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My Name Is Ceara Sturgis, and I Am Not a Troublemaker

By: ACLU Thursday December 8, 2011 11:52 am

By Ceara Sturgis

Ceara Sturgis

When graduating senior Ceara Sturgis chose to wear a tuxedo for her senior yearbook photo, rather than the drape typically reserved for girls, her school responded by excluding her entirely from the senior portrait section of the yearbook. The ACLU represented Ceara in a sex discrimination lawsuit against her school district.

Let me explain. I’m a graduate of Wesson Attendance Center Class of 2010. I loved my high school. I had great friends, I got good grades, I played soccer and was in the band, and I got along well with my teachers. I stayed out of trouble. My high school experience was pretty unremarkable, actually, until it came time for senior year portraits.

I’ve never been what you’d call a girly-girl. I feel uncomfortable in dresses and am much happier wearing T-shirts and khaki shorts. I always find clothes that I like in the boys’ section, rather than the girls’. But this was never an issue at school at all. Nobody ever made me feel weird or like an outcast. I was just Ceara.

For senior portraits, the school said that boys must wear a tuxedo and girls must wear a drape that made them look like they’re wearing a dress. I tried on the drape, but I just felt so uncomfortable. Imagine forcing a typical “jock” guy to wear a ball gown, and have that be the defining image of him in his high school years forever. That’s how I felt wearing the drape. It was humiliating to me to pretend to be something I wasn’t.

I really wanted to wear a tuxedo. No one flipping through the yearbook would notice anything amiss…I would blend right in with the other kids in formal wear. So we took the picture that way, and I even checked with the superintendent to make sure it was okay. He said it was, though the school board still threatened to not print the picture.

I tried to reason with school officials throughout the year, but when we got our yearbooks that spring, I was crushed to see that not only was my senior portrait removed from the yearbook, but my name wasn’t even in the senior section as “not pictured.” It was as though I didn’t exist in my senior class.


Historic Advance for LGBT International Human Rights

By: ACLU Thursday December 8, 2011 9:54 am

By Ian Thompson, Legislative Representative, ACLU Washington Legislative Office

Tuesday marked a historic commitment by the United States to the cause of LGBT international human rights. First, President Obama issued a memorandum directing all federal agencies engaged abroad to ensure that U.S. diplomacy and foreign assistance promote and protect the human rights of LGBT persons. The memorandum represents the first-ever U.S. government strategy dedicated to combating human rights abuses against LGBT persons abroad.

Specifically, the memorandum directs agencies to:
– Combat the criminalization of LGBT status or conduct abroad;
– Protect vulnerable LGBT refugees and asylum seekers;
– Leverage foreign assistance to protect human rights and advance nondiscrimination;
– Ensure swift and meaningful U.S. responses to human rights abuses of LGBT persons abroad;
– Engage International Organizations in the fight against LGBT discrimination; and
– Report on progress.

Later in the day, in recognition of International Human Rights Day, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton delivered a landmark speech before the U.N. in Geneva on the importance of LGBT international human rights. For those who haven’t seen the speech, it really is a must-see. You can watch the entire speech by clicking here.

The speech is remarkable on many levels. What comes across throughout is the depth of commitment to this issue that is unmatched by anything preceding it. As Secretary Clinton states clearly upfront:

Like being a woman, like being a racial, religious, tribal, or ethnic minority, being LGBT does not make you less human. And that is why gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights.

She calls the struggle for LGBT human rights one of the important “remaining human rights challenges of our time.” Throughout the speech, Secretary Clinton described basic truths for LGBT around the world, but truths that are rarely heard from such a prominent international figure on a global stage. For example:

…gay people are born into and belong to every society in the world. They are all ages, all races, all faiths; they are doctors and teachers, farmers and bankers, soldiers and athletes; and whether we know it, or whether we acknowledge it, they are our family, our friends, and our neighbors.

Listening to the speech, I was thinking about what this commitment from the U.S. will mean to LGBT activists and advocates around the world, particularly those like Frank Mugisha from Uganda, who often do this critical work at great personal risk. In a recent interview with, Mugisha described some of these risks:

If you are an activist, then you have to calculate and decide, "Should I take that street, should I go to that shopping mall, should I do this today, even?” Because you don’t know where the harassment will come from.

Tuesday’s memorandum and speech follow adoption, for the first time ever, of a resolution by the U.N. Human Rights Council in June condemning violence and discrimination against those who are LGBT. It was the first U.N. resolution to focus solely on LGBT persons.

Tuesday’s developments were a great step forward for LGBT international human rights. We certainly hope it is a sign of further progress to come in the trend toward a greater global recognition that LGBT rights are really core human rights. That is the position that the ACLU will certainly be working to advance here at home.

