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Pentagon officials outline scope for ‘Don’t Ask’ study

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Officials leading the Pentagon study examining “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” outlined for lawmakers the general scope of their work Wednesday, but offered limited details and were tight-lipped on their personal views of the law.

Both co-chairs of the Pentagon working group testified before the House Armed Services personnel subcommittee. Jeh Johnson, general counsel for the Defense Department, and Gen. Carter Ham, commanding general of U.S. Army Europe, discussed how their work would build on President Obama’s call to end the 1993 law barring gays, lesbians and bisexuals from serving openly in the U.S. military.

The hearing marked the first time the House heard testimony on gays in the military since a similar committee hearing took place in 2008.

Also present was Clifford Stanley, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness. He would oversee the implementation of repeal at the Pentagon should Congress overturn “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

Witnesses said the study underway at the Pentagon, due for completion Dec. 1, would identify the effects of repeal on military readiness, unit cohesion, recruiting, retention and military families.

Johnson and Ham also noted that the working group has been broken down into four teams: a survey team; a legislative, regulatory and legal team; a policy development team; and an education and training team. Ham said the working group intends to gather information with “wide outreach to get a wide variety of views.”

“That survey must be enriched by personal contact — focus groups, if you will — some of them specifically targeted to specialized groups and families within the Department of Defense, active reserve and guard,” Ham said.

Ham said he anticipates outreach through “social media” so that information can be gathered from the widest possible pool.

“A wide variety of individuals — both within the Department of Defense and without — who will have views on this matter will have an opportunity for their voice to be heard,” he said.

Still, the witnesses said the working group is in its early stages and there was little information to share at this point.

Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, said the hearing was “largely process driven,” but it affirmed that there’s still an opportunity for repeal to happen this year.

“Clearly Congressman Patrick Murphy and other members of the subcommittee underscored to [Defense Department] General Counsel Johnson and Gen. Ham that repeal can get done this year as the working group does its job,” he said.

A number of lawmakers at the hearing asked whether Congress should take legislative action against “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” before the working group’s study is complete.

Murphy, a Pennsylvania Democrat who’s sponsoring the House repeal bill, said if lawmakers were pass repeal as part of the upcoming defense authorization bill, it would likely not be signed until October, which he said would give the Pentagon time to review the process for implementation.

But Johnson said he wasn’t inclined to endorse legislative action on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” before the working group had a chance to complete its study.

“The secretary of defense believes that we should go about repeal in a careful methodical way, and first study … all of the impacts of repeal on the current policy,” Johnson said. “I would think that the Congress would like to hear from us first before undertaking to consider repeal.”

Still, Johnson said he wouldn’t advise Congress what action they should take on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” this year.

“I’m not here to oppose or support any congressional action,” he said. “We’re here to do an exhaustive, thorough, comprehensive review of the impact of repeal of the policy.”

Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), ranking Republican on the subcommittee, said he maintained some reservations regarding the study given its scope.

Wilson said he wants to the working group to examine whether “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” as it stands undermines readiness and whether repeal would contribute to military effectiveness “in measureable ways.”

“If the study does not address these issues, then its overall credibility and usefulness for the Congressional decision-making process will be significantly undermined,” he said.

Questioning the need for repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Wilson said 8,300 service members were discharged under the law from fiscal years 1999 and 2008. The lawmaker said this number was infinitesimally small given that the military separated about 1.9 million people during that time.

“That’s about 800 people discharged per year, and unless you contradict me, it’s not a significant loss from an overall [Defense Department] manpower perspective,” Wilson said.

Rep. Susan Davis (D-Calif.), chair of the subcommittee, asked about the possibility of changing the implementation of current law so that third parties couldn’t out and discharge gay service members.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has tasked Johnson with finding out whether this “more humane” approach to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was possible within the confines of the law 45 days from the start of the working group.

Johnson said this task was running “separate and apart” from the study’s work and said he expected to have recommendations around March 19.

