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Gillibrand was similarly critical of the ban and called it “an unjust, outdated and harmful rule that violates the civil rights of some of our bravest, most heroic men and women.”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.”
Two anti-LGBTQ bills die in Va. Senate
Democrats maintain 21-19 majority in chamber
Two anti-LGBTQ bills died in the Virginia Senate on Thursday.
A Senate Education subcommittee voted against state Sen. Travis Hackworth (R-Tazewell County)’s Senate Bill 20, which would have eliminated the requirement that school districts must implement the Virginia Department of Education’s transgender and non-binary student guidelines.
The Senate General Laws and Technology Committee in an 8-7 vote tabled state Sen. Mark Peake (R-Lynchburg)’s Senate Bill 177, a religious freedom measure that critics contend would have allowed anti-LGBTQ discrimination in housing.
Virginia’s statewide nondiscrimination law includes sexual orientation and gender identity. Peake’s bill would have removed “the provision of the exemption for religious organizations under the Virginia Fair Housing Law that denies such exemption where the membership in such religion is restricted on account of race, color, national origin, sex, elderliness, familial status, sexual orientation, gender identity, military status, or disability.”
The General Assembly’s 2022 legislative session began on Jan. 12 with Republicans in control of the House of Delegates. Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin took office three days later.
Democrats, who maintain a 21-19 majority in the state Senate, have vowed to block any anti-LGBTQ bill.
Department of Education investigating BYU LGBTQ+ discipline policy
“They’ve wronged marginalized communities at BYU and they need to be held accountable for it” ~ former gay student at BYU
PROVO, Ut. – The U.S. Department of Education has opened an investigation into policies at Brigham Young University (BYU) that discipline LGBTQ students, aiming to determine whether or not the private religious school, owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), is violating their civil rights.
The Education Department is investigating a complaint that came after BYU removed rules banning “homosexual activity” from its honor code in 2020, only to clarify weeks later that same-sex partnerships were still prohibited.
The probe, which opened in October of last year, will focus on Title IX, a law prohibiting universities from discriminating against students and others based on gender.
Last year, President Joe Biden signed an executive order mandating every federal agency, including the Education Department, clarify that civil rights laws protect LGBTQ people from discrimination. However, religious schools have Title IX exemptions, making federal scrutiny rare.
“It’s really significant that investigators are stepping in now,” Michael Austin, a BYU alumnus and vice president at the University of Evansville, told the Salt Lake Tribune. “It means there’s some reason to think the university has gone beyond the religious exemptions it has and is discriminating even beyond those.”
The investigation, headed by the Office of Civil Rights within the department, seems to be about whether faith-based exemptions apply even if the behavior is not directly related to education or expressly written in the honor code. BYU also bans alcohol, beards and piercings, among other things.
BYU did not respond to the Blade’s request for comment. But a spokesperson told the Associated Press that the school does not anticipate any further action because “BYU is exempt from application of Title IX rules that conflict with the religious tenets” of the LDS.
Though the LDS has softened some of its rules around LGBTQ issues, the church remains opposed to same-sex marriage and sex outside of marriage.
In a November 2021 letter to the Education Department, Kevin Worthen, president of BYU, argued that religious exemptions do apply to the school. The letter adds that all BYU students, faculty, administrators and staff “‘voluntarily commit to conduct their lives in accordance with the principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ.’”
The Department of Education responded to the letter, affirming that the university has some religious exemptions, but the department had to investigate if the complaint falls under those exemptions.
An Education Department spokesperson confirmed the investigation to the Blade but declined further comment.
Queer students at BYU celebrated the school’s removal of the anti-LGBTQ language in the honor code. Yet, the university announced weeks later that there was “some miscommunication” as to what the changes meant, clarifying that “the principles of the Honor Code remain the same.”
Bradley Talbot, a former gay student at BYU, was on campus during the apparent reversal, saying it “instilled a lot of fear and a lot of students.”
“There are still a lot of feelings of betrayal and apprehension around it,” he told the Blade.
At BYU, students who hold hands or kiss someone of the same sex can face punishment, including expulsion. LGBTQ+ students face harsher discipline than heterosexual couples at the school.
Talbot said he knew of “quite a few people” who lost their degrees and were kicked out during his time at BYU because of the gay dating ban. “People were turned in by roommates. Some people were turned in by their own parents,” he added.
The university’s clarification frustrated LGBTQ students, according to Talbot. In response, he organized a demonstration in March of 2021, lighting the “Y” that sits above BYU’s campus – one of the school’s oldest traditions – in rainbow Pride colors on the one year anniversary of the university’s letter sent to students that clarified the LGBTQ dating policy.
“We did it to reclaim that traumatic day and spin in a positive light of support, love and unity to create more visibility and awareness,” said Talbot. “And also to take a stand that we weren’t going to put up with just being tossed around by BYU. We deserve to be a part of the BYU community and a part of the LGBTQ community.”
The school has since updated its policies, banning protests and other demonstrations on Y Mountain, where Talbot staged his demonstration, in December of last year.
“Demonstrations should be consistent with BYU’s faith-based mission, intellectual environment and requirements described in the policy,” a statement added.
Still, Talbot, who is now graduated, has hope that the Education Department’s investigation will “finally change” things at BYU. “This has been something that’s been going on for decades,” he said. “They’ve wronged marginalized communities at BYU and they need to be held accountable for it.”
LGBTQ advocates fight on for trans athletes, but they may be losing the battle
Transgender women competing in women’s sports remains unpopular in polls
In the wake of the NCAA changing its policies regarding transgender athletes and state legislatures advancing new legislation against trans inclusion in school sports, LGBTQ advocates continue the fight to ensure athletes can compete consistent with their gender identity, although they may be losing the battle.
As public polling has demonstrated, transgender athletes competing in sports — especially trans women in women’s sports — remains unpopular even among pro-transgender people. Key figures have emerged in recent days opposing transgender inclusion amid the focus on Lia Thomas, a recently transitioned swimmer at the University of Pennsylvania who has been smashing records in women’s aquatics.
Nonetheless, LGBTQ advocates charged with fighting for transgender rights are continuing the efforts. After a coalition of LGBTQ advocates sent a letter to the NCAA urging the organization to include a non-discrimination provision in its updated constitution, the Human Rights Campaign condemned the organization for refusing to keep the language, which appears to have the effect of allowing the sports division to decline to allow transgender athletes to compete consistent with their gender identity, and sent an action alert to supporters.
Joni Madison, interim president of the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement the NCAA “needs to show us their playbook for protecting LGBTQ+ and specifically transgender athletes from discrimination” as state legislatures advance legislation against transgender kids in sports.
“The NCAA has so far proven to be an unreliable ally to LGBTQ+ athletes across the country who depend upon the organization to protect them from discrimination and now they owe these athletes answers,” Madison said.
Instead of reaffirming non-discrimination protections, the NCAA announced a change in policy that goes in different directions but appears aimed at limiting participation of transgender women without taking full responsibility for it. On one hand, the NCAA delegates to the bodies governing individual sports the policies for transgender participation, but on the other hand requires transgender women to document having limited testosterone levels over a certain period of time.
The fight now continues in state legislatures as sports bills are among the latest crop of measures seeking to limit access for transgender people. After South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem made a push for legislation against transgender kids in sports at the start of the year, the state legislature responded by advancing such a measure. On Wednesday, a South Dakota House committee favorably reported out legislation already approved by wide margins in the Senate that would make biological sex the standard for sports in an attempt to limit transgender participation.
Sam Ames, director of advocacy and government affairs at The Trevor Project, said in a statement upon the committee vote the legislation “has nothing to do with fairness — and everything to do with South Dakota politicians using transgender youth as pawns on a political chessboard.
“Proponents of this blanket ban are hard-pressed to find examples of transgender students making South Dakota sports less fair or safe,” Ames said. “Research from The Trevor Project makes clear that many already opt out of sports due to fear of bullying and discrimination.”
Although the issue of transgender women in sports has emerged in recent years as conservative activists found a way to challenge LGBTQ rights in a way that was palatable to the public, the fervor peaked as Thomas made headlines for breaking records in the pool.
After having previously competed in men’s aquatics, Thomas — after she transitioned — began competing in women’s events and was beating her competitors by wide margins. In one event in December, Thomas came in first in the 1,650-yard freestyle and 38 seconds ahead of her closest competitor. The NCAA rules would appear to have the effect of barring Thomas from further competition.
Public polling, which has shown strong support for LGBTQ rights in general, continues to show the sentiment is against transgender women competing in sports, although the outcome of the poll can change considerably depending on the wording of the question. One Gallup poll last year found only 34 percent of those surveyed supported transgender athletes participating on teams consistent with their gender identity, while 62 percent said transgender people should have to compete with other athletes of their gender designated at birth.
One LGBTQ strategist, who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity, said the time may have come for LGBTQ advocates to admit a fait accompli if they want to seek broader civil rights protections in employment, housing and public accommodations with the Equality Act or other federal legislation.
“Advocates should just admit this is a very different issue than a trans person applying for a job or finding an apartment,” the strategist said. “Equality principles differ by situation — that’s why we have separate men’s and women’s sports in the first place. The same public opinion overwhelmingly supportive of the Equality Act is also clearly skeptical of a one size fits all federalization of all sports everywhere.”
Adding fuel to the fire are recent comments from key figures in athletics.
Caitlyn Jenner, who before she transitioned was an Olympic champion in the 1970s, has been among the more prominent voices to speak out against transgender women in sports and said on a recent appearance on Fox News it represents “a woke world gone wild.”
Jenner, who came out against transgender participation in sports during her unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign last year in the California recall election, said the NCAA “just kicked the can down the road” on the transgender sports issue and had choice words for Thomas.
“When you do transition and you do go through this, you have to take responsibility and you have to have integrity,” Jenner said. “I don’t know why she’s doing this.”
Michael Phelps, the decorated Olympic swimmer, also declined to support transgender athletes fully when asked about the issue during an interview on CNN, bringing up doping in sports in comparison.
“I don’t know what it looks like in the future,” Phelps said. “It’s hard. It’s very complicated and this is my sport, this has been my sport my whole entire career, and honestly the one thing I would love is everybody being able to compete on an even playing field.”
To be sure, advocates for allowing transgender people to compete in sports consistent with their gender identity also have their supporters in the sports world, including tennis legend Billie Jean King. On Monday, Dorian Rhea Debussy, who’s non-binary and one of 54 facilitators in the NCAA Division III LGBTQ OneTeam program, resigned in protest over recent NCAA actions.
“I’m deeply troubled by what appears to be a devolving level of active, effective, committed, and equitable support for gender diverse student-athletes within the NCAA’s leadership,” Debussy said. “As a non-binary, trans-feminine person, I can no longer, in good conscience, maintain my affiliation with the NCAA.”
Arguably, schools complying with the new NCAA policy and states enacting anti-transgender laws would be violating Title IX of the Education Amendment of 1972, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in education, especially after the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Bostock v. Clayton County finding anti-transgender discrimination is a form of sex discrimination.
One federal court last year blocked a West Virginia state law against transgender participation in sports on that legal basis. No litigation, however, appears to be in the works at this time challenging colleges or the NCAA policy.
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