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Pressure builds on Obama to address “Don’t Ask” in State of the Union

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President Obama is facing increased pressure from opponents of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” to address how he’ll tackle his pledge to overturn the law in his upcoming State of the Union speech.

Those seeking end the 1993 law banning gays from serving openly in the U.S. military are looking to Obama to discuss on Wednesday his plans for overturning the ban this year.

Alex Nicholson, executive director of Servicemembers United, said he’s received “strong indications” that Obama will address “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in his speech, but said he doesn’t believe the president “will go as far as some in our community would like.”

“There is some strategic risk involved in mentioning ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ in the State of the Union address, but its inclusion will send a strong message that the White House is still serious about taking on the issue this year,” Nicholson said.

The Human Rights Campaign declined to comment on whether the inclusion of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in the State of the Union address prior to Obama’s speech.

On Wednesday, two prominent opponents of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” — Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. John Shalikashvili — issued a joint statement through the senator’s office reiterating their belief that now is the time for overturning the law.

Shalikashvili said a country “built on the principle of equality” should embrace “change that will build a stronger, more cohesive military.”

“It is time to repeal ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ and allow our military leaders to create policy that holds our service members to a single standard of conduct and discipline,” he said.

Gillibrand was similarly critical of the ban and called it “an unjust, outdated and harmful rule that violates the civil rights of some of our bravest, most heroic men and women.”

“I’ve been working with my colleagues in Congress and other leaders to overturn this wasteful and destructive policy,” she said. “I am hopeful that President Obama will make this a top priority.”

Whether or not President Obama will address “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” during his State of the Union speech remains uncertain, although there are signs he will include it in his address.

On Monday, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) told reporters he had postponed a hearing on the issue initially set for this month because he was told Obama may talk about the ban in his State of the Union address.

And White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said during a press conference on Tuesday that discussions are underway about including plans for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in the speech.

The Palm Center, a think-tank for gays in the military at the University of California, Santa Barbara, on Tuesday issued an analysis on several ways that Obama could discuss “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” during the State of the Union address.

Christopher Neff, deputy executive director for the Palm Center, said in a statement the speech presents Obama with “the opportunity to announce the end of one of the most notorious policies of federal discrimination left standing in the United States.”

In one option outlined by the Palm Center, Obama could offer a legislative strategy to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” The president could endorse standalone legislation that would overturn the law or announce he’ll include such language in the defense spending request he’ll send to Congress next month.

“This position would represent significant, but likely incremental, change,” the Palm Center states. “Repeal legislation faces hurdles to passage in 2010, but the President will have taken a major step forward with the base bill inclusion.”

Obama could also announce plans to change the execution of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” administratively without an act from Congress, which would likely involve giving Defense Secretary Robert Gates additional discretion in implementing the policy in a way that would reduce discharges, according to the Palm Center.

“Under this calculus, there will not be any votes in the House or Senate on repeal in 2010,” the Palm Center states. “The judgment is that it is too difficult for many moderates and this likely means that repeal will not be included in the Defense Authorization base bill from the Pentagon.”

The third option for Obama in addressing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” according to the Palm Center, would be mentioning the law in passing or announcing support from military leaders without putting forward an affirmative strategy.

“This would represent the least embraced of the three potential options,” the Palm Center states.

Neff also suggested in the statement that how Obama addresses “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” during his State of the Union speech will set for tone for how Congress would handle hearings for the defense budget after the president’s request is made public.

Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen are set to give testimony on the fiscal year 2011 defense budget request on Tuesday in the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Bryan Thomas, spokesperson for the committee, said the hearing on the budget request isn’t in lieu of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” hearing initially set for January, but said it’s possible senators “will choose to ask” Mullen and Gates about the law.

Also bolstering pressure on Obama to announce his plans for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is a new report from the Williams Institute, a think-tank on sexual orientation at the University of California. The brief details the number of gays in the military and the cost of replacing them after they’ve been discharged under the ban.

