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Mission accomplished or another setback?

‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ compromise draws mixed reactions

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President Barack Obama's administration endorsed Monday a path to repeal the law that prohibits gays, lesbians and bisexuals from serving openly in the U.S. armed forces. (Photo by Pete Souza, courtesy of White House))

The legislative compromise that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal supporters in Congress unveiled this week has inspired mixed reactions and led LGBT leaders to advocate for its passage even as some expressed disappointment over its shortcomings.

Among those expressing displeasure was Lt. Dan Choi, a gay U.S. Army infantry soldier who was arrested twice for chaining himself to the White House fence in protest of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

In an interview with the Blade on Monday, Choi said the proposal requires LGBT people to compromise themselves without getting much in return.

“In a compromise, it’s insinuated that both sides have given something, and I don’t see that,” he said. “So it’s too generous to call it that. It’s a delay and it’s asking us to further put our political agenda before the needs of the soldiers, and that’s who’s getting compromised.”

Despite his disappointment in the compromise language, Choi said he didn’t want the measure to fail this week when it came before Congress. He noted that “it’s only one step” in the path for non-discrimination in the U.S. military and people should keep fighting.

The measure in the Senate was made public Monday by Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), the sponsor of standalone legislation for repeal in the Senate. On Tuesday, Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.), champion of standalone repeal legislation in the House, unveiled an identically worded companion bill.

The Senate Armed Services Committee and the full House were expected to vote on the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” measures this week during consideration of Pentagon budget legislation known as the fiscal year 2011 defense authorization bill. Neither vote occurred before Blade deadline.

The measures presented by Lieberman and Murphy would repeal the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” statute mandating that openly gay, lesbian and bisexual people be discharged from the U.S. armed forces.

However, the law would only be repealed after the Pentagon completes its study — due Dec. 1 — on how to implement repeal in the U.S. military.

Further, President Barack Obama, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen would have to certify that the U.S. military is ready for the transition and that the change “is consistent with the standards of military readiness, military effectiveness, unit cohesion and recruiting and retention.”

The legislation doesn’t give a timeline when the president, the defense secretary and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff would have to issue the certification. On Monday, the Associated Press reported that meeting those conditions for repeal would allow the Pentagon “perhaps even years” to prepare for repeal.

Notably, the legislation also lacks non-discrimination language and would return authority on discharging LGBT service members to the Pentagon.

Choi said the provisions in the legislation are “essentially compromising the integrity of the soldiers until a time to be determined” and compared the lack of a deadline for certification to a military commander issuing an order without a timeline.

“It’s devastating to the soldiers who don’t know and it leaves a lot of questions out there,” Choi said. “My question back to the president is how long are we going to force our soldiers to lie? Nobody can answer the question when.”

But Choi said “what bothers” him the most is the absence of the non-discrimination language that was contained in the standalone version of the bill.

“I thought the most heinous part of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ was that it enforced discrimination, and now it just says that’s altogether not as important,” Choi said. “I think it’s within everybody’s mandate to get rid of discrimination where it exists.”

Choi said as a result of the compromise, LGBT soldiers could be subject to a policy that’s “turbulent and precarious.”

Also expressing disappointment about the lack of non-discrimination language was Alex Nicholson, executive director of Servicemembers United, who said removal of the non-discrimination language was “unnecessary” to get more support for repeal.

“I think we would have been in the same position had we not made three concessions and only made two,” he said. “Other minority groups have not received statutory non-discrimination protection in the military — this would have been something extra — but it was something we were on track to secure.”

Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, said he’s not sure who initiated the idea of omitting non-discrimination language, but said those supporting repeal thought such a move would improve its chances of passage.

“It’s not anything that SLDN volunteered to give up,” Sarvis said. “I think at the end of the day, we all realized that we would have to live with this new compromise.”

The idea of removing non-discrimination language and returning authority on discharges to the Pentagon was advanced previously by the Palm Center, a think tank on gays in the military. Earlier this month, the Blade reported that the Palm Center had been asking other LGBT groups to support such a move.

But Aaron Belkin, director of the Palm Center, said he didn’t know why the non-discrimination language was removed and noted that Palm wasn’t active in pushing for such a move as part of the compromise measure.

“This was news to me when I was told,” he said. “I was actually in bed when I was told and I promise you we had nothing to do with it.”

Still, Belkin said passing legislation with non-discrimination language is “not politically realistic” and the compromise measure advanced earlier this week is “what we can get.”

But Nicholson said the Palm Center pushed hard to have the non-discrimination language removed from the legislation, noting recent reports in which Belkin advocated the proposal.

Nicholson said Belkin was responsible for Saturday’s opinion piece in the Washington Post in which former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. John Shalikashvili advocated for a return of authority to the Pentagon.

“There’s been no secret about that fact that the Palm Center has lobbied hard to take out the non-discrimination language, including the [Shalikashvili] op-ed and several other pieces of media that the Palm Center has done,” Nicholson said.

Compromise brought White House support

While the compromise fell short of what repeal supporters initially sought, the conditions set forth in the proposal brought support from the White House, which opponents of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” had long sought.

In a letter published Monday, Peter Orzag, director of the Office of Management & Budget, writes the repeal measure adheres to the Pentagon’s request to finish its study on the issue at the end of the year and therefore is supported by the Obama administration.

Orzag says that the Pentagon review would be “ideally” completed before Congress takes action on the issue, but notes the administration “understands that Congress has chosen to move forward with the legislation now and seeks the administration’s views on the proposed amendment.”

In the letter, Orzag says he understands the amendment would ensure implementation of repeal is consistent with “standards of military readiness, effectiveness, unit cohesion, recruiting and retention.”

“The administration therefore supports the proposed amendment,” Orzag writes.

Geoff Morrell, a Pentagon spokesperson, issued a statement Tuesday saying Gates supports the measure, although he still believes Congress should hold off on tackling the issue until after the Pentagon completes its study.

“Secretary Gates continues to believe that ideally the [Defense Department] review should be completed before there is any legislation to repeal the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ law,” he said. “With Congress having indicated that is not possible, the secretary can accept the language in the proposed amendment.”

Having earned support from the administration, Sarvis said the amendment is “a path to repeal” and predicted that its passage could lead to open service “by the end of the first quarter of next year.”

After the review is complete and certification happens, Sarvis said the Pentagon “would then be free” to implement regulations for open service and Obama could issue an executive order for non-discrimination in the U.S. military.

“In fact, all of the federal policies of non-discrimination have been issued by executