siblings as well, including Ethan, his twin.)

The Georgia Equality Clinic just told Melissa that they are going to name a transgender advocacy award for Feldhaus. Following Lambda Legal’s wins on both cases, the Stonewall Bar Association also honored Baumert and Feldhaus (Melissa accepted on her son’s behalf ), for their service to the community. News like this “still doesn’t bring Rowan back,” Melissa says. “I’d much rather see him up there stumbling over a speech than me giving a speech for him.”

As for Baumert, who now lives in Atlanta while he studies for a graduate degree in chemistry at Georgia State and works in an HIV research lab, he says he’ll remember his friend Feldhaus as uniquely ambitious. “He had big goals and he went through with all of them,” Baumert says. “Legally, he will be remembered as Rowan.”

Joaquin Carcaño
Joaquin Carcaño is the lead plaintiff in Carcaño v. Cooper, the case that Lambda Legal and the ACLU brought against North Carolina's anti-LGBT law.

A HOPEFUL STEP FORWARD AGAINST THE N.C. TRANSGENDER RESTROOM BAN

Joaquin Carcaño could not believe what was happening. He’d been working a few years at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte as an HIV project coordinator, reaching out to the local Latino community. He’d transitioned there with the full support of his boss and his mostly LGBT colleagues. He used the men’s room with no comment or complaint from his male colleagues.

“My transition at work was really well received,” says Carcaño, 29, who lives in Durham. “It just wasn’t an issue.”

But, in March 2016, North Carolina’s GOP-led legislature passed H.B. 2, which required that people had to use the restroom or locker room in public buildings that matched the gender on their birth certifi cate. The law was a conservative backlash to the city of Charlotte, which had passed an ordinance allowing people to use public restrooms that matched their gender identity.

Carcaño and his colleagues were shocked. To obey the new law without using the women’s room, where he didn’t feel he belonged, he had to walk ten minutes to another building that had a single-stall, all-gender restroom. Finally, a single-stall restroom in his own building was found for him— accessible only via a service elevator.

A federal court issued a preliminary injunction against the so-called transgender restroom ban—but only for a handful of transgender North Carolinians, including Carcaño, who’d by then become plaintiffs in a case against the law brought by Lambda Legal and the ACLU.

The case has twisted and turned since then. The newest development? Late last year North Carolina’s attorney general negotiated a consent decree with advocacy groups for the state’s transgender population, saying that transgender people in North Carolina will no longer be barred from using the public restroom that matches their gender identity. But the judge in the ongoing case surrounding the issue must agree to the terms of the consent decree before it becomes law.

“This case is not done yet by any stretch of the imagination,” says Lambda Legal Senior Attorney Peter Renn. “We need the court to sign off on this and there will be more legal battles before that happens.”

The consent decree is the latest development in a high-profi le battle dating back to the passage of H.B. 2. Widely seen as among the most anti-transgender laws ever passed in the U.S., the bill—which GOP then-governor Pat McCrory signed into law—sparked nationwide protests and business boycotts that cost the state an estimated $3.76 billion in revenue.

In March 2017, under new Democratic governor Roy Cooper, the state repealed H.B. 2 and passed in its place H.B. 142, which said that only the state legislature had the power to tell people where they could go to the restroom.

Yet H.B. 142 remains a problem, says Renn, “because the North Carolina legislature hasn’t yet explicitly told transgender people where they can go to the restroom. Transgender people are stuck in this limbo. We want the language in the consent decree that explicitly says that state government cannot prohibit transgender people from using the restroom that matches their gender identity.”

Meanwhile, says Renn, “lots of trans people still feel deterred from using the right facility. People are using singlestall, all-gender restrooms when they can. But that can still be stigmatizing to think that’s the only place you can go. And if read broadly, the law leaves trans people vulnerable to false accusations of trespass for using multiuser restrooms.”

For Carcaño, he just wants to be able to take care of his business and get on with his day, like everyone else. He explains, “I just want to get in and get out.”