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

Ben Nelson wants to wait, follow guidance from Gates



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.


The White House

White House hosts roundtable with transgender youth

Friday was International Transgender Day of Visibility



Upwards of 1,000 people took part in the March for Queer and Trans Youth Autonomy in D.C. on March 31, 2023. The White House on the same day held a roundtable with young trans and nonbinary people. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The White House said in a statement released Saturday said Presidential Domestic Policy Advisor Susan Rice and U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy “hosted a roundtable at the White House Friday about the joys, hopes and challenges that transgender children are experiencing.”

The roundtable took place on International Transgender Day of Visibility, an annual event occurring on March 31 dedicated to celebrating trans people and raising awareness of discrimination faced by trans people worldwide, as well as a celebration of their contributions to society.

This year’s Transgender Day of Visibility was one of the largest in years.

Huge crowds gathered in cities across the U.S. in celebrations of visibility and protest as over 450 bills that target queer and trans youth are under consideration or have been passed by state legislatures.

“Transgender kids and their parents traveled to the White House from states that have attacked the rights of transgender kids, including Arizona, Texas and Virginia, and shared the devastating effects these political attacks are having on their mental health and wellbeing,” reads a White House readout of the roundtable. 

“As one round table participant shared, it feels scary when the politicians elected to represent you don’t care about your wellbeing. Families participating in today’s roundtable also highlighted that transgender kids can thrive when parents love and affirm their transgender children, and when transgender kids have access to the support they need at school and in their communities,” it notes. “Ambassador Rice and Dr. Murthy reiterated the Biden-Harris administration’s commitment to standing up for the rights of transgender kids and their parents, and to challenging state laws that harm transgender kids. They also thanked the families for their unwavering advocacy and bravery in challenging these discriminatory laws.”

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Fla. lawmakers pass bill to expand ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law

Hundreds of students protested in Tallahassee



More than 150 students protest Florida's "Don't Say Gay" expansion bill in Tallahassee, Fla., on March 31, 2023. (Photo courtesy of Equality Florida)

On International Transgender Day of Visibility, hundreds of students from across Florida descended on the Capitol to protest the legislature’s fast-tracking of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ agenda of book banning and classroom censorship and assaults on academic and medical freedom.

Buses arrived from Central and South Florida in a collaboration between high school, college and university students called the Student Unity Coalition.

Organizers marched the coalition from Florida State University campus into the halls of the Capitol building just as the House of Representatives voted 77-35 in favor of House Bill 1069, which would expand the “Don’t Say Gay” law’s censorship provisions through 8th grade, ban parents from requiring the school system use their child’s correct pronouns, and escalating book bans, allowing one person from anywhere in the nation to challenge a book in a Florida school, prompting its immediate removal pending a lengthy review.

“The students who mobilized in the hundreds today sent a clear message about the Florida they want to grow up in,” said Equality Florida Senior Political Director Joe Saunders. “They want a Florida that values freedom — real freedom. Free states don’t ban books. Free states don’t censor LGBTQ people from society or strip parents of their right to ensure their child is respected in school. Students and families across Florida are fed up with this governor’s agenda that has put a target on the backs of LGBTQ people. Shame on DeSantis’ legislative cronies for peddling more anti-LGBTQ lies on the House floor today and ramming through an expansion of the censorship policies that have emptied bookshelves across the state and wreaked havoc on our schools. Shame on them for ignoring the voices outside demanding a state that respects all families and protects all students.”

House passage of HB 1069 comes as last year’s “Don’t Say Gay” law wreaks havoc on Florida’s schools and drives educators and families from the state. DeSantis’ Florida has become synonymous with the sweeping book bans that are targeting books with LBGTQ characters or Black history themes, including “The Life of Rosa Parks” and “And Tango Makes Three.” Students’ graduation speeches have been censored.

Rainbow Safe Space stickers have been peeled from classroom windows. Districts have canceled long standing after school events and refused to recognize LGBTQ History Month.

The rampant right wing censorship has exacerbated Florida’s exodus of educators, with vacant teacher positions ballooning to more than 8,000, and, according to a recent survey from the Williams Institute, has led a majority of LGBTQ parents in the state to consider leaving Florida altogether.

On Thursday, parents and educators held a joint press conference outside the House chamber to decry this legislation and other proposals that would strip them, their students, and their families of the rights to academic and medical freedom.

That same day, Republicans lawmakers rejected numerous reasonable amendments to House Bill 1069, including a Parental Rights amendment by state Rep. Rita Harris that would have allowed parents to write a letter instructing schools on what pronouns their child should be addressed with, a clarifying amendment from state Rep. Ashley Gantt that would have finally defined the term “classroom instruction,” which bill sponsor state Rep. Stan McClain acknowledged has been left undefined and vague, and a marriage equality amendment by state Rep. Michele Rayner-Goolsby that would have struck outdated and bigoted sex education language that mandates instruction on the benefits of “monogamous, heterosexual marriage.”

The more than 150 high school and college students who rallied in Tallahassee filled the Capitol rotunda just before 1 p.m. ET, with their chants of “this is what democracy looks like” temporarily interrupting a disinformation-filled rant by GOP Representative, and sponsor of the bill to criminalize medical care for transgender youth, Ralph Massullo.

The “Don’t Say Gay” expansion bill’s Senate version, Senate Bill 1320, will move next to its final committee, Fiscal Policy.

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U.S. Federal Courts

Justice Department appeals federal judge’s ACA ruling

Decision impacts PrEP, other preventative health services



The Pride flag over the Justice Department's D.C. headquarters (Photo courtesy of the Justice Department)

Justice Department attorneys filed a notice of appeal Friday with the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on behalf of the Department of Health and Human Services after U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor ruled that employers cannot be forced to cover specified preventive health care services under the Affordable Care Act.

Thursday’s ruling means that more than 150 million Americans on employer-sponsored health plans will lose some cost-free coverage for immunizations, contraception, cancer screenings and PrEP.

O’Connor’s ruling struck down the recommendations that have been issued by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force regarding the preventive care treatments provisions required by the ACA directing insurers provide at no cost to the patient.

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre released a statement on the Justice Department decision to appeal:

“The president is glad to see the Department of Justice is appealing the judge’s decision, which blocks a key provision of the Affordable Care Act that has ensured free access to preventive health care for 150 million Americans. This case is yet another attack on the Affordable Care Act, which has been the law of the land for 13 years and survived three challenges before the Supreme Court.
Preventive care saves lives, saves families money, and protects and improves our health. Because of the ACA, millions of Americans have access to free cancer and heart disease screenings. This decision threatens to jeopardize critical care.
The administration will continue to fight to improve health care and make it more affordable for hard-working families, even in the face of attacks from special interests.”

AIDS Healthcare Foundation President Michael Weinstein decried O’Connor’s ruling saying:

“Stripping away access to preventive care will hurt tens of millions of Americans. These services are essential, and eliminating them will have dangerous consequences. While we expect this unconstitutional ruling ultimately will fail, the decision creates uncertainty and is a threat to public health.

“With this devastating ruling, a Trump-appointed judge placed the health of millions of Americans in extreme danger, based on an extremist political agenda. Undermining screenings and treatment for cancer, blood pressure, pregnancy, and mental health doesn’t just hurt individuals — it damages the health of the entire country,” California state Sen. Scott Wiener said.

“The effect of this decision on HIV prevention will be disastrous. In recent years, we’ve made incredible progress reducing the number of new HIV infections, largely because hundreds of thousands of people are now taking PrEP, an HIV prevention drug proven to be essentially 100 percent effective. This decision reverses that progress by allowing health plans to charge patients through the nose for this life-saving medication, raising barriers to access for the communities of LGBTQ people and people of color most at risk. Judge O’Connor will soon have thousands of new HIV cases on his conscience,” Wiener added.

Equality California, the nation’s largest statewide LGBTQ civil rights organization, released the following statement from Executive Director Tony Hoang in response to a ruling from O’Connor:

“Judge Reed O’Connor, already having attempted to invalidate the Affordable Care Act as a whole in 2018, has once again issued a ruling that puts the lives of Americans in danger. Preventive care is essential in helping to screen for potential severe health conditions and attempt to mitigate them — this ruling affects screenings for cancer, diabetes, STDs, cardiovascular disease, and so much more.

More than 150 million Americans currently have private insurance with coverage for preventive care under the ACA, yet a partisan judge in Texas is attempting to single handedly rollback access to these basic health care services. Equality California is committed to ensuring that these critical preventive services remain in place for the health of all Americans. We expect an appeal of this decision immediately. 

Thankfully, most health plans in California are unaffected by today’s ruling because existing state law already requires health plans regulated in California to cover preventive services without cost sharing. Today’s ruling may affect a small subset of employer-sponsored health plans that are not regulated by the state.

Equality California is proud to be sponsoring legislation with Assemblymember Rick Chavez Zbur and Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara, AB (Assembly Bill) 1645, which will strengthen existing law and go even further to ensure that Californians have access to essential preventive services, including STD screening and PrEP for HIV prevention. While right-wing judges and politicians are attempting to roll back our rights and inflict harm on LGBTQ+ people, California will continue doubling down to protect the health and safety of our communities.”

Read the notice of appeal here:

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