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‘We’re here. We’re queer. Get used to it.’: LGBTQ athletes shine in Pyeongchang

Four years ago, American freestyle skier Gus Kenworthy dreamed of finishing a medal-clinching run in the slopestyle event at the Olympics, and then kissing his boyfriend at the bottom of the mountain to celebrate. He was able to clinch a silver medal in Sochi, but there was no kiss. At the time, he wasn’t out to his family or his teammates. He wasn’t quite ready.

But in Pyeongchang, things were different. Kenworthy told the world that he was gay in 2015, on the cover of ESPN the Magazine. He came into this Winter Games as one of three openly queer athletes on Team USA, along with figure skater Adam Rippon and speed skater Brittany Bowe. He didn’t medal in his event this time around, but he did kiss his boyfriend at the bottom of the mountain, unaware that NBC cameras were right there to capture the moment.

I think this is one of the most significant moments in Olympic history related to LGBTQ respect and visibility,” Taylor Carr, the director of communications at Athlete Ally, an organization dedicated to end homophobia in sports, told ThinkProgress. “I think for a long time LGBTQ people in sports haven’t had a role model to see themselves in. And what these athletes are showing is that LGBTQ athletes can excel in the most advanced levels of the sports, and be true to themselves.”

Didn’t realize this moment was being filmed yesterday but I’m so happy that it was. My childhood self would never have dreamed of seeing a gay kiss on TV at the Olympics but for the first time ever a kid watching at home CAN! Love is love is love.

— Gus Kenworthy (@guskenworthy) February 19, 2018

It was an overwhelmingly successful event for LGBTQ athletes. There were 15 out athletes competing in Pyeongchang, up from only seven in Sochi. In the first three days of Olympic competition alone, out athletes won three medals. On Team USA, both Bowe and Rippon captured bronze medals in team events, while elsewhere speed skater Ireen Wuest from the Netherlands won her 10th and 11th medals to become the most decorated LGBTQ athlete in Olympics history, while Canadian pairs skater Eric Radford won bronze in the pairs competition and gold in figure skating’s team event.

And these athletes weren’t just out; they were vocal about their personal and political beliefs. Before the Games began, Rippon was highly critical of the decision to have Vice President Mike Pence lead the U.S. Olympic delegation at the opening ceremonies, and called out Pence for his history of anti-LGBTQ policies.

“You mean Mike Pence, the same Mike Pence that funded gay conversion therapy?” Rippon said in an interview with USA TODAY Sports. “I’m not buying it.” When Pence pushed back on Rippon’s comments, and tried to meet with the skater before his competition in Pyeongchang, Rippon refused to back down.

“I feel that Mike Pence doesn’t stand for anything that I was taught when I grew up, and I think that it’s important if you’re given the platform to speak up for those who don’t have a voice,” Rippon said.

We’re here. We’re queer. Get used to it. @Adaripp #Olympics #OpeningCeremony

— Gus Kenworthy (@guskenworthy) February 9, 2018

Kenworthy soon joined in on the political pushback. After Kenworthy broke his thumb during a practice run in Pyeongchang, he said the silver lining was that he wouldn’t be able to shake Pence’s hand. Before the closing ceremonies on Sunday, Kenworthy said on social media that he was proud of the entire U.S. delegation in South Korea for working so hard to be there — with the exception of Ivanka Trump, who was on hand for the ceremony. “Honestly, tf is she doing here???” he tweeted.

There is still a long way to go when it comes to LGBTQ inclusion in sports, and society at large. There still isn’t an out gay male athlete in any of the four major pro sports in the United States. Trump’s administration has already rolled back significant LGBTQ protections, and around the world, LGBTQ people are still fighting for rights. In South Korea, for instance, there are no legal protections for LGBTQ individuals, and same-sex marriages aren’t recognized by the government.

But with so many battles left ahead of the LGBTQ community, Carr wants to make sure to take a moment to celebrate the victories in Pyeongchang.