Tennessee Principal’s Reaction to GSA T-Shirt Raises the Question: Who’s Really Causing the Disruption Here?

By: ACLU Thursday October 6, 2011 1:56 pm

By Amanda Goad, Staff Attorney, ACLU LGBT Project

Chris Sigler is a senior at Sequoyah High School in Madisonville, Tennessee. It’s a tradition among Sequoyah students to get friends’ signatures on a keepsake T-shirt, so in past years Chris has done that on a shirt labeled "California" and one with the name of his favorite band. This year, Chris decided to make a shirt that would send a message about an issue that’s important to him: the proposed Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) at Sequoyah.

Chris is not gay himself, but he has friends who are. Most of them have suffered bullying at Sequoyah, and some of them have considered suicide. Chris himself regularly gets called things like "fag," "queer," and "pussy" by other students just for his support of his gay friends. So it’s important to him that all students at the school have a safe place to go to talk about bullying and how to fight homophobia. The U.S. Department of Education agrees with Chris that GSAs, and other student-initiated clubs bringing together gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, questioning, and straight youth, are a great way to combat bullying and help all students feel safe and welcome at school. And the federal Equal Access Act protects students’ right to form GSAs at public schools like Chris’s.

The Sequoyah High School GSA should have been a done deal by now…if it weren’t for the principal, Maurice Moser. When they circulated a petition to show support for the GSA and got over 150 signatures, students say Moser banned petitions about the GSA at the school. Then, when Chris and two other students put together an application for school recognition of the GSA, Moser wouldn’t even take it from them because they hadn’t named a faculty sponsor. At least three teachers have expressed interest in sponsoring the GSA but then changed their minds after meeting with Moser about it. We’ve read that Moser has admitted that in the past, when other clubs needed sponsors, he helped them out – but this time he refused to help.

Chris wrote "Gay Straight Alliance: We’ve Got Your Back" on a T-shirt and wore it to school last Tuesday and Friday. Dozens of classmates signed. But Friday morning, Moser told Chris that he could choose either to turn his shirt inside out, change shirts, or get suspended. Chris ignored that, because he knew his shirt was fine under the Sequoyah dress code. Later, Moser charged into Chris’s economics class, interrupted the students in the middle of taking a test, and ordered everyone except Chris to leave. What happened next is a matter for the criminal justice system. But putting aside the assault and battery allegations against Moser, it’s unconstitutional and totally inappropriate for a high school student to be punished for speaking his mind peacefully through the words on a T-shirt. The Supreme Court says that students can express whatever ideas they want through their clothing as long as they don’t cause a "substantial disruption," and it sounds like the only person causing a substantial disruption at Sequoyah last week was Moser.

The ACLU of Tennessee and the ACLU’s LGBT Project wrote a letter to the Monroe County Director of Schools, Moser’s boss, on Tuesday. We asked the school district to confirm that it will, going forward, honor students’ constitutional rights to free speech and free expression. If we have to, we are prepared to go to court to protect Sequoyah students’ First Amendment rights. Meanwhile, the ACLU of Tennessee is asking concerned members of the public to contact the school district seeking a promise that any teacher who steps up to sponsor the GSA won’t face retaliation. We look forward to hearing that a courageous teacher has done so, which under Moser’s own rules should allow recognition of the GSA, so that Chris and his classmates can get together over lunch to talk about LGBT issues with the school’s blessing.

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Immigration Policy in the Obama Years: Dragnet Enforcement First and Foremost?

By: ACLU Wednesday June 15, 2011 11:08 am

By Chris Rickerd, ACLU Washington Legislative Office

In El Paso last month, President Obama gave a speech on immigration reform in which he said: "I know that the increase in deportations has been a source of controversy. But I want to emphasize: we are not doing this haphazardly; we are focusing our limited resources on violent offenders and people convicted of crimes; not families, not folks who are just looking to scrape together an income."

Two and a half years into the president’s tenure, the true story of the administration’s immigration enforcement practices is in fact a disheartening one dominated by the deportations of families and community contributors who have never been in trouble with the law. In a time of fiscal austerity, when cuts are being made to vital services across the country, consider two dollar amounts: $12,500 per deportation and $7,500 per migrant apprehension. In the proposed 2012 Department of Homeland Security (DHS) budget, almost $3 billion is allocated just to non-border detention and removal operations. At the border, relentless increases in resources have outstripped any conceivable needs. Combined with a 73% decline in apprehensions over the last decade, this has led to "agents fighting boredom" and roaming to conduct interior enforcement on trains and buses that are nowhere near a border.

