June 27, 2018 at 1:54 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
For first time in 11 years, DOJ Pride not held in Great Hall

United States Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein spoke at the DOJ Pride event. (Photo by Internet Education Foundation via Flickr)

The Justice Department kept with its annual tradition Tuesday and hosted a Pride event for its LGBT attorneys and law enforcement officials — but for the first time in 11 years, the ceremony wasn’t held in the building’s Great Hall.

The Great Hall is a large open space in the Justice Department adorned with the department’s seal and two statues in the classical style representing the virtue of justice. The Justice Department’s annual Pride event — an official event coordinated by the LGBT affinity group DOJ Pride — took place there each year since 2008.

This year, an event announcement for the Pride event reveals it was set to take place in a seventh floor conference center traditionally reserved for press conferences as opposed to the Great Hall. A source familiar with the event confirmed the event took place in the smaller room as indicated on the schedule.

Sources familiar with the event speculated the event was moved because attendance was expected to be low. A Justice Department spokesperson declined to comment in response to the Washington Blade’s question on why the event was moved.

Set to speak at the event this year was Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who supervises Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election — as well as gay conservative media pundit Guy Benson.

Even though a high-ranking Justice Department official spoke at the event, the Justice Department spokesperson indicated it was closed to media because it didn’t take place in the Great Hall. The Washington Blade wasn’t able to attend to witness the remarks.

Benson didn’t respond to a request to comment on his speaking engagement. The Justice Department didn’t respond to a request Wednesday to share remarks from either speaker at the event, nor did the Justice Department’s public affairs department promulgate them. The DOJ Pride group also didn’t respond to a request Wednesday to comment on the event.

Also unlike previous years, DOJ Pride held a separate unofficial event to issue awards to individuals for their work on behalf on the LGBT community. In years past, the awards ceremony was part of the official Pride event.

The recipient of the James R. Douglass Award for contributions to the work-life environment of the Justice Department’s LGBT employees was given to John Elias, a former president of DOJ Pride.

The Pride event took place a year and a half into the Trump administration with U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions — who has sought to roll back LGBT rights — at the helm of the Justice Department.

Sessions has rescinded Obama-era guidance requiring schools to allow transgender kids to use the restroom consistent with their gender identity, issued a memo declaring Title VII of the Civil Rights of 1964 doesn’t cover anti-trans discrimination and promulgated “religious freedom” guidance seen to enable anti-LGBT discrimination.

Under Sessions’ tenure, the Justice Department intervened in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case and argued a Colorado baker should be able to refuse to make a custom-made wedding cake for same-sex couples on First Amendment grounds. Additionally, the Justice Department sent an attorney to the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals to argue Title VII doesn’t cover sexual orientation discrimination and employers should be able to fire people for being gay under current law.

The annual DOJ Pride event first took place during the Clinton administration and was held in those years in the Great Hall. But during the majority of the George W. Bush administration, the event was scaled back and the affinity group held events in conference centers as opposed to the Great Hall.

That changed in the final year of the Bush administration, when then-U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey allowed the event once again to take place in the Great Hall and spoke there.

The event took place in the Great Hall during each of the eight years of the Obama administration. Former U.S. Attorneys General Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch had addressed LGBT employees there during their tenure at the Justice Department.

DOJ Pride also took place in the Great Hall in the first year of the Trump administration. The Washington Blade sought to cover the event, but was removed on the basis that no Justice Department principal was speaking there. Former Justice Department public affairs officials have disputed that reasoning and said all events in the Great Hall are public events.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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