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Recalling 1993, activists prepare for ‘Don’t Ask’ repeal push

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Activists are ramping up efforts this year to push for repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” while remembering that similar optimism in 1993 on lifting the ban on gays serving openly led to the law’s creation.

Last week, President Obama affirmed his commitment during the State of the Union address to repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” noting that he’d work this year with Congress and military leaders to end the law. His announcement brought new life to the issue in the mainstream media and among activist groups.

But amid this activity, the shadow of what took place in 1993, when LGBT advocates had similar optimism about lifting the ban, is influencing the work that’s happening today.

When former President Bill Clinton took office 17 years ago, advocates expected him to fulfill his campaign pledge to end the ban preventing gays from serving in the military. Since there was no federal law on the issue at the time, the only step required to end the ban was administrative action.

But resistance from Congress — particularly from then-Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn — and opposition from military leaders such as then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Colin Powell thwarted Clinton’s efforts to end the ban.

The result was the 1993 law that came to be known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which at the time was billed as a compromise because it would ostensibly allow gays to serve in the U.S. military provided they didn’t disclose their sexual orientation.

Many activists have said Clinton was unable to fulfill his promise to end the ban because the LGBT community didn’t provide him with sufficient political cover to accomplish his goal.

Clinton also holds this view. After gay activist Lane Hudson questioned him on the matter last year during the Netroots Nation conference, Clinton told an audience of bloggers that advocates in 1993 “couldn’t deliver” support in the Congress needed to administratively end the ban.

David Smith, vice president of programs for the Human Rights Campaign, in 1993 was communications director for the Campaign for Military Service, a group that worked to help guide Clinton’s efforts to repeal the ban. While acknowledging LGBT activists made some possible missteps at the time, Smith told DC Agenda that a number of obstacles contributed to the creation of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” not just deficiencies from activists.

“You had a very exuberant, politically naïve community combined with a politically naïve new president, a Democratic-controlled Congress that wasn’t all that enthusiastic about lifting the ban, and you had a Republican minority in Congress that was dying to regain the majority and inflict political harm on the new president and the Democratic Congress,” Smith said.

Smith said the LGBT community might have fared better if the issue had come up later in Clinton’s term as opposed to soon after he took office.

“In retrospect, I think if the community would have waited a year or two to better understand military resistance and understand congressional resistance, and mapped out a plan, Congress wouldn’t have been so quick to impose a law, and there might have been a different path,” Smith said.

Nathaniel Frank, author of “Unfriendly Fire” and research fellow at the Palm Center, a think-tank on gays in the military at the University of California, Santa Barbara, was similarly reluctant to ascribe the failure of lifting the ban in 1993 solely to shortcomings from the LGBT community.

“Yes, the gay community could have done more if it was bigger, more organized, better funded,” Frank said. “Political leaders need the pressure of constituents to help them get done what they need to get done, but I think that President Clinton there was really evading responsibility.”

Learning from mistakes

Whatever responsibility LGBT supporters had in creating “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” activists this year are learning from mistakes made at that time to support Obama in his goal of repealing the law.

Smith said one of the lessons learned from 1993 on repeal is to make tactical decisions after thoughtful planning. He noted that his organization has been “quietly pressing for action” for months on this issue in Congress and in the administration.

A more public campaign, Smith said, will launch soon and target states with lawmakers who would be key to overturning “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Smith estimated the campaign would cost more than $2 million and would involve grassroots and grasstops efforts as well as earned and paid media.

“It’s very targeted, but again it’s still unclear exactly how this is going to unfold and it could go in any number of directions,” Smith said. “We need to be ready to deal with whatever direction it does go in to make sure the ultimate outcome is what we all expect.”

Smith declined to comment on which states HRC would target in its campaign or what the comment of earned and paid media, saying that such information needed to remain confidential for tactical reasons.

Alex Nicholson, executive director of Servicemembers United, said his organization also is ramping up efforts amid the greater push to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

“We always hoped it would happen sooner rather than later, but I think it’s definitely been a surprise that the president has decided to include this issue in the State of the Union and to move forward on this quickly,” Nicholson said. “So we’re obviously trying to rapidly expand our capacity, roll out a number of campaigns and initiatives that we wanted to get underway.”