“LGBTQ drop out of sport at a much higher rate than their LGBTQ peers — often because of bullying, but also because you don’t have that iconic role model,” Carr said. “I think Gus, Adam, Eric are providing the necessary visibility, and hopefully act as an inspiration to say, you can succeed in sport, there is a place for you here. There are people who have your back within sport.”

Kenworthy is well aware of this. Despite the fact that he had a very disappointing athletic performance in South Korea, he told CNN that he’s leaving Pyeongchang “more fulfilled without a medal than I did at the last games with one.”

Although his social media mentions are filled with critics wondering why he has to “flaunt” his sexuality, he understands how much that kiss meant.

“Had there been someone kissing their boyfriend on national TV when I was a kid and it was accepted and praised and all good, I think it would have changed the course of my life,” he said.

South Dakota abandons bill to censor transgender issues in schools

South Dakota lawmakers have shelved a first-of-its-kind bill that would have censored discussion of transgender issues in schools. According to the Associated Press, state Sen. Phil Jensen (R) realized “there were issues he hadn’t thought of” when he first proposed S.B. 160.

“It wasn’t a hoax,” he said. “It wasn’t until basically yesterday that I decided that I needed to go a different direction.” The AP said he declined to elaborate, but the bill prompted national outcry that it would have made it impossible for teachers to protect transgender students from bullying.

The comment, along with Jensen’s reputation of strident anti-LGBTQ positions, suggests he may propose something different in the future. Jensen had already proposed another anti-trans bill this session that would require posting warning signs on public restrooms “that a person of the opposite sex may be in the restroom the user is about to enter.”

Jensen’s education bill would have prohibited any “instruction in gender identity or gender expression” to be taught in any K-7 classroom. Jensen expressed concern that kids weren’t properly learning reading, writing, and arithmetic, so trans issues apparently needed to be censored to compensate.

Seven other states have what have been coined as “no promo homo” laws that explicitly prohibit educators from discussing homosexuality or require that they teach that it’s bad or even illegal, even though the U.S. Supreme Court ruled sodomy laws unconstitutional in 2003. This week, Alabama lawmakers began advancing a bill to remove a provision requiring that sex educators teach “that homosexuality is not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public and that homosexual conduct is a criminal offense under the laws of this state.” None of the other six states has taken steps to repeal their censorship laws.

In 7 states, “no promo homo” laws prohibit educators from “promoting homosexuality” – and they hurt #LGBTQ students. Our latest research:

— GLSEN (@GLSEN) January 30, 2018

Jensen’s bill was the first in the country to suggest extending such censorship to issues of gender identity and gender expression.

South Dakota has led the way in advancing anti-LGBTQ legislation in recent years. Last year, state lawmakers passed a bill to allow religiously-affiliated adoption agencies to discriminate against same-sex couples. The previous year, they tried to pass a bill mandating discrimination against transgender students in schools, but Gov. Dennis Daugaard (R) vetoed it.

Federal judge rules transgender inmate deserves transition care

A federal judge ruled Friday that it was unconstitutional to deny hormone therapy to an inmate in a Missouri prison, issuing a preliminary injunction to ensure that she receives medically necessary care.

Jessica Hicklin, 38, was first diagnosed with gender dysphoria in March, 2015, twenty-two years into her life sentence. Her psychiatrist recommended she be referred to an endocrinologist to be assessed for hormone replacement therapy — except she wasn’t, because a Missouri Department of Corrections (MDOC) policy didn’t allow for it.

As a result, her distress and anxiety never improved. A new psychiatrist again diagnosed her with “gender dysphoria with associated panic secondary to current body characteristics” that December, recommending both hormone therapy and an electrolysis hair removal devise.

By September, 2016, Hicklin was expressing thoughts of self-harm — the onset of male-pattern baldness further agitating her gender dysphoria. She had still been given no treatment beyond talk therapy. As of the following January, her treatment plan still did not include any hormone therapy, hair removal, or even access to gender-affirming canteen items. Her psychiatrist diagnosed her with an anxiety disorder, and the record shows that she has had a history of suicide attempts and also once tried to remove her own testicles.

