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Defense leaders support open service

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Adm. Michael Mullen (DC Agenda photo by Michael Key)

Top Pentagon leaders announced Tuesday their support for allowing gays, lesbians and bisexuals to serve openly in the U.S. military while unveiling new plans for a working group that will examine the impact of such a change in the armed forces.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen made the remarks in the first Senate hearing in 17 years dedicated to the issue of gays in the military.

Mullen told the Senate Armed Services Committee that he favors allowing gays to serve openly as a matter of fairness for those who are serving in the armed forces.

“Speaking for myself, and myself only, it is my personal belief that allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly is the right thing to do,” Mullen said. “No matter how I look at this issue, I cannot escape … the fact that we have in place a policy that forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens.”

Gates similarly expressed support for ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” noting President Obama’s last week restated his commitment to repealing the law in his State of the Union address.

“I fully support the president’s decision,” he said. “The question before us is not whether the military decides to makes this change, but how we best prepare for it. We have received our orders from the commander-in-chief and we are moving out accordingly.”

Mullen and Gates’ support for allowing gays to serve in the U.S. military stands in stark contrast to how military leaders in 1993 opposed open service and favored “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

The Senate panel received Mullen and Gates’ endorsement of allowing gays to serve openly in the U.S. military with mixed reactions — with those opposing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” applauding them and those supporting the policy expressing their discontent.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), ranking Republican on the committee and strong proponent of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” said he was “deeply disappointed” with Gates’ testimony and said it showed his bias on the issue.

“It would be far more appropriate, I say with great respect, to determine whether repeal of this law is appropriate and what the effects it would have on the readiness and the effectiveness of the military before deciding on whether we should repeal the law or not,” he said.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) noted Mullen only came out in favor of allowing open service after Obama announced his intent to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” suggesting Mullen was taking that position to fall in line with his superior.

Sessions said Mullen’s position would interfere with his subordinates’ ability to evaluate “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the implication of its repeal.

“I guess, if it was a trial, we would perhaps raise the undue command influence defense flag,” Sessions said.

But Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) came to the defense of Mullen, saying the admiral was showing leadership and acting as required by a Senate-confirmed nominee by expressing his personal opinion.

“It was clear to me and, I think, clear to most of us that you think this is a view that you hold in your conscience and not given to us because you were directed to by anybody, including the commander-in-chief,” Levin said.

Gates and Mullen expressed support for a change in policy while at the same time highlighting the importance of a new Pentagon working group that would examine the issue.

Mullen said he didn’t know fully what impact ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” would have throughout the armed forces — especially in a time of two wars — and said further investigation would bring to light those implications.

“That there will be legal, social and perhaps even infrastructure changes to be made certainly seems plausible,” Mullen said. “We would all like to have a better handle on these types of concerns.”

Gates unveiled new plans for a working group that he said would examine the implications of ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” By the end of this year, the group is charged with producing recommendations in the form of an implementation plan in the event Congress decides to repeal the statute.

Defense Department General Counsel Jeh Jonson and Gen. Carter Ham, commander of U.S. Army Europe, have been chosen to lead this working group, Gates said.

The working group, Gates said, would be charged with reaching out to the force to understand their views about repeal, examining changes in regulations and policy that need to be made and looking at the potential impact of a change in law on military readiness.

To supplement the efforts of this working group, Gates said the Pentagon will ask the RAND Corp. to update its 1993 study on the impact of allowing gays to serve in the military, which at the time found that open service wouldn’t be detrimental to the U.S. military.

In addition to the working group, Gates said he’s directed the Pentagon to review the regulations used to implement “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and, within 45 days, present recommendations that could be applied under existing law to “enforce this policy in a more humane and fair manner.”

“You may recall that I asked the Department’s general counsel to conduct a preliminary review of this matter last year,” Gates said. “Based on that preliminary review, we believe that we have a degree of latitude within the existing law to change our internal procedures in a manner that is more appropriate and fair to our men and women in uniform.”

While the recommendations aren’t yet complete, Gates said the Pentagon is considering a number of options that could allow for greater latitude on discharging gay service members under current law.

Gates said it’s possible to change implementation of current law by raising the rank of officers who are authorized to either initiate or conduct inquiries under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” He also said officials can “raise the bar” on what is considered credible information or who is considered a credible source to start an inquiry on a service member.

“Overall, we can reduce the instances in which the service member who is trying to serve the country honorably is outed by a third-person with the motive to harm the service member,” Gates said.

Many LGBT activists praised Gates and Mullen for coming out in favor of allowing gays to serve openly in the U.S. military and working to adjust the rules for discharges. Still, activists maintain that full repeal is still necessary.