Nicholson said Servicemembers United has been getting numerous media calls and has been identifying LGBT service members and veterans to respond to those requests. He also noted that his organization is trying to identify high-ranking retired military members who are straight and support allowing gays to serve openly.

Additionally, Nicholson said organizations opposed to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” are having a larger number of collaborative meetings and working to “share information, share intelligence, share resources, work together more closely.”

But the lessons learned from 1993 are hanging over all efforts to repeal the law this year. Frank said advocates of repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” should keep in mind the arguments that opponents of gays in the military used then in the new push for overturning the law.

“The first thing that gay advocates should do is understand the history of the tactics the people used the last time — the fear tactics, the delay tactics, the dishonesty, the slippery slope arguments — making this much scarier and complicated than it really is,” Frank said.

Frank also cautioned against underestimating the vehemence with which opponents of gays in the military will defend the status quo.

“The religious right has been somewhat quiet on social issues in the last year and the media have been quiet on social issues,” Frank said. “They haven’t been as big, but make no mistake, they’ll come roaring back, so it’s important not to underestimate the vehemence of homophobia and the strength of the opposition to reform in military or religious circles.”

Still, Frank said advocates should be ready to differentiate between those who have “genuine anxiety” about what the change means for the U.S. military and those who are expressing concern simply to block repeal.

While it’s unclear what opponents of repeal are planning this year, Smith said HRC is anticipating the traditional faces — such as Elaine Donnelly of the Center for Military Readiness and Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council — to “get in their TV makeup” to build opposition to repealing the law.

Familiar arguments

Opponents of gays in the military are starting to emerge with familiar arguments that were often used in 1993.

Following Obama’s State of the Union address, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz), who’s quickly becoming the primary opponent of any “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal in the U.S. Senate, issued a statement in support of current policy.

McCain noted that “we have the best trained, best equipped, and most professional force in the history of our country,” suggesting that ending the ban on gays serving openly would be detrimental to unit cohesion and take away from the U.S. military’s standing in the world.

Jarrod Chlapowksi, a gay U.S. Army veteran who supports HRC in its Voices of Honor tour, said “there’s a ton of ways” for supporters of repeal to approach McCain’s argument.

“The unit cohesion argument has been disproven numerous times,” he said. “We have the example of Israel. I don’t think anyone would say Israel has a weak military by any means, and that tends to be a pretty strong example. But there really is nothing supporting McCain’s position that this would be detrimental to unit cohesion.”

Another frequently used argument against allowing gays to serve in the military that could emerge again is concern about whether straight service members would be comfortable using shared shower facilities with gay troops.

But Chlapowksi said that concern can be allayed by noting that gay service members are already showering with straight troops and the change in policy hasn’t been shown to be disruptive in other countries.

“We already share showers, we already share foxholes, we already share barracks,” he said. “The only change is that you know who’s gay and who’s not. The reality is that’s not going to cause someone to go crazy and to make an exodus of troops.”

Even with the experience of 1993 looming over activists, much has changed in 17 years. Recent polls consistently show that a majority of the public supports repeal, and have even found that a majority of conservatives favor allowing gays to serve openly.

Smith said opponents of gays of military could thus have the issue backfire on them if they handle it incorrectly.

“The country is facing economic hardship, two wars — and if Republicans spend a lot of time trying to create political animosity around this issue, it could backfire on them big time,” Smith said. “But our opposition is not to be underestimated.”

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Pennsylvania

Pa. House passes bill to repeal state’s same-sex marriage ban

Measure now goes to Republican-controlled state Senate

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Pennsylvania Capitol Building (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

The Democratic-controlled Pennsylvania House of Representatives on July 2 passed a bill that would repeal the state’s same-sex marriage ban.

The marriage bill passed by a 133-68 vote margin, with all but one Democrat voting for it. Thirty-two Republicans backed the measure.

The bill’s next hurdle is to pass in the Republican-controlled Pennsylvania Senate.

State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta (D-Philadelphia), a gay man who is running for state auditor, noted to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review the bill would eliminate a clause in Pennsylvania’s marriage law that defines marriage as “between one man and one woman.” The measure would also change the legal definition of marriage in the state to “a civil contract between two individuals.”

Kenyatta did not return the Washington Blade’s requests for comment.

The U.S. Supreme Court in 2015 in Obergefell v. Hodges extended marriage rights to same-sex couples across the country. 

Justice Clarence Thomas in the 2022 decision that struck down Roe v. Wade said the Supreme Court should reconsider the Obergefell decision and the Lawrence v. Texas ruling that said laws that criminalize consensual same-sex sexual relations are unconstitutional. President Joe Biden at the end of that year signed the Respect for Marriage Act, which requires the federal government and all U.S. states and territories to recognize same-sex and interracial marriages.

Republican Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin earlier this year signed a bill that codified marriage rights for same-sex couples in state law. Pennsylvania lawmakers say the marriage codification bill is necessary in case the Supreme Court overturns marriage rights for same-sex couples in their state and across the country.

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Pennsylvania

Western Pa. transgender girl killed, dismembered

Pauly Likens, 14, brutally murdered last month

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(Photo courtesy of the LGBTQIA+ Alliance Shenango Valley)

Editor’s note: The Philadelphia Gay News originally published this story.

BY TIM CWIEK | Prosecutors are pledging justice for Pauly Likens, a 14-year-old transgender girl from Sharon, Pa., who was brutally killed last month. Her remains were scattered in and around a park lake in western Pennsylvania.

“The bottom line is that we have a 14-year-old, brutally murdered and dismembered,” said Mercer County District Attorney Peter C. Acker in an email. “Pauly Likens deserves justice, her family deserves justice, and we seek to deliver that justice.”

On June 23, DaShawn Watkins allegedly met Likens in the vicinity of Budd Street Public Park and Canoe Launch in Sharon, Pa., and killed her. Watkins subsequently dismembered Likens’s corpse with a saw and scattered her remains in and around Shenango River Lake in Clark Borough.

On July 2, Watkins was arrested and charged with first-degree murder, aggravated assault, abuse of a corpse and tampering with evidence. He’s being held without bail in the Mercer County jail.

The coroner’s office said the cause of death was sharp force trauma to the head and ruled the manner of death as homicide.

Cell phone records, social media and surveillance video link Watkins to the crime. Additionally, traces of Likens’s blood were found in and around Watkins’s apartment in Sharon, Pa., authorities say.

A candlelight vigil is being held Saturday, July 13, in remembrance of Likens. It’s being hosted by LGBTQIA+ Alliance Shenango Valley. The vigil begins at 7 p.m. at 87 Stambaugh Ave. in Sharon, Pa.

Pamela Ladner, president of the Alliance, mourned Likens’s death. 

“Pauly’s aunt described her as a sweet soul, inside and out,” Ladner said in an email. “She was a selfless child who loved nature and wanted to be a park ranger like her aunt.”

Acker, the prosecutor, said Likens’s death is one of the worst crimes he’s seen in 46 years as an attorney. But he cautioned against calling it a hate crime. “PSP [Pennsylvania State Police] does not believe it in fact is one [hate crime] because the defendant admitted to being a homosexual and the victim was reportedly a trans girl,” Acker asserted.

Acker praised the criminal justice agencies who worked on the case, including the Pennsylvania State Police, the Hermitage Police Department, the Sharon Police Department, park rangers from the Shenango Reservoir, Mercer County Coroner John Libonati, and cadaver dog search units.

“The amount of hours dedicated to the identification of the victim and the filing of charges against the defendant is a huge number,” Acker added. “We take the murder of any individual very seriously, expressly when they are young and brutally killed and dismembered.”

Acker also noted that all criminal defendants are presumed to be innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.

This is a developing story.

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National

TransTech Social removing barriers to trans success

‘Technology was the key to my freedom’

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From left, TransTech members B Hawk Snipes, E.C. Pizarro III, Ang R Bennett, and Adrian Elim. (Photo by Lexi Webster Photography)

It is common knowledge that women earn 84% of the average worker. Less common knowledge? Trans women earn 60% of the average worker. Trans men and non-binary people come in at around 70%, while 16% of all trans people make less than $10,000 annually. 

E.C. Pizarro III was lucky, and he knew it. He had a BFA in graphic design and had taught himself how to code. As a stealth trans man in a corporate job, he had access to a stable wage and good benefits. “People that do not have experiences in corporate America or with equitable employment don’t realize [these things] are privileges that a lot of people don’t have access to.” 

He wanted to give back and was gearing up to bring more volunteer work into his life by participating in a fraternity for trans men. When he went to a TransTech event and learned about the educational and career resources for trans people who face barriers to entering the workforce, he knew he had found his place. 