Gary Gates, senior research fellow at the Williams Institute and study author, said in a statement that statistical information from the U.S. government shows gay, lesbian and bisexual Americans have a presence in the military.

“Despite official policy requiring that lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals remain silent about their sexual orientation, data from the U.S. Census Bureau suggest that an estimated 66,000 LGB men and women are serving in the U.S. military,” he said.

These 66,000 service members account for about 2.2 percent of military personnel, according to the Williams Institute. Of these troops, about 13,000 serve on active duty, constituting 0.9 percent of all active duty personnel, and nearly 53,000 serve in the National Guard and reserve forces, the study found.

The Williams Institute also found “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” has cost the federal government between $290 million and more than a half a billion dollars since its inception and that replacing discharged service members under the ban costs between $22,000 to $43,000 for each person.

Gates said ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” will “save a substantial amount of taxpayer dollars since estimates suggest that the policy has cost more than half a billion dollars.”

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U.S. Catholic theologians call for LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections

Joint statement says church teachings support equality

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More than 750 of the nation’s leading Catholic theologians, church leaders, scholars, educators, and writers released a joint statement on Sept. 14 expressing strong support for nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ people.

The six-page theological statement, “A Home for All: A Catholic Call for LGBTQ Non-Discrimination,” was scheduled to be published along with the names of its 759 signatories as a four-page advertisement on Sept. 17 in the National Catholic Reporter, a newspaper widely read by Catholic clergy and laypeople.

The statement was initiated by New Ways Ministry, a Mount Rainier, Md., based Catholic group that advocates for equality for LGBTQ people within the church and society at large.

“As Catholic theologians, scholars, church leaders, writers, and ministers, we affirm that Catholic teaching presents a positive case for ending discrimination against LGBTQ people,” the statement says. “We affirm the Second Vatican Council’s demand that ‘any kind of social or cultural discrimination…must be curbed and eradicated,’” it says.

“We affirm that Catholic teaching should not be used to further oppress LGBTQ people by denying rights rooted in their inherent human dignity and in the church’s call for social equality,” the statement adds.

The statement notes that its signers recognize that a “great debate” is currently taking place within the Catholic Church about whether same-gender relationships and transgender identities should be condoned or supported.

“That is a vital discussion for the future of Catholicism, and one to which we are whole-heartedly committed,” the statement continues. “What we are saying in this statement, however, is relatively independent of that debate, and the endorsers of this statement may hold varied, and even opposing, opinions on sexual and gender matters,” it says.

Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministries executive director, said his organization and the signers of the statement feel the issue of nondiscrimination for LGBTQ people can and should be supported by Catholic leaders and the church itself even if some are not yet ready to support same-sex marriage and sexual and gender identity matters.

“LGBTQ non-discrimination is being debated at all levels in our society, and the Catholic perspective on this is often misrepresented, even by some church leaders,” DeBernardo said. “Catholics who have studied and reflected deeply on this topic agree that non-discrimination is the most authentic Catholic position,” he said. 

DeBernardo said those who helped draft the statement decided it would be best to limit it to a theological appeal and argument for LGBTQ equality and non-discrimination and not to call for passage of specific legislation such as the Equality Act, the national LGBTQ civil rights bill pending in the U.S. Congress.

The Equality Act calls for amending existing federal civil rights laws to add nondiscrimination language protecting LGBTQ people in areas such as employment, housing, and public accommodations. The U.S. House approved the legislation, but the Senate has yet to act on it.

“We wanted this to be a theological statement, not a political statement,” DeBernardo said.

He said organizers of the project to prepare the statement plan to send it, among other places, to the Vatican in Rome and to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which has expressed opposition to the Equality Act.

Among the key signers of the statement were 242 administrators, faculty, and staff from Sacred Heart University, a Catholic college in Bridgeport, Conn. New Ways Ministries says the statement was circulated by the school’s administration and eight of its top leaders, including President John Petillo, are among the signers.