Lt. Dan Choi, a gay U.S. Army infantry soldier who’s facing discharge after publicly coming out last year, told DC Agenda after the hearing that “there will be some impact” by the interim changes proposed by Gates, but said it’s “missing the point.”

“When you still have people that are lying about who they are, you haven’t solved the root of the problem,” Choi said. “‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ is the establishment of a closeted policy, and I don’t think that anybody has to be closeted in our military.”

Lawmakers considering ‘Don’t Ask’ moratorium

Gates’ announcement on the formation of a new working group raises questions about whether Congress will act this year to repeal the law or instead wait until the working group completes its review.

Levin suggested he may include language that would change “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in the upcoming defense authorization bill.

After Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) made a comment that senators need to find 60 votes to pass repeal legislation, Levin replied, “Unless there’s a provision in the defense authorization bill that goes to the floor, which would then require an amendment to strike it from the bill, in which case, the 60-vote rule would be turning the other way.”

Following the hearing, Levin told reporters that it’s possible to include in the defense authorization bill a moratorium on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” that would be in place until the Pentagon completes its study.

“If we throw a moratorium on it, then what I consider to be a slow pace then would be more practical,” he said.

Asked whether he’s ruled out actual repeal in the defense authorization bill in favor of a moratorium, Levin replied, “I haven’t ruled anything out.”

Also foreseeing the possibility of repeal this year is Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), one of the most vocal proponents in Congress of overturning “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

After the hearing, she told reporters she doesn’t think the time Gates is asking for review “will affect legislative progress” and that “we can actually write the bill and pass the bill now.”

“I think all that Adm. Mullen and Secretary Gates were saying is that they want to have a sensitivity to the impact it will have on the military and their families, and to have input in order to decide how to best to implement a policy change,” she said. “So, if they need to take time to do that, that’s fine and appropriate, but it doesn’t mean we can’t pass the repeal now, which is important to move forward on this.”

Gillibrand said she would support the inclusion of a moratorium in the defense authorization bill this year in addition to efforts for outright repeal. She said she thinks there are 60 votes in the Senate for full repeal and recalled how she considered a moratorium amendment last year on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” that she ultimately didn’t introduce.

“When I did my bill on moratorium [and] I counted the votes, the only undecided Democrats at that time said their reasons were they wanted to see leadership in the military, or wanted to see leadership from the president,” she said. “And I think what this hearing brings us is leadership on both.”

But Christopher Neff, deputy executive director of the Palm Center, a think-tank on gays in the military at the University of California, Santa Barbara, was pessimistic about the chances of passing legislation to address “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” this year.

He said the Pentagon’s establishment of a working group would make Congress reluctant to take action until the results of its study are known.

“I think that it would be anticipated that many legislators will be waiting to hear what comes out of the study group’s report at the end of the year,” Neff said. “I think that there are enough questions that are being raised that, I think, would be difficult without this study report.”

Whatever effort Congress takes in moving toward repeal this year, lawmakers are set to hear more testimony on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in later hearings.

Levin told reporters the Senate Armed Services Committee would revisit the issue of gays in the military Feb. 11 and will hear from an “outside panel” of expert witnesses.

He also said he expects senators to ask questions on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” when the service chiefs and service secretaries testify before Congress this month on the president’s budget request.

On the House said, Rep. Susan Davis (D-Calif.), chair of the House Armed Services personnel subcommittee, has scheduled a hearing on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in March that will follow up on previous testimony the subcommittee heard in 2008.

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The White House

Biden hosts Kenyan president, unclear whether anti-LGBTQ bill raised

Jake Sullivan reiterated administration’s opposition to Family Protection Bill

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Kenyan President William Ruto speaks at joint press conference with President Joe Biden at the White House on May 23, 2024.

The Biden-Harris administration has not publicly said whether it raised LGBTQ rights with Kenyan President William Ruto during his visit to the White House.

Kenya is among the countries in which consensual same-sex sexual relations remain criminalized.

Opposition MP Peter Kaluma last year introduced the Family Protection Bill. The measure, among other things, would impose the death penalty upon anyone found guilty of “aggravated homosexuality” and would ban Pride marches and other LGBTQ-specific events in the country. Advocates have told the Washington Blade the bill would also expel LGBTQ refugees and asylum seekers who have sought refuge in Kenya.

A senior administration official on Wednesday did not directly respond to the Blade’s question about whether President Joe Biden would speak to Ruto about the Family Protection Bill — neither he, nor Ruto discussed it on Thursday during a joint press conference at the White House. The official, however, did reiterate the administration’s opposition to the bill and other laws around the world that criminalize consensual same-sex sexual relations.