“We’re getting comprehensive input from the services on that topic, and I expect that we will meet our 45-day timeline,” he said.

Lawmakers on the panel also asked the witnesses about plans for allowing for gays in the military to contribute to the study without being discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

Ham said the working group is working on ways to get their input, and the use of social media could play a role, but such plans aren’t yet final.

“We share with you the concern — the absolute necessity — to reach out and hear from homosexuals who are today serving in the force,” he said. “We don’t yet know how to do that, but my pledge to you is that we will find a way and we will do that.”

Ham said the working group has an opportunity to hear from service members who have already been separated under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and noted that information “will be instructive to us.”

At one point, Rep. Niki Tsongas (D-Mass.) asked the witnesses about their personal views on gays in the military. The witnesses were tight-lipped on their opinions, though, saying that want to remain objective as they complete the study.

Johnson noted he’s part of the Obama administration and the president has expressed his desire to move toward repeal. He added that his assignment “is to do an objective, comprehensive review of the implications of repeal of the policy.”

“I’m trying very hard to approach this in an objective, thorough, comprehensive fashion and create an environment conducive to others within the force telling us what they think the impact of repeal would be,” Johnson said.

The issue of whether a moratorium should be instituted to prevent discharges as the Pentagon undertakes its study was also raised during the hearing. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) floated the possibility of a legislative moratorium if there are not enough votes this year for outright repeal.

Tsongas spoke favorably about a moratorium during the hearing as a way to allow gays in the military to voice their opinions to the working group without being discharged.

“As you talk about the hoops that you’re going to have to jump through to solicit their opinion … it just seems to be a more appropriate way to go forward is to institutionalize a moratorium,” she said.

Davis also said during her opening statement that a moratorium on discharges would be an appropriate measure for the Pentagon as it conducts it study.

“I believe there is a way to stem the tide of these painful and unnecessary discharges, especially those instigated by third parties, and avoid subjecting the force to confusion about the direction of the policy,” she said. “A moratorium on discharges would be an appropriate action to take while the department decides how to implement repeal.”

Davis later told DC Agenda that she wasn’t necessarily referring to a legislative moratorium as Levin has suggested, but an administrative moratorium instituted by the Defense Department.

“We might want to do something in the authorization bill; I’m not sure,” she said. “But they can do that on their own.”

Following the hearing, Murphy reiterated to reporters his belief that Congress would fully repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” this year.

“We could pass that in the national defense authorization act, or any other piece of legislation, or other vehicle,” he said. “This will be changed this year.”

Lawmakers are expecting to hear more the Pentagon working group before its study is complete. Davis told DC Agenda she’d like to hear from officials “at least once or twice before the reports are done.”

Asked whether he would like to hear any more information from the working group, Murphy replied, “No, I think other countries, like Canada, they did this and they had absolutely no problems.”

“The implementation of this will go much [more] smoothly than anything that some questions from the other side were [suggesting] today,” Murphy said.

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National

Rachel Levine on becoming four-star admiral: ‘It comes from my desire to serve’

Trans official sworn-in to U.S. Public Health Service

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For Rachel Levine, the appointment to her new role as a four-star admiral complementing her existing duties as assistant secretary for health is another way for the first openly transgender Senate-confirmed presidential appointee to serve.

“I think that this just really comes from my desire to serve in all capacities,” Levine said in an interview Tuesday with the Washington Blade. “To serve the first day in my field of academic medicine and pediatrics, but then in Pennsylvania and now in the federal government, and it furthers my ability to do that.”

Levine, 63, also recognized the importance of the appointment as a transgender person within the U.S. Public Health Service, for which she was ceremonially sworn in on Tuesday

“I think for the LGBTQ+ community, it is a further sign of progress and our president’s commitment to equity, to inclusion and diversity,” Levine said. “So I think that it is a very important milestone, and I’m pleased to serve.”

As part of her duties, Levine will lead an estimated 6,000 public health service officers serving vulnerable populations, including deployments inside and outside the country for communities beleaguered with the coronavirus, according to the Department of Health & Human Services. The role involves working closely with U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murphy, whom Levine called her “friend and colleague.”

