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Key senator says hold off on ‘Don’t Ask’ repeal

Ben Nelson wants to wait, follow guidance from Gates

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Sen. Ben Nelson, right, talks with U.S. Army General David Petraeus. Nelson this week said he would vote against a legislative effort to overturn "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." (Photo courtesy of Nelson’s office)

Sen. Ben Nelson, right, talks with U.S. Army General David Petraeus. Nelson this week said he would vote against a legislative effort to overturn “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” (Photo courtesy of Nelson’s office)

A key U.S. senator has told the Blade that he opposes repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” at this time.

In a brief exchange on Capitol Hill, Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) said Tuesday he would vote against an effort next week to overturn the law. He said he wants to adhere to guidance from Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen on holding off on repeal.

Asked whether he would vote in favor of a repeal measure, Nelson replied, “No, I want to follow with the advice and the suggestions of Secretary of Defense Gates to have the study that is underway right now before we make that final decision — because it’s not a question of ‘whether,’ it’s a question of ‘how.’”

A vote on repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” as part of major defense budget legislation could take place next week during the Senate Armed Services Committee markup of the fiscal year 2011 defense authorization bill. Markup proceedings are scheduled to begin May 26 and are closed to the public.

It remains unclear whether there are enough votes on the committee to make repeal part of the legislation. Mustering enough votes to repeal the statute could be a challenge for opponents of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” following Nelson’s comments.

Repeal efforts were complicated last month after Gates released a letter to Congress saying he would “strongly oppose” repeal before the Pentagon completes at year’s end its study on the issue. Since then, supporters of repeal — including Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) — have advocated for a compromise in which Congress would vote now to repeal the law but delay implementation of repeal until 2011.

Asked whether he would be open to such a measure, Nelson appeared to be unaware that such an approach to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” has been under consideration, but was reluctant to support the idea.

“I don’t know,” Nelson said. “I haven’t seen that legislation. I know there’s probably some support for that, but I think it’s been made pretty clear by Secretary Gates that we shouldn’t take any action until the study is completed, and that’s my position. That’s where I’m going to stay.”

Nelson’s statements came as a disappointment to people who had identified him as an uncommitted vote on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” that could be moved in favor of repeal this year.

He was among six senators that LGBT organizations, including the Human Rights Campaign, had lobbied through a grassroots campaign to vote in favor of repeal. The other five are Sens. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), Scott Brown (R-Mass.), Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), and Jim Webb (D-Va.).

Alex Nicholson, executive director of Servicemembers United, said Ben Nelson is only one of the six key senators and estimated that only two or three votes from those six are needed to advance repeal.

“If Sen. Nelson is entrenching himself that hard on that side of the vote, then I think he risks putting himself down on the wrong side of history,” Nicholson said. “That’s something he’s going to have to live with for the rest of his career, and that’s going to be part of his legacy.”

Nicholson said Nelson’s apparent unfamiliarity with delayed implementation legislation could mean that high-level discussions with him on moving forward with that plan hadn’t yet occurred.

‘Don’t Ask’ opponents push on

Even with Nelson representing a “no” vote on repeal during the committee vote, supporters of ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” are moving forward with plans for a vote next week during the committee markup.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), the sponsor of standalone repeal legislation in the Senate, told the Blade that supporters of repeal are “working hard” to find a way forward for passage in the committee.

“Obviously, we were set back somewhat from the letter by Secretary Gates, but we’re talking to every member of the committee,” he said. “We have some, I think, creative ideas about how to deal with … concerns that Secretary Gates expressed.”

Lieberman said he’s uncertain if the votes are there for passage, but noted that “it’s important to get this done this year.”

Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), another member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a strong proponent of repeal, said he doesn’t think anyone knows whether the votes are there in the committee for repeal, but he’s “feeling guardedly optimistic” about the prospects.

“It’s crucial that we take this opportunity to lift it,” he said. “There’s different ideas about how to best work with the Pentagon on this approach, but I still think you could study and repeal.”

Nicholson said he thinks supporters “have a really good shot” at getting the two or three votes necessary to win repeal during Senate markup next week.