A reporter on Wednesday asked National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan during the daily press briefing about whether Biden would discuss with Ruto any concerns over “some authoritarian moves” in Kenya. (The International Criminal Court in 2011 charged Ruto and five others with crimes against humanity in relation to violence that surrounded Kenya’s 2007 presidential election. The ICC dismissed the case against Ruto in 2016, although the prosecutor said widespread witness tampering had taken place.)

“We’ve seen robust and vigorous democracy in Kenya in recent years,” Sullivan said. “But, of course, we will continue to express our view about the ongoing need to nurture democratic institutions across the board: an independent judiciary; a non-corrupt economy; credible, free, and fair elections.”

Sullivan added “these kinds of principles are things the president will share, but he’s not here to lecture President Ruto.”

“President Ruto, in fact, is somebody who just was in Atlanta speaking about these issues,” he said. “We will invest in Kenya’s democratic institutions, in its civil society, in all walks of Kenyan life to help make sure that the basic foundations of Kenyan democracy remain strong.”

U.S. Ambassador to Kenya Meg Whitman in March 2023 sparked criticism when she told reporters in Kenya’s Kajiado County that “every country has to make their own decisions about LGBTQ rights.”

Biden in 2021 signed a memo that committed the U.S. to promoting LGBTQ and intersex rights abroad as part of the White House’s overall foreign policy. A State Department spokesperson in response to Whitman’s comments told the Blade that “our position on the human rights of LGBTQI+ persons is clear.”

“A person’s ability to exercise their rights should never be limited based on sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, or sex characteristics,” said the spokesperson. “Governments should protect and promote respect for human rights for each and every human being, without discrimination, and they should abide by their human rights obligations and commitments.”

The White House on Thursday released a “Kenya State Visit to the United States” fact sheet that broadly notes the promotion of human rights and efforts to fight HIV/AIDS in Kenya.

• Promoting Human Rights: The United States and Kenya affirm their commitment to upholding the human rights of all. Together they stand with people around the world defending their rights against the forces of autocracy. Kenya and the United States commit to bilateral dialogues that reinforce commitments to human rights, as well as a series of security and human rights technical engagements with counterparts in the Kenyan military, police, and Ministry of Foreign Affairs aimed at strengthening collaboration on security sector governance, atrocity prevention, and women, peace and security in Kenya and regionally.

• Continuing the Fight against HIV/AIDS: The United States and Kenya are developing a “Sustainability Roadmap” to integrate HIV service delivery into primary health care, ensuring quality and impact are retained. With more than $7 billion in support from the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) spanning two decades, Kenya has successfully responded to the HIV epidemic and strives to end HIV as a public health threat in Kenya by 2027. These efforts improve holistic health services for the 1.3 million Kenyans currently receiving antiretroviral therapy and millions more benefiting from HIV prevention programs, while allowing for greater domestic resources to be put toward the HIV response, allowing PEFPAR support to decrease over time.

Biden and Ruto on Thursday also issued a joint statement that, among other things, affirms the two countries’ “commitment to upholding the human rights of all.”

“Our partnership is anchored in democracy and driven by people,” reads the statement. “Together we share the belief that democracy requires ongoing work, and thrives when we commit to continually strengthen our democratic institutions.”

“This historic state visit is about the Kenyan and American people and their hopes for an inclusive, sustainable, and prosperous future for all,” it adds.

The White House said Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and his husband, Chasten Buttigieg, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre and Democratic National Committee Deputy National Finance Chair Claire Lucas and her partner, Judy Dlugacz, are among those who attended Thursday’s state dinner at the White House. Ruto on Friday is scheduled to meet with Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the State Department.

Ugandan officials sanctioned after Anti-Homosexuality Act signed

The U.S. has sanctioned officials in Uganda, which borders Kenya, after the country’s president in May 2023 signed the Anti-Homosexuality Act. The White House also issued a business advisory against Uganda and removed the country from the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which allows sub-Saharan countries to trade duty-free with the U.S.

Sullivan, Whitman and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo are among the officials who joined Biden and Ruto at a meeting with CEOs that took place at the White House on Wednesday. Ruto earlier this week visited Coca-Cola’s headquarters in Atlanta.

The company announced it will invest $175 million in Kenya.

Coca-Cola on its website notes it has received a 100 percent score on the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index each year since 2006. The company also highlights it has supported the LGBTQ Victory Fund, the Trevor Project, and other “LGBTQI-focused organizations and programs in our communities.”

“Coca Cola is proud of its history of supporting and including the LGBTQI community in the workplace, in its advertising and in communities throughout the world,” says Coca-Cola. “From supporting LGBTQI pride parades to running rainbow-colored billboards, Coca Cola has demonstrated its commitment to protecting employees from discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity and expression.”

Health GAP Executive Director Asia Russell in a statement to the Blade said Ruto “is choosing to align with anti-gender extremists and is allowing queer Kenyans to be put at extreme risk.” She also criticized Biden for welcoming Ruto to the White House.

“Biden is campaigning as an LGBTQ+ champion, but he is ruling out the red carpet for someone who is explicitly siding with the extremists,” said Russell. “It’s doublespeak on the part of the White House.”

Brody Levesque, Christopher Kane, and Sam Kisika contributed to this story.

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Federal Government

National Park Service clarifies uniform policy

Announcement has implications for Pride

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National Park Service rangers from the Stonewall National Monument march in the 2021 New York City Pride parade. (Photo courtesy of the National Park Service’s Facebook page)

BY ERIN REED | The National Park Service on May 17 clarified its policy on employees wearing official uniforms to non-sanctioned events, which has implications for Pride events.

It’s unclear what triggered the clarification. A source at the National Park Service told the Blade in a statement that the uniform policy “has not changed,” but some LGBTQ employees report feeling betrayed and note that official Pride participation in major cities is uncertain as applications to participate in parades remain unprocessed.

The clarification comes amid increasing crackdowns on Pride flags and LGBTQ people nationwide.

The announcement was first disclosed in a memo to park service employees that did not directly address Pride but stated that “requests from employees asking to participate in uniform in a variety of events and activities, including events not organized by the NPS” conflict with park service policy.

The specific provision cited states that park service employees cannot wear the uniform to events that would construe support for “a particular issue, position, or political party.” Applying this provision to bar Pride participation drew ire from some LGBTQ employees who assert that LGBTQ Pride is not about an “issue, position, or political party,” but about identity and diversity. The employees, who spoke on condition of anonymity, also pointed out that the internal ERG guide allowed for participation in Pride events and that park employees had participated in Pride events with approval for years under the current set of rules.

In a follow-up, the park service stated that the ERG resource known as the “OUTsiders Guide to Pride” conflicts with its policy and that it is in discussion with ERG leaders to review it and similar documents.

Meanwhile, it stated that park service participation in Pride “could imply agency support … on a particular issue of public concern,” essentially stating that celebrations of LGBTQ employees would be considered an “issue of public concern” rather than a non-political celebration of diversity. As such, they determined that park service official participation in parades “should be extremely limited.”

Concern spread among some park service employees . They noted that the park service has participated in Pride parades across the United States for years under the same set of rules, including during the Trump administration, which notably cracked down on LGBTQ Pride in government agencies, such as at embassies abroad.

They also noted that Stonewall National Monument is run by the park service. Importantly, Stonewall National Monument’s founding documents state, “The purpose of Stonewall National Monument is to preserve and protect Christopher Park and the historic resources associated with it and to interpret the Stonewall National Historic Landmark’s resources and values related to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender civil rights movement.”

One park service employee, speaking on condition of anonymity, stated that multiple Pride parade requests are currently sitting on desks “collecting dust” for participation and representation in major city Pride festivities. When asked about the determination that Pride festivals are an “issue of public concern,” they said, “Pride is not political, it’s not a cause, you just are LGBTQ+. It’s a celebration of who we are.” They added, “Morale is just so low right now. There’s not a lot of fight left in us.”

The Blade reached out to a park service spokesperson to ask about Pride parades in major cities and whether the park service would continue participating this year as they have in previous years. The spokesperson stated that the policy “had not changed” and that “Previous interpretations of the uniform policy were inconsistent and, as you can imagine, approving participation in some events and not others could be seen as discrimination based on viewpoint.” They added that in-park Pride events have not been canceled and that community events outside of the parks that “directly relate to a park’s mission” could be approved. However, they did not indicate whether these events would include continued contingents in major U.S. city Pride parades and celebrations and could not be reached for a follow-up on this question.

Park service resources currently live on the site call for people to “Celebrate Pride,” citing Stonewall National Monument to state that “The LGBTQ experience is a vital facet of America’s rich and diverse past.” This resource emphasizes the importance of not rendering LGBTQ people invisible, stating, “By recovering the voices that have been erased and marginalized, the NPS embarks on an important project to capture and celebrate our multi-vocal past.”