The U.S. Public Health Service, Levine said, has deployed “many, many times,” including its greatest number ever of deployments to vulnerable populations during the coronavirus pandemic. Among the places the service has deployed, Levine said, was in her home state of Pennsylvania, where she recently served as secretary of health.

Not only is Levine the first openly transgender person to serve in the uniformed health service as a four-star general, but she’s also the first woman to serve in that capacity.

“We have 6,000 dedicated committed public servants really all focused on our nation’s health, and they serve in details to the CDC and the FDA and the NIH, but also clinically with the Indian Health Service, and the federal prison system,” Levine said. “They’re also detailed and deployed throughout the country, and they deployed like never before for COVID-19 as well as the border, as well as dealing with floods and hurricanes and tornadoes.”

Although the Public Health Service is primarily focused on addressing public health disasters within the United States, Levine said it has a record of deployments overseas, including years ago when it was deployed to Africa under the threat of Ebola.

Secretary of Health & Human Services Xavier Becerra had high praise for Levine in a statement upon news of taking on a leadership position in the service.

“This is a proud moment for us at HHS,” Becerra said. “Adm. Levine — a highly accomplished pediatrician who helps drive our agency’s agenda to boost health access and equity and to strengthen behavioral health — is a cherished and critical partner in our work to build a healthier America.”

Levine, however, was careful to draw a distinction between her appointment within the Public Health Service and being a service member within the U.S. armed forces.

“It is not a military branch, it’s not the armed forces: It’s a uniformed force, so it’s different,” Levine said. “For example, the Army, the Navy, our military, there are two other uniformed branches, and that is ours, the United States Public Health Service Commissioned Corps and NOAA.”

The new role, Levine said, would complement her duties as assistant secretary for health. Although not only secretaries of health have been commissioned to take the uniform, Levine said she wanted to undertake that as part of her role in the Biden administration.

The two appointments were not simultaneous, Levine said, because of a general process she undertook, which was completed just this week.

It hasn’t been an easy road for Levine. During her Senate confirmation process, when she was hounded by anti-transgender attacks in conservative media and rude, invasive questioning by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) on her gender identity.

Levine, however, said she hasn’t encountered any hostility regarding her new role (as of now) and shrugged off any potential attacks in the future and said the move is about her career “to serve and to help people.”

“I’ve continued that for our nation as the assistant secretary for health and this is just a further demonstration of my commitment to service,” Levine said. “I don’t know what others will say, but that’s the genesis of my wanting to serve in the United States Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, and to place on the uniform.”

Levine’s new appointment comes shortly after a group of Democratic senators led by Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) sent her a letter dated Sept. 30 calling on her and Miriam Delphin-Rittmon, assistant secretary for mental health and substance use, to issue new guidance for hospital or residential care on mental health needs of transgender people.

Asked about the letter, Levine said mental health issues are under the authority of Delphin-Rittmon and the two “will work together and we will respond.”

Specifically, the senators in the letter call on the Behavioral Health Coordinating Council, or BHCC, and experts in the field of adolescent trans care to offer guidance on best practices for inpatient mental health care among these youth.

Asked what the response will look like, Levine said, “We’re going to work on that.”

“We will be looking at what they’re asking for and the requirements, and we’ll talk with them and the stakeholders and we’ll look to issue appropriate guidance,” Levine said.

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Colin Powell, leaving mixed legacy on ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ dies at 84

Key figure once opposed gays in military, then backed review

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gay news, Washington Blade, Colin Powell, gay marriage
Colin Powell leaves behind a mixed legacy on 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell."

Colin Powell, the first ever Black secretary of state who served in top diplomatic and military roles in U.S. administrations, died Monday of coronavirus at age 84, leaving behind a mixed record on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

The world continues to grapple with the pandemic and the public grows increasingly frustrated with its persistence as many remain unvaccinated despite the wide availability of vaccines. Powell was fully vaccinated, according to a statement released upon his death. Powell reportedly suffered from multiple myeloma, a condition that hampers an individual’s ability to combat blood infections.

Rising to the top of the military as chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Powell supported in 1993 Congress moving forward with “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” a law that barred openly gay people from serving in the U.S. military.

During a key moment congressional testimony, Powell and other top military officials were asked whether or not allowing gay people in the military would be compatible with military readiness. Each official, including Powell,” responded “incompatible.” Congress would enact “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” that year.

Things changed when President Obama took office 15 years later and advocates for repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” were eager to claim Powell’s voice among their ranks. After all, Powell was highly respected as a bipartisan voice after having served as secretary of state in the administration of George W. Bush and endorsing Obama in the 2008 election.

After the Obama administration in 2010 announced it would conduct a review of the idea of allowing gay people to serve openly in the military, Powell came out in support of that process. Advocates of repeal called that a declaration of reversal, although the statement fell short of a full support for gay people serving openly in the military.

“In the almost 17 years since the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ legislation was passed, attitudes and circumstances have changed,” General Powell said in a statement issued by his office, adding, “I fully support the new approach presented to the Senate Armed Services Committee this week by Secretary of Defense Gates and Admiral Mullen.”

Congress acted to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the policy was lifted in 2011. At the time, Powell was widely considered a supporter of ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and publicly counted among supporters of repeal, although the Blade couldn’t immediately find any statements from him to that effect.

In 2012, Powell had similar vaguely supportive words on same-sex marriage, saying he had “no problem with it” when asked about the issue.

“As I’ve thought about gay marriage, I know a lot of friends who are individually gay but are in partnerships with loved ones, and they are as stable a family as my family is, and they raise children,” Powell said. “And so I don’t see any reason not to say that they should be able to get married.”

The Blade also couldn’t immediately find any statement from Powell on transgender people serving in the military. After the Obama administration in 2016 lifted decades-old regulations against transgender service, former President Trump issued a ban by tweet the following year. President Biden reversed that ban and allowed transgender people to serve and enlist in the military in his first year in office.

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Texas

Texas House approves anti-trans youth sports bill

HB 25 now heads to state Senate

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GenderCool Project leader and Trans activist Landon Richie (Photo courtesy of Landon Richie)

Texas House Republicans were able to push through the anti-trans youth sports measure Thursday evening after hours of emotional and at times rancorous debate, passing the bill in a 76-54 vote along party lines.

Under the provisions of Texas House Bill 25, all trans student athletes in grades K-12 will be prohibited from competing on sports teams aligned with their gender identity. The bill will now head to the Senate, where it is expected to pass.

The Texas Tribune reported that the University Interscholastic League, which governs school sports in Texas, already requires that an athlete’s gender be determined by the sex listed on their birth certificate. Republican Rep. Valoree Swanson, R-Spring, the author of HB 25 has said the bill would simply “codify” existing UIL rules.

However, UIL recognizes any legally modified birth certificates. That policy could accommodate someone who may have had their birth certificate changed to match their gender identity, which can sometimes be an arduous process.

HB 25 would not allow recognition of these legally modified birth certificates unless changes were made because of a clerical error. It’s not clear though how it will be determined if a birth certificate has been legally modified or not. According to the UIL, the process for checking student birth certificates is left up to schools and districts, not the UIL the Tribune reported.

“To say that tonight’s passage of HB 25 is devastating is an understatement. For the past 10 grueling, exhausting, and deeply traumatic months, trans youth have been forced to debate their very existence—only to be met by the deaf ears and averted eyes of our state’s leaders,” Landon Richie, a GenderCool Project leader, University of Houston student and Transactivist told the Washington Blade after the vote.