"Hold on," you say, "the Obama administration is committed to targeted enforcement that removes dangerous convicted criminals, right?" That’s accurate, insofar as we hear this all the time from government officials in Washington. But the mantra of targeting doesn’t hide a senseless dragnet operation in the field that’s taking place at a time when violent crime rates are the lowest in 40 years. The Obama administration had deported more than 779,000 people at its midpoint, an 18 percent increase over President George W. Bush’s last two years in office. More than half – 450,000 people – had no criminal record, precisely the "families . . . folks who are just looking to scrape together an income," described by President Obama.

And, on top of that, Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) most recent breakdown of criminal deportations shows that 23 percent have been misdemeanor offenders. ICE says it doesn’t engage in quota-based enforcement, but in the same breath asserts that its bloated resources now mandate the deportation of 400,000 individuals a year. That’s 1,100 people a day at $12,500 each, many with U.S. citizen children left behind who suffer "psychological harm, behavioral changes and problems in school."

How is this happening when the president is on record with a pledge to change immigration enforcement practices? He said on the campaign trail: "When communities are terrorized by ICE immigration raids, when nursing mothers are torn from their babies, when children come home from school to find their parents missing, when people are detained without access to legal counsel, when all that is happening, the system just isn’t working and we need to change it."

Some say Congress’s inaction on "comprehensive immigration reform" ties the administration’s hands. This is not true. There is ample and unassailable legal authority supporting the prudent exercise of discretion by the executive branch to end the abuses endemic to current immigration enforcement.

Which of these easy-to-implement actions has DHS taken to show a good-faith commitment to change enforcement practices in the way President Obama envisioned?

  1. implemented a program of deferred action for DREAM-eligible students and parents of U.S. citizen children
  2. reacted to the cholera epidemic and general devastation in Haiti by suspending deportations
  3. held off on deportation cases involving same-sex partners in light of the Department of Justice’s conclusion that the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional
  4. fulfilled its summer 2009 promise to create a truly civil immigration detention system after addressing systemic problems of detainee deaths, sexual abuse, inadequate medical and mental health care, and overincarceration
  5. ended counterproductive raids that detain and remove "collateral" immigrants who are not the raids’ targets after exposing their children to drawn weapons

The answer, sadly, is "none of the above."

In addition to its blind spot on discretion, and despite the budget crisis, the administration has not restrained its spending on ineffective and wasteful enforcement programs. Why continue the mistake of delegating immigration powers to state and local police when, according to a DHS Inspector General report, the so-called 287(g) program "may be in violation of the Purpose Statute, which requires that appropriations be used only for their intended purposes, and the Anti-deficiency Act, which prohibits agencies from spending in excess of available appropriations." A total of $251.6 million has been spent over the last six years on the 287(g) program despite its repeatedly documented flaws, culminating in the most recent audit’s conclusion that "there is no assurance that funds allocated to the 287(g) program were used as intended." And DHS also continues to expand ICE’s Secure Communities initiative recklessly, without prioritizing dangerous convicted criminals or addressing either the program’s incentives for state and local racial profiling or its endangerment of domestic violence and other crime victims. No wonder the governors of Illinois, New York, and Massachusetts have concluded that Secure Communities is wrong for their states.

These dashed hopes for enforcement reform have real consequences, for the immigrants
directly affected above all, but also for America’s fidelity to its constitutional guarantees of due process and equal protection of the laws. We know the administration can do better because it has taken some positive steps in the immigration realm like standing up to oppose Arizona’s unconstitutional "show me your papers" racial profiling law; curtailing the use of counter-productive worksite raids; and releasing a welcome guidance instructing school districts to avoid enrollment practices that interfere with kids’ school attendance based on their or their families’ immigration status. Yet by failing to live up to its immigration enforcement pledges and policies, the Obama administration continues to abet erosion of family unity and humane treatment, harming this country’s values and its identity as a nation welcoming to immigrants. The ACLU will keep holding the administration accountable for its actions and omissions. For now, its mid-term immigration enforcement record is far from satisfactory.

The Other Front: Military Rape Survivors Denied Abortion Coverage

By: ACLU Thursday May 26, 2011 6:01 pm

By Jessica Kenyon

We are defending a Constitution that doesn’t apply to us. This was a phrase I heard often after I joined the U.S. Army in 2005. At the time, I didn’t realize just how true that would be. I was raped by a fellow soldier when I was stationed in Korea. I found out I was pregnant as a result of the rape when my commander called me into his office one day to charge me with adultery. A doctor at the medical center had told my commander — but not me — that I was pregnant. I hadn’t reported the rape because I was trying to "soldier on” and I didn’t trust my chain of command. This is an environment where women are constantly targeted for various forms of abuse. As it turns out I was not charged, not because I was raped, but because I was divorced.

Then I faced the fact that military health insurance doesn’t allow abortion coverage in cases of rape, and I was unable to have a safe abortion off-base, so I was stuck. I was discharged from the military due to the trauma of the rape and attacks. I flew back home to the U.S. after being discharged from the Army for my own safety and ended up miscarrying.