“It’s really going to come down to some of the one-on-one conversations that Levin and Lieberman are having this week with their colleagues on the committee,” he said.

In the wake of the Gates letter, many repeal supporters see pushing forward with delayed implementation legislation as the optimal path for a successful vote on ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” this year.

Lieberman said supporters are looking at alternatives, including a bill “to enact repeal, but have it not be this year, to have it not be effective until either sometime next year” or until the Pentagon working group issues a certification of its study.

“I think Secretary Gates was really talking about he doesn’t want us to do this until the rank-and-file military has had a chance to be heard,” Lieberman said. “So we’re trying to find a way to take legislative action this year, but still respect the opinions of the military and maybe delay the implementation until sometime next year.”

Lieberman said a number of different ideas are being discussed among committee members, but delayed implementation legislation “seems to be the one that commands the most support.”

Also noting that delayed implementation could have traction is Udall, who said such a bill is “one of the ideas” being discussed.

“That still remains my preferred course,” he said. “In other words, you would make it very clear the law is repealed, and then you put in place the timeframe by which you implement the changes that are necessary.”

Despite this push and work toward a compromise, the six targeted members of the Senate Armed Services Committee have been reluctant to endorse repeal publicly, although none of these six have been as explicit as Ben Nelson in their opposition.

Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) has maintained on several occasions the importance of the Pentagon study as a means to inform Congress on how to approach repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

Asked this week whether he’s made a decision on how he’ll vote should an amendment come before him, Webb replied, “I think we need to respect the process that Secretary Gates and Adm. Mullen put in place.”

Webb had a similar response when asked whether his position would be any different for delayed implementation legislation.

“I think we should honor the process that they’ve put in place,” Webb said. “I think people should understand that it’s a pretty significant historical event in terms of what Adm. Mullen said during that hearing in February.”

The offices of Bill Nelson and Bayh sent statements to the Blade that were similarly non-committal in how the senators would vote. The statements were virtually identical to those the offices sent to the Blade last month.

Dan McLaughlin, spokesperson for Bill Nelson, said the senator is “inclined” to support repeal, but “wants to see Secretary Gates’ study on how it would impact the military.”

In a statement, Bayh said his “personal belief” is that people serving their country in the armed forces “ought to be able to serve it openly,” but noted that he wants military leaders to be able to speak up on this issue.

“President Obama is absolutely right to solicit the input and support of his top military commanders about the effects of repealing the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy,” he said. “I will make a final decision after receiving the input of our top commanders.”

Some of the targeted senators were staying mum this week on how they’d vote should an amendment come before them. Byrd’s office declined to comment in response to a Blade inquiry on the issue. Brown’s office didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.

Obama MIA in repeal effort?

As supporters of repeal work to gather support, one notable absence among those lending a hand is President Barack Obama.

Repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was one of Obama’s campaign promises, but a number of senators say the White House hasn’t contacted them to move them one way or the other on the issue.

In public statements on the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” issue, the White House has consistently refrained from saying Obama supports attaching repeal as part of the defense authorization bill.

Asked whether the White House is being helpful in building support, Lieberman suggested the president could be playing a greater role.

“I mean, they’re obviously for this, so we need their help,” he said.

Nicholson said he didn’t know if the White House had been helpful in moving senators in favor of repeal, but noted that he hasn’t “seen any evidence of that, certainly.”

Each of the targeted senators to whom the Blade spoke said they had not heard from the White House or the Pentagon on the issue.

Asked whether the White House or the Pentagon had contacted him to influence his vote on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Ben Nelson replied, “No, no.”

Jessica Smith, a Webb spokesperson, echoed those remarks in response to a Blade inquiry.

“As for the White House or the Pentagon contacting our office?” she said. “I don’t believe so.”

Similarly, McLaughlin said he doesn’t believe the White House or the Pentagon has contacted Bill Nelson to inform his vote on the issue.

“To my knowledge, neither the White House nor the Pentagon has recently contacted Bill about this issue,” McLaughlin said.

A White House spokesperson didn’t immediately respond to the Blade’s request for comment on why Obama hasn’t reached out to the senators.

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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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National

GLAAD: Social media platforms continue to fail to protect LGBTQ users

Only TikTok received a passing grade

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(Public domain photo)

GLAAD released its fourth annual Social Media Safety Index on Tuesday, giving virtually every major social media company a failing grade as it surveyed LGBTQ safety, privacy, and expression online.

According to GLAAD, the world’s largest LGBTQ media advocacy organization, YouTube, X, and Meta’s Facebook, Instagram, and Threads received failing F grades on the SMSI Platform Scorecard for the third consecutive year.

The only exception was Chinese company ByteDance, owned TikTok, which earned a D+.

Some platforms have shown improvements in their scores since last year. Others have fallen, and overall, the scores remain abysmal, with all platforms other than TikTok receiving F grades.

●     TikTok: D+ — 67 percent (+10 points from 2023)

●     Facebook: F — 58 percent (-3 points from 2023)

●     Instagram: F — 58 percent (-5 points from 2023)

●     YouTube: F — 58 percent (+4 points from 2023)

●     Threads: F — 51 percent (new 2024 rating)

●     X: F — 41 percent (+8 points from 2023)

This year’s report also illuminates the epidemic of anti-LGBTQ hate, harassment, and disinformation across major social media platforms, and especially makes note of high-follower hate accounts and right-wing figures who continue to manufacture and circulate most of this activity.

“In addition to these egregious levels of inadequately moderated anti-LGBTQ hate and disinformation, we also see a corollary problem of over-moderation of legitimate LGBTQ expression — including wrongful takedowns of LGBTQ accounts and creators, shadowbanning, and similar suppression of LGBTQ content. Meta’s recent policy change limiting algorithmic eligibility of so-called ‘political content,’ which the company partly defines as: ‘social topics that affect a group of people and/or society large’ is especially concerning,” GLAAD Senior Director of Social Media Safety Jenni Olson said in the press release annoucing the report’s findings.

Specific LGBTQ safety, privacy, and expression issues identified include:

●      Inadequate content moderation and problems with policy development and enforcement (including issues with both failure to mitigate anti-LGBTQ content and over-moderation/suppression of LGBTQ users);

●      Harmful algorithms and lack of algorithmic transparency; inadequate transparency and user controls around data privacy;

●      An overall lack of transparency and accountability across the industry, among many other issues — all of which disproportionately impact LGBTQ users and other marginalized communities who are uniquely vulnerable to hate, harassment, and discrimination.

Key conclusions:

●      Anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and disinformation on social media translates to real-world offline harms.

●      Platforms are largely failing to successfully mitigate dangerous anti-LGBTQ hate and disinformation and frequently do not adequately enforce their own policies regarding such content.

●      Platforms also disproportionately suppress LGBTQ content, including via removal, demonetization, and forms of shadowbanning.

●      There is a lack of effective, meaningful transparency reporting from social media companies with regard to content moderation, algorithms, data protection, and data privacy practices.

Core recommendations:

●      Strengthen and enforce existing policies that protect LGBTQ people and others from hate, harassment, and misinformation/disinformation, and also from suppression of legitimate LGBTQ expression.

●      Improve moderation including training moderators on the needs of LGBTQ users, and moderate across all languages, cultural contexts, and regions. This also means not being overly reliant on AI.

●      Be transparent with regard to content moderation, community guidelines, terms of service policy implementation, algorithm designs, and enforcement reports. Such transparency should be facilitated via working with independent researchers.

●      Stop violating privacy/respect data privacy. To protect LGBTQ users from surveillance and discrimination, platforms should reduce the amount of data they collect, infer, and retain. They should cease the practice of targeted surveillance advertising, including the use of algorithmic content recommendation. In addition, they should implement end-to-end encryption by default on all private messaging to protect LGBTQ people from persecution, stalking, and violence.

●      Promote civil discourse and proactively message expectations for user behavior, including respecting platform hate and harassment policies.

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