Nearly three years after her initial diagnosis of gender dysphoria and prescription of hormone therapy, Hicklin still had not received any treatment to assist in her transition. And according to U.S. Magistrate Judge Noelle Collins, that’s a violation of her constitutional rights.

“The Court finds that Plaintiff has met her burden to show the threat of irreparable injury,” she wrote. “Plaintiff asserts that she has and will continue to suffer irreparable harm in the absence of a preliminary injunction because she suffers from depression, anxiety, and intrusive thoughts of self-castration as a result of Defendants’ conduct.”

Hicklin demonstrated a serious medical need and the prison showed “deliberate indifference” by refusing to provide the treatment multiple doctors requested for her on multiple occasions.

The entire reason for that denial of care was what Collins describes as a freeze-frame “policy of unknown origin.” According to the “blanket rule,” if an inmate were already on hormone therapy when she entered prison, she would be allowed to continue receiving that treatment in prison. But the policy arbitrarily prohibited an inmate from beginning hormone therapy while in prison. “The Department believes the initiation of Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) is not appropriate in a prison environment,” it read. “An attempt at such transition in the prison venue severely compromises the safety of the offender and places them at substantial risk of sexual abuse and harassment.”

Defending their decision not to treat Hicklin, the MDOC cited a highly biased report by anti-transgender researchers Paul McHugh and Lawrence Mayer to argue that “there is a legitimate disagreement in the scientific community about what treatment is or is not appropriate for a patient with gender dysphoria.” That report cherry-picked and distorted studies in an attempt to contradict the consensuses of every major medical organization endorsing affirming treatment for transgender people.

Hicklin was first taken into the prison’s custody at the age of 16 and is serving a life sentence with no parole. In a blog post published by Lambda Legal, which represented her, she wrote about how she had always experienced gender dysphoria. “I had felt I was a girl since I was very young, even though I was assigned the male sex at birth,” she wrote.

A victim of childhood abuse and multiple sexual assaults in prison, it took some time for her to process what she was experiencing and acknowledge it for what it was. “Although I have struggled for years to name what I was experiencing, and I sought treatment for depression and anxiety, it wasn’t until several years later that I realized that I am a woman who is transgender.”

Collins ruled that MDOC’s decision to try to treat Hicklin’s depression without treating her dysphoria was inadequate. “[W]hile Defendants are correct in their assertion that Ms. Hicklin is not constitutionally entitled to the treatment of her choice, the treatment must nevertheless be adequate to address the prisoner’s serious medical need,” she wrote. “In light of treating physicians’ recommendations, psychiatric care and counseling alone are constitutionally inadequate to address Ms. Hicklin’s gender dysphoria.”

The preliminary injunction will ensure Hicklin can begin receiving the appropriate treatment while her case proceeds. Collins wrote that Hicklin is likely to succeed on her claim that her Eighth Amendment rights were violated. The Eighth Amendment protects against “cruel and unusual punishment.”

Responding through Lambda Legal, Hicklin said the decision made her feel like she could finally breathe after feeling like she’d been drowning. “Today’s decision is like someone threw me a life preserver,” she said. “It has saved my life.”

Courts across the country have arrived at different conclusions about how to treat transgender inmates. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit ruled against a Massachusetts inmate who was similarly denied treatment, but a federal judge in California ruled that a trans inmate deserved the treatment she was prescribed.

Meet the queer Olympians competing in Pyeongchang

A record number of openly LGBTQ Olympians will compete in Pyeongchang, South Korea during the 2018 Winter Olympic Games, which opened on Friday. While the 2016 Summer Olympics featured 56 out athletes, only seven out athletes competed in the last Winter Olympics, held in Sochi, Russia. This year, 13 openly LGBTQ athletes will compete in the Winter Games, meaning the number of queer Olympians has virtually doubled since 2014.

Pyeongchang is also notable due to its inclusion of out queer men: until this year, an openly gay or bisexual man had never competed in the Winter Olympics. Transgender and non-binary athletes have also never competed in the Winter Games.

Media coverage so far has focused predominantly on those out male athletes, like ice skater Adam Rippon, arguably overshadowing the queer women who will be competing this year. The 2018 Winter Olympics will feature at least nine queer women, representing the United States, Austria, Sweden, and more.

Here’s what you should know about them.

Cheryl Maas (Netherlands, snowboarding)

CREDIT: AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Dutch snowboarder Maas — an out lesbian — actively criticized the Olympic Committee’s decision to hold the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, despite Russian legislation targeting the queer community. After failing to make the finals in Sochi, Maas famously held up her glove, which was covered in rainbows and unicorns, in clear view of the cameras. The moment was widely seen as a defiant gesture calling out anti-LGBTQ laws in Russia.

Maas is married to another former snowboarder, Stine Brun Kjeldaas from Norway. They have two daughters, Lila and Mila.

Emilia Andersson Ramboldt (Sweden, ice hockey)


Two-time Olympian Ramboldt is a defender on Sweden’s ice hockey team. She played for Sweden during the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada and again during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Ramboldt has been out for a while — she married her wife Anna in June 2015.

Daniela Iraschko-Stolz (Austria, ski jumping)

CREDIT: Matthias Hangst/Getty Images

One of the world’s most successful female athletes, Iraschko-Stolz has competed in ski jumping for nearly 20 years. The Austrian athlete has holds the women’s ski flying world record — a distinction she achieved in 2003 — and won a silver medal in Sochi.

Austrian athletes rarely come out, something Iraschko-Stolz has challenged in comments to the media.

“I don’t want to hide myself,” she said, after marrying her partner in 2013. “I never cared at all what other people think about me.”

Iraschko-Stolz is already off to a good start in Pyeongchang — during her three training runs on Friday she placed in the top six each time.

Belle Brockhoff (Australia, snowboarding)

CREDIT: Robert Cianflone/Getty Images

Brockhoff came out as a lesbian in 2013 ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. The Australian snowboarder actively opposed Russia’s anti-LGBTQ laws, joining other queer athletes in voicing her discomfort.

“I want to be proud of who I am and be proud of all the work I’ve done to get into the Olympics and not have to deal with this law,” she told Australia’s ABC TV at the time.

While Brockhoff suffered a knee injury a few months ago, she is considered a serious contender in Pyeongchang.

Simona Meiler (Switzerland, snowboarding)

CREDIT: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

Meiler has represented Switzerland at the Olympics twice before and will be back for a third run in Pyeongchang. She has advocated for coming out, arguing that living openly has allowed her to excel as an athlete.

“[Athletes] have to be ready to give everything and perform wholeheartedly, and in my eyes that’s only possible if they can accept and express their sexuality,” she said. “That doesn’t mean they have to blare out that they are gay. But it definitely helps if an athlete’s closer environment is supportive and encouraging.”

Brittany Bowe (United States, speed skating)

CREDIT: Ker Robertson/Getty Images

A former college basketball player and world champion inline skater, Bowe will be representing the United States in speed skating. She competed in Sochi but failed to medal, something she’s hoping to rectify in Pyeongchang.

“Sochi 2014 is still fresh in my mind. Having that disappointment is definitely something that I reflect on during tough times, during tired moments,” she told NBC.

Discussing her relationship with Dutch speed skater Manon Kamminga, she added, “It’s nice being with somebody that has the same passion, same drive, same goals. It’s obviously difficult living on different sides of the world. But we’re both focused on our goal.”

Barbara Jezeršek (Australia, cross country skiing)

CREDIT: Quinn Rooney/Getty Images

Slovenian cross-country skiier Jezeršek currently represents Australia, where she resides. Jezeršek is a lesbian and was one of the openly out athletes to compete in the 2014 Sochi Games. This will be her third Olympics.

During the eight months spent waiting for her Australian citizenship, Jezeršek was unable to compete — something that’s about to change in Pyeongchang.

“Yellow Australian Banana in PyeongChang Olympics!!! Thanks to all who helped me onmy journey to get here!!” she wrote in an Instagram post on Thursday. “Now let’s the Games begin!”

Ireen Wüst (Netherlands, speed skating)

CREDIT: Christof Koepsel – ISU/ISU via Getty Images

With a number of medals to her name already — including four gold — Wüst is a popular figure in her home country. At 19, she became the youngest-ever Dutch Olympic champion in speed skating. She is bisexual and in a relationship with Letitia de Jong, another competitive speed skater in the Netherlands.

Sarka Pančochová (Czech Republic, snowboarding)

CREDIT: Matej Divizna/Getty Images

Czech athlete Sarka Pančochová began snowboarding in 2002 and has been active in the sport for almost two decades. During the 2014 Olympic Games, she badly cracked her helmet in one of the more disconcerting moments of the competition. She ultimately finished 10th in the semifinal and will be back for another shot at gold in Pyeongchang.

Pančochová came out as a lesbian in 2017 in an interview with Outsports, calling herself “stoked” to discuss her sexuality publicly.

Extreme abortion ban narrowly defeated in the Senate

The Senate voted 51 to 46 against a 20-week abortion ban on Monday, narrowly defeating a law that would have had serious repercussions on reproductive rights around the country. A few Democrats voted in favor of the bill.

Senators Joe Donnelly (D-IN) and Joe Manchin (D-WV) all voted to limit patients’ access to abortion after just 20 weeks.

Monday’s procedural vote on the “Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act” marks the third time in six years Congress effectively killed a 20-week abortion ban bill. But a lot has changed since Congress last took up the measure in 2015. And how members — particularly moderate Democrats — voted this go-around is especially critical.

The bill — first introduced in the House by Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ), who recently resigned after allegedly asking female staffers to act as surrogates — is based on the dubious science that a fetus begins to feel pain 20 weeks after fertilization (22 weeks’ gestational age) if not earlier. Evidence-based research indicates a fetus is unlikely to feel pain until about 27 weeks, or the third trimester of a pregnancy — and many people who get abortions are trying to avoid fetal pain in the first place.

“Fetal suffering is not something that [pregnant people] should be worried about at this point of pregnancy,” said Dr. Bill Leininger, a California OB/GYN and fellow with the Physicians for Reproductive Health, of the 20-week abortion ban. He said lawmakers’ fixation on 20-week bans is especially concerning because this medically inaccurate information has real life consequences for patients. Seventeen states have already passed similar 20-week bans; federal judges have blocked some.

The bill needed 60 votes to clear filibuster and move forward with actual vote, so the chances of it passing on Monday were slim.

While some lawmakers will use this vote as political capital, anti-abortion groups like Susan B. Anthony List are using the vote to target Democrats who serve in states where Trump won:

From @SBAList regarding 20-week #abortion ban before Senate (not expected to pass). File under: getting vulnerable Dems on record.

— Sarah McCammon NPR (@sarahmccammon) January 29, 2018

“Clearly, we need more votes, but at some point when you start to get closer and senators in vulnerable states start to feel the heat, then it starts to look very optimistic,” Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List told the Washington Examiner during a press call.

The bill’s co-sponsor Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-IL) faces a primary challenge from his own party. His challenger — Marie Newman — has already received critical endorsements from progressive Senate Democrats and pro-choice organizations. A spokesperson for one pro-choice organization told ThinkProgress they didn’t endorse Newman just because Lipinski is anti-choice, but because Newman actually stands up for progressive values.

Three House Democrats voted in favor of the 20-week abortion ban last year — including Lipinski. Senators Joe Donnelly (D-IN), Joe Manchin (D-WV), and Bob Casey (D-PA) also voted in favor of the bill in 2015. They are the only Senate Democrats still in office who oppose abortion.

While Sens. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) and Claire McCaskill (D-MO) have competitive seats in 2018, they effectively voted no on the measure. First timer Sen. Doug Jones (D-AL) also voted no.

Sens. Susan Collins (R-ME) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) were the only Republicans to vote no. While Collins says she opposes late term abortions, she didn’t agree with the exemption language.

The 20-week ban has passed in the House three times and, as such, amounts to a significant legislative win for anti-abortion activists. The House’s passage of the bill last year may be anti-choice activists’ only federal legislative win in the Trump era, as every attempt to “defund” Planned Parenthood in Congress failed.

Still, Donald Trump’s presidency has ushered a slew of other victories for anti-abortion advocates — from symbolic gestures, like Trump speaking at the largest anti-abortion rally March for Life, to concrete policy decisions, like blocking federal funding for non-governmental groups that provide abortion counseling or referrals in other countries. There have also been an unprecedented number of Trump judges confirmed to serve on the federal bench, which is the last line of defense against anti-abortion policy at the state level.

Pro-choice advocates maintain the public is on their side and point to a recent poll that suggests Democrats shouldn’t run anti-abortion candidates in red states. “It’s a winning political strategy to be a party that supports what our voters support… but also if we’re talking about the base, Democrats base is women, it is minorities — it’s the people who these abortion bans impact at a real level,” one pro-choice, grassroots advocate told ThinkProgress. “It don’t make sense to say that their rights are negotiable.”

After cashing in on GOP tax bill, Bank of America penalizes low-income customers

Bank of America has eliminated its free checking account program, a service that was popular with many low-income customers looking to avoid extra fees for having a low balance.

Beginning this month, all eBanking customers will face a $12 monthly fee unless the customer has a direct deposit of $250 or more or a minimum balance of $1,500. The process of switching over Bank of America customers to this service began as early as 2015. The bank does have a checking account geared towards low-income customers that charges only a $4.95 monthly fee, but it doesn’t allow customers to write paper checks, a financial necessity in the lives of some individuals.

Nearly 46,000 individuals have signed a petition pleading with the bank to keep the free checking account option.

“Many low income families do not meet these requirements. There have been times where I’ve only had $10 to my name. That wouldn’t even cover the maintenance fee,” the petition states. “Bank of America was one of the only brick-and-mortar bank that offered free checking accounts to their customers.”

A monthly fee of $12 could cause some customers to overdraft on their accounts, resulting in even more fees. Overdraft fees collectively cost consumers over $15 billion annually, and around 18 percent of account holders pay three or more overdraft fees a year, with half of that group paying 10 or more fees a year. These fees have caused some financially unstable individuals to skip banking altogether, largely affecting black, lower-income customers.

Overall, some 9.6 million, or seven percent of all Americans, manage their finances without a bank account, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). Of those, 18.7 percent are families earning under $30,000, compared to only 1.1 percent of families earning over $50,000. Eighteen percent of black individuals are without a bank, compared to only 3 percent of whites.

Bank of America, the second-largest U.S. bank by assets, claims this move is the latest change in its quest to “[streamline] the company by exiting business lines and shedding ‘non-core’ products.” The bank’s chief financial officer, Brian Moynihan, is pushing the bank to do business primarily with customers who have high credit scores. According to the Charlotte Observer, Moynihan told investors and analysts last week during the bank’s fourth-quarter earnings conference call that their focus remains on “prime” and “super prime” borrowers with average credit scores of at least 760.

Meanwhile, Bank of America, along with the rest of the country’s top banks, will get a significant tax windfall from the recently passed Republican tax bill — a $3.5 billion tax windfall, to be exact, according to a Goldman Sachs report obtained by ThinkProgress.

The bank, along with Wells Fargo, Boeing, and other corporations and banks, was praised by the White House for using their tax savings to help their employees in the form of bonuses. The one-time, $1,000 bonuses for their 145,000 employees, however, is a drop in a bucket when compared to the $3.5 billion the bank is expected to reap from the tax bill.