Park Service employees have marched in uniform for years. According to the Bay Area Reporter, in 2014, Christine Lenhertz of the park service requested that a group of LGBTQ park service employees be allowed to wear their uniforms in the Pride parade. They were initially barred from doing so, prompting the group to file a complaint. She then sought a ruling from the Office of the Solicitor for the Department of the Interior, who ruled that there was no reason to bar her and other LGBTQ people from participating in uniform. Since then, many park service contingents have participated in Pride events.

The future of Pride parade participation with in-uniform park service employees is uncertain. While it appears that there will be some Pride events in certain national parks, such as Stonewall, external participation in major city Pride events seems to be on hold in at least some major American cities.

You can see the full response to the request for comment from a park service spokesperson here:

The NPS uniform policy has not changed. There are no restrictions on wearing of uniforms in NPS-organized in-park events. There has been no directive to cancel NPS-organized in-park events. Superintendents have discretion to approve park-organized events, which support park purpose and mission, and departmental mission, initiatives, and priorities (e.g., diversity, inclusion, climate change, and tribal engagement.) This would include many of the events planned to celebrate Pride month. 

Official NPS participation in community events that directly relate to a park’s mission can be approved by the park superintendent, provided it is consistent with applicable laws, rules, regulations, and NPS policies.

Last week, the service sent out a reminder about the uniform policy — specifically because there has been an in-flux of requests from folks asking to wear their uniforms for non-park service events. These requests run the gamut of topics, but could include weekend, off duty events that folks are of course able to do in their personal capacity, but not while wearing a uniform representing the federal government. Previous interpretations of the uniform policy were inconsistent and as you can imagine, approving participation in some events and not others could be seen as discrimination based on viewpoint. 

NPS employees represent a diversity of identities, cultures, and experiences, and we are committed to supporting all of our workforce. Like any large organization, we have a diverse workforce supporting myriad causes, and we welcome employees to express their personal support for various issues, positions, and political parties, provided they do not imply their presence or endorsement constitutes official NPS support for the same.  And, also like other large organizations, there are limits to what employees can do while on-duty and in uniform and seen as communicating on behalf of the NPS.

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Erin Reed is a transgender woman (she/her pronouns) and researcher who tracks anti-LGBTQ+ legislation around the world and helps people become better advocates for their queer family, friends, colleagues, and community. Reed also is a social media consultant and public speaker.

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The preceding article was first published at Erin In The Morning and is republished with permission.

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The White House

Senate confirms Biden’s 200th judicial nominee

Diverse group includes 11 LGBTQ judges

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Vice President Kamala Harris and President Joe Biden at the White House on Jan. 5, 2023. (Screenshot via White House YouTube channel)

With the U.S. Senate’s confirmation of his 200th judicial nominee on Wednesday, President Joe Biden surpassed the number who were appointed to the federal bench by his last two predecessors at this point in their presidencies.

Among them are 11 LGBTQ judges, the same record-setting number who were nominated and confirmed under former President Barack Obama over the course of his two terms in office.

In a statement celebrating the milestone, Biden highlighted the diverse identities, backgrounds, and professional experiences of the men and women he has appointed over the past four years.

They “come from every walk of life, and collectively, they form the most diverse group of judicial appointees ever put forward by a president,” he said, noting that “64 percent are women and 62 percent are people of color.”

“Before their appointment to the bench, they worked in every field of law,” Biden said, “from labor lawyers fighting for working people to civil rights lawyers fighting to protect the right to vote.”

The president added, “Judges matter. These men and women have the power to uphold basic rights or to roll them back. They hear cases that decide whether women have the freedom to make their own reproductive healthcare decisions; whether Americans have the freedom to cast their ballots; whether workers have the freedom to unionize and make a living wage for their families; and whether children have the freedom to breathe clean air and drink clean water.”

The LGBTQ judges who were confirmed under Biden include Beth Robinson, the first LGBTQ woman to serve on a federal court of appeals, Nicole Berner, the 4th Circuit’s first LGBTQ judge, Charlotte Sweeney, the first LGBTQ woman to serve on a federal district court west of the Mississippi River, and Melissa DuBose, the first Black and the first LGBTQ judge to serve on a federal court in Rhode Island.

Echoing the president’s comments during a briefing with reporters on Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre noted Biden’s appointment of the U.S. Supreme Court’s first Black woman, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson.

“We’ve confirmed more Hispanic judges circuit courts than any previous administration,” she said. “We’ve confirmed more Black women to circuit courts than all previous presidents combined.”

Jean-Pierre added that while these milestones are “great news,” there is still “much more work to be done.”

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