At the event he met, Angelica Ross. Yes, that Angelica Ross, of “Pose” and “American Horror Story.”

Before she was Candy, Ross was a self-taught coder. She went from posing for an adult website to doing its back-end coding to teaching her trans siblings how to succeed in tech. 

“Technology was the key to my freedom,” Ross said in an interview with The Plug. “Technology took me from being exploited on someone’s website to building my own websites and to building websites for other people and getting paid to do so.”

Pizarro was impressed and wanted to help. “I went up to Angelica and I was like ‘Hey, I’m a trans man. These are my skills. I’m down to volunteer and do any type of work—the one caveat is that I’m stealth. You can’t tell anybody that I’m trans.’”

For four years, Pizarro helped from mostly behind the scenes, sometimes getting side-eyed since people thought he was a cis man in trans spaces. “I was still stealth as the Director of Social Media and Communications for the National Trans Visibility March in 2019,” Pizarro says, chuckling a little.

But by that point, Ross — who headlined the 2019 march — was overextended trying to balance being a world-famous actress, advocate, and businesswoman. 

She needed someone to step in as executive director of TransTech and looked to the group of dedicated volunteers. Pizarro was elected by his peers to take the reins of the organization. 

This was a turning point for Pizarro. “I’m very passionate about tech and for me a small sacrifice of being open with my trans experience to liberate other trans people,” he said. “I felt like if that’s something I got to do, then I’m gonna do it.”

And he did it. The infrastructure Ross put together worked: with mentorship, education, community, and networking with trans-accepting employers, trans people were gaining financial security and independence. 

So, Pizarro focused on expanding TransTech as widely as possible. “We have grown exponentially over the last three years,” he says. “When I took over in 2021, we had about 800 members based in the United States. Now we support over 6,700 members across 50 countries.”

TransTech is filling a demonstrated need within specifically the trans community. New research from LGBT Tech found that 68% of transgender adults use the internet to find LGBTQ-friendly employment (compared to 38% of cisgender LGBTQ+ adults). More than 70% of all LGBTQ adults use the Internet to access educational content.

Accessibility is central to the TransTech programming. Despite the growth, everything remains free. “There’s no membership fee. All of our programming is free. All of the certifications and educational resources are free,” Pizarro says. 

They know the financial burden the trans community faces — 29% of trans adults live in poverty. “If we’re asking anyone to up-skill [for a cost] and these are the things they are going through, we are asking them to invest in their future versus their meal today.” 

Pizarro believes that accessibility is more than just making the training free. He wants the community to understand that tech work is something they are innately capable of doing. 

“TransTech was built on the foundation of nontraditional tech. It’s not always coding. It’s graphic design. It’s social media. It’s video editing. It’s anything that uses a piece of technology and nowadays almost everything uses a piece of technology,” says Pizarro.

He emphasizes to participants: “You’re in tech and you don’t even know it,” pointing out how many already utilize tech skills like marketing and monetization with their social media accounts.

Some people involved in the programming are nervous about entering the “tech world” because of headlines about tech layoffs. He makes sure to emphasize that unlike in some other jobs, tech companies often pay generous severance packages, which gives employees “breathing room.” Pizzaro explains that “once you have experience with one tech company, you can go someplace else and make a substantial amount of money as well.” 

While TransTech is designed for the gender-diverse community, the programming is open to everyone Pizarro explains. “We just ask that you don’t be transphobic.” (Or any of the other -phobics too, he says, listing them off.) He also emphasizes that this allows trans members who are not out to comfortably participate. 

Pizarro wants everyone to understand that they don’t just belong in tech, but they make tech better. “Tech is most profitable when you have diverse people building the tech and using the tech,” Pizarro says. “There is an intentional funding as well as support to diversity tech because they understand how that impacts the product.”

He also reminds participants that they have developed transferrable skills in every part of their lives. “I like to tell people if you can manage your life as a trans person in the United States or anywhere you can manage a project.”

(This story is part of the Digital Equity Local Voices Fellowship lab through News is Out. The lab initiative is made possible with support from Comcast NBCUniversal.)

Angelica Ross was a self-taught coder before she hit it big with ‘Pose.’ (Washington Blade file photo by Linus Berggren)
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