Some of the prominent writers who signed the statement include Sister Helen Prejean, author of “Dead Man Walking;” Richard Rodriquez, author of “Hunger of Memory;” Gary Wills, author of “Lincoln at Gettysburg;” and Gregory Maguire, author of “Wicked.”

The full text of the statement and its list of signatories can be accessed at the New Ways Ministry website.

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Activists reflect on Black Trans Lives Matter movement resurgence

Blade speaks with Alex Santiago, Jasmyne Cannick

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An I Am Human Foundation billboard along Atlanta's Downtown Connector expressway on Feb. 22, 2021. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

The world came to a standstill last year as a video surfaced online that showed then-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin murdering George Floyd. The video went viral and sparked numerous protests against racism and police brutality in the U.S. and around the world as many people felt it a potent time to relay their frustrations with and to their governments.

For the LGBTQ community, these protests brought to light the need for human rights for transgender individuals as the murders of people like Tony McDade in Florida and Nina Pop in Missouri reawakened the flame within the Black Trans Lives Matter movement.

A tribute to Tony McDade in downtown Asheville, N.C., in June 2020. McDade was a Black transgender man who was shot and killed by a white police officer in Tallahassee, Fla., on May 27, 2020. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

The Washington Blade more than a year later spoke with Alex Santiago, executive director of the I Am Human Foundation in Atlanta, and Jasmyne Cannick, a Democratic political strategist and journalist in Los Angeles, to reflect on last year’s Black Trans Lives Matter movement, how far it has come, and what’s in store for the future. 

Uplifting voices often silenced

Participating in the Black Lives Matter protests was an easy decision for Santiago. He is a member of the Legendary House of Garcon, a ballroom house headquartered in D.C. 

Although the house is composed mostly of LGBTQ members, Santiago still felt the need to center trans voices and experiences by visually representing them during Black Lives Matter marches. 

“[I decided that] when I go I’m going to have signs that say ‘Black Trans Lives Matter.’ After talking to a couple of the people in the house, they said it was a great idea. So, they got these t-shirts made that incorporated the trans colors [baby blue, baby pink and white],” says Santiago.

Out of the 250 people in the Legendary House of Garcon, 175 showed up to D.C. from other states to march in solidarity with Black trans people. Santiago says that from what he was told, his was the largest group of activists representing Black trans lives at protests. 

“At first I thought people were going to look at us crazy, like, ‘Why are you separating yourselves or being exclusive?’. But, we got a great response from the general population that was there that day. It was a good day,” says Santiago.

Cannick, who was in Los Angeles during the protests, lent her efforts to platforming pertinent issues. She identifies herself as an ally and a “friend” to the LGBTQ community. 

“I’m active in the LA community and everybody knows me. So, whenever something happens, someone is hurt, someone is killed or someone needs to get the word out about something that’s going on particularly as it relates to the trans community, I’m always asked to get involved, and I do,” says Cannick. 

Over the past year, she reported on multiple LGBTQ issues including the trial of Ed Buck, a Democratic political fundraiser who was convicted in the deaths of two gay Black men who he injected with methamphetamine in exchange for sex.

What happened to the BTLM movement and what needs to change?

The nature of many social movements is that as the intense emotion surrounding them fades, people’s fervor for change wanes as well. This is especially true with allies who are not directly linked to the cause.

“Fatigue and frustration at the relatively slow pace of change to a growing backlash on the right against efforts to call out systemic racism and white privilege — has led to a decline in white support for the Black Lives Matter movement since last spring, when white support for social justice was at its peak,” US News reports about the Black Lives Matter movement.

Cannick believes this is the same for the Black Trans Lives Matter movement. She says Americans allow the media to dictate how it behaves and responds to issues. Thus, when stories “fall out of our media cycles … they fall out of our memories.”

“I think that’s not going to change, and that’s a psychological thing, until we learn how to not let the media necessarily dictate our issues,” says Cannick. 

She suggests that individuals remain plugged into their communities by “doing anything to make sure they keep up with an issue” including following the “right people” on social media and setting up Google alerts for any breaking news. 

Jasmyne Cannick (Photo courtesy of Jasmyne Cannick)

Santiago also echoes Cannick’s sentiments. 

“We wait until something happens before we do something. And, I don’t want to be retroactive; I want to be proactive. I want people to see me when things are going well [and when they’re not going well],” says Santiago. 

Upon returning to his home in Atlanta after the D.C. protests, Santiago contacted a billboard installation company and paid for a billboard labelled, “Black Trans Lives Matter” to be displayed on University Avenue near downtown Atlanta. He says that the billboards got attention and helped to spread much-needed awareness. Following this success, he is now in the process of installing a new billboard labelled, “Black, Trans and Visible. My life Matters.”

“Unless you’re in people’s faces or something drastic happens, people forget. Unless you’re living it, people forget,” says Santiago.

As time progresses, both Santiago and Cannick nest hope for the Black Trans Lives Matter movement. However, this hope can only persist when crucial steps are taken to ensure Black trans individuals around the country are protected, most importantly through legislation.

The New York Times reports there are close to 1,000 elected LGBTQ officials in the U.S., with at least one in each state except Mississippi. 

“We need to have more legislation. We need more voices in power like the council Biden has right now,” says Santiago. 

“You know that [Biden] has a lot of trans people and Black trans people [involved], and a part of that’s a positive step in the right direction, but we need that times 10,” says Santiago.

He believes that political representation should extend to local governance where ordinary Black trans individuals can be trained to assume leadership roles. 

Cannick’s focus is on the Black community. 

“[Trans women] are usually murdered by Black men. If we ever expect that to change, we need to start talking about that,” says Cannick.

She’s open to having conversations that put people, including her as a cis-identifying woman, in uncomfortable and awkward spaces. 

She hosts a podcast titled “Str8 No Chaser” and recently aired an episode, “Why Are Black Men Killing Trans Women,” where she discussed with three Black trans women about the gender and sexuality dynamics within the Black community and their perils. 

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Evangelical Lutheran Church installs first Trans prelate

The bishop will lead one of the church’s 65 synods, overseeing nearly 200 congregations in Northern California and northern Nevada.

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The Rev. Megan Rohrer (Photo Credit: Vince Donovan)

SAN FRANCISCO – The Rev. Dr. Megan Rohrer was installed as the first openly transgender bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America on Saturday, in services held at the Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. The presiding bishop of the ELCA, Elizabeth Eaton, led the installation ceremony.

“My call is to be up to the same messy, loving things I was up to before,” Rohrer told those gathered in the cathedral. “But mostly, if you’ll let me, and I think you will, my hope is to love you and beyond that, to love what you love.”

The bishop will lead one of the church’s 65 synods, overseeing nearly 200 congregations in Northern California and northern Nevada.

Rohrer, who uses the pronouns they/them, was elected to serve as bishop after the retirement of their predecessor. The Sioux Falls, South Dakota native had moved to the Golden State to pursue master and doctoral degrees at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley. In 2010, they became one of seven openly out LGBTQ pastors accepted by the Evangelical Lutheran church after it allowed ordination of pastors in same-sex relationships.

The bishop and their spouse are raising two children and prior to installation, Rohrer was pastor of the Grace Lutheran Church and served as a chaplain coordinator for the city of San Francisco’s police department. Rohrer has assisted in ministering to the city’s homeless and LGTBQ community for a number of years.

“I step into this role because a diverse community of Lutherans in Northern California and Nevada prayerfully and thoughtfully voted to do a historic thing,” Rohrer said in a statement. “My installation will celebrate all that is possible when we trust God to shepherd us forward.”

The synod Rohrer leads is part of the largest Christian denominations in the United States with about 3.3 million members.

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