Earlier this week six members of Congress introduced an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act to allow the military health system to cover abortion if a servicewoman is raped. Tuesday night the House of Representatives refused to allow it, but instead allowed more than 150 other amendments to move forward. This means congress will not even hear the option to allow a woman in the military who is raped to have abortion coverage.

If I’d had that option, I would have had a chance to continue my career in the Army. I wanted to go to combat. I was applying to become an officer. Who knows what my military career, and that of countless others, would have been if this were an option for us.

Denying abortion coverage to rape survivors is a serious injustice to those who are honorably serving our country. This is especially true when a woman’s risk of being sexually assaulted more than doubles when she joins the military. Women in the armed forces should have the same quality healthcare access that they would have in the civilian world.

Women who are deployed overseas or to remote areas of the U.S., like Alaska, face an added burden when there are no other safe medical facilities. The military is effectively asking women who serve to completely disregard their health and rights, no matter the circumstances. The blatant sexism and lack of accountability in the military has created environment in which women are treated as if they are less than men.

When it comes to health, women in the armed forces should have the same rights and access to services that they would have if they were civilians. This is not about personal views of morality. This is about taking care of our troops and their overall well-being. Congress should support military women bravely serving this country. Our elected leaders should not deny military women access to the same care available to the civilian population we protect.

Jessica Kenyon served in the U.S. Army and is the founder of and, two online support networks. She currently lives in Pennsylvania.

It’s Not Over for Montana Domestic Partnerships

By: ACLU Friday April 22, 2011 10:22 am

By Amy Cannata, Communications Director, ACLU of Montana

We always knew it was going to be a journey with bumps and curves in the road. So did our six plaintiff couples when they signed on to sue the state of Montana for domestic partnership recognition.

This week our lawsuit, Donaldson and Guggenheim v. State of Montana, hit a pothole when Montana District Court Judge Jeffrey Sherlock ruled against us and in favor of the state’s motion to dismiss the case. But make no mistake, the wheels are still on the car, and we are still traveling hopefully toward a future where all loving, committed couples are treated with dignity, fairness and respect, and have the same rights to care for one another as opposite-sex married couples.

We were disappointed in Judge Sherlock’s ruling, and so were our clients. But their and our spirits and determination are still strong.

Wichita Blues: Kansas Mandates Photo ID For Its Voters

By: ACLU Thursday April 21, 2011 4:08 pm
photo ID, 1973 - 2004

"photo ID, 1973 - 2004 by joe holmes, on Flickr

Kansas took a giant leap backwards this week by enacting one of the harshest voter ID laws in the country. Gov. Sam Brownback signed a bill into law Monday that will require voters to present photo ID at the polls as well as proof of citizenship in order to register. Kansas has joined a small group of outliers in passing such a retrograde law. Thirty-two state legislatures have introduced similar photo ID bills this year in what appears to be a nationwide coordinated effort to erect new barriers to voting. Only two other states in the union—Indiana and Georgia—refuse to hand a regular ballot to a voter who lacks photo ID without exception or alternative.

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, well-known as the principal author of Arizona’s extreme racial profiling law, S.B. 1070, was the driving force behind this legislation. Kobach’s voter ID law undermines our country’s strides in expanding the fundamental right to vote to be more inclusive of historically marginalized groups like racial minorities, low-income voters, the disabled, and senior citizens. Kobach claims that requiring ID is necessary in order to combat widespread voter registration by undocumented immigrants in Kansas.

Yet, no such evidence has ever been presented to support his claims of rampant fraud. In fact, records released in 2009 revealed only seven cases of alleged electoral fraud—only one of which was prosecuted—in the previous five years.

A Hard-Earned Victory for Arkansas Kids

By: ACLU Friday April 8, 2011 3:32 pm

By James Esseks, Director, ACLU LGBT & AIDS Project

I’m thrilled to report that we’ve just struck down a second state parenting ban. Just six months after we got rid of Florida’s 33-year-old ban on adoption by gay people, yesterday the Arkansas Supreme Court struck down that state’s related parenting ban as unconstitutional. This removes a barrier that harmed kids and families all across the state, and shows once again that the ideas driving laws like this — that gay people are bad for kids — are simply unfounded.

The Arkansas law struck down yesterday was Act 1, which banned any unmarried couple, straight or gay, from serving as adoptive or foster parents in Arkansas. Yesterday’s decision was the culmination of 2 1/2 years of hard-fought litigation against Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel and the Family Council Action Committee, who were the proponents of the initiative. It was also the culmination of a much longer battle against the efforts of anti-gay activists in that state to ban gay people from adopting.