“Make no mistake: This bill will not only have detrimental impacts on trans youth, who already suffer immense levels of harassment and bullying in schools, but also on cisgender youth who don’t conform to Texas’s idea of ‘male’ or ‘female.’ To trans kids everywhere: you belong, you are loved, you are valued, you are deserving of dignity, respect, care and the ability to live freely as your true and authentic selves, no matter where you are. We will never stop fighting for trans lives and a future where trans kids are unequivocally and unwaveringly celebrated for who they are,” Richie said.

“The cruelty of this bill is breathtaking, and the legislators who are pushing it forward are doing irreparable harm to our state. Texas is a place where people value freedom and respect for diversity. This bill is a betrayal of those cherished values, and future generations will look back on this moment in disbelief that elected officials supported such an absurd and hateful measure,” Shannon Minter, legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights told the Blade. “The families of these kids deserve better, and the burden is now on the rest of us to do everything in our power to stop this dangerous bill now,” he added.

During the debate on the measure, state Rep. James Talarico, (D-Round Rock), a former middle school teacher, began his remarks by apologizing to the trans kids and families who have gone to the Capitol time and time again this year. He tells the chamber he speaks now as a legislator, and educator, and a Christian.

He quoted Republican Rep. Valoree Swanson, R-Spring, the author of HB 25 who said “if one girl wins a game, it’s worth it.” He says he has a different moral yardstick. “If one trans kid dies for a trophy, this bill is grotesque.”

He ended speaking to his “fellow believers” in the chamber. “The worst part in these hearings have been in hearing the Bible used against trans kids to support these bills. Even tonight, ‘God’s law’ was used to present an amendment.” He then quoted the first two lines of the Bible, where God is referred to with two different Hebrew words, one masculine/one feminine. “God is non-binary.” He then prevented an interruption in the chamber and continued telling trans kids that he loves them.

Fellow Democratic state Rep. Jessica González, (D-Dallas County), vice-chair of the Texas House LGBTQ Caucus asked the chamber how many trans Texas kids they are willing to hurt. She reminded her fellow representatives that cisgender women and girls will also be hurt by the bill. She shared a personal story about being outed in high school by a friend, having her locker, home, and car vandalized and losing all of her friends. “Kids are cruel.”

González told lawmakers that her brother encouraged her to try out for soccer, and she was bullied with comments like “shouldn’t she be trying out for the boys’ team.” She went from feeling a bit accepted to being an outsider again. She then reflected on carrying those feelings into adulthood and said that this bill will have long-term affects on trans kids. She asked legislators to listen to the stories of the trans kids who have bravely testified, saying kids will contemplate suicide or complete suicide.

Representative Diego Bernal, (D-San Antonio), told the chamber that some representatives can’t wrap their heads around knowing that there is no problem but there is *real* harm to trans kids, and for whatever reason, that’s not enough it seems to stop moving these bills.

He said that he has heard “if they already have mental health issues and suicide ideation, this can’t make it worse” and “if the debate is harming them, let’s just vote.” The he breaks down the Texas statute’s definition of bullying, telling lawmakers, “The bullying statute doesn’t have an intent requirement. It doesn’t matter if you don’t mean to cause them harm. We are bullying these students. Know that by law … our own definitions and our own words, we are. And we don’t have to.”

“Texas lawmakers voted today to deliberately discriminate against transgender children. Excluding transgender students from participating in sports with their peers violates the Constitution and puts already vulnerable youth at serious risk of mental and emotional harm,” Adri Perez, policy and advocacy strategist at the ACLU of Texas said in a statement to the Blade.

“There is no evidence that transgender kids pose any threat. It is indefensible that legislators would force transgender youth and their families to travel to Austin to defend their own humanity, then blatantly ignore hours of testimony about the real damage this bill causes. Trans kids and their families deserve our love and support—they’ve been fighting this legislation for months. Texans will hold lawmakers accountable for their cruelty,” she added.

The statewide LGBTQ+ advocacy group Equality Texas in a tweet after the vote said; ” We will not stop fighting to protect transgender children.” Then added “We’ll continue to educate lawmakers—replacing misinformation with real stories—and demand the statewide and federal nondiscrimination protections we need to prevent further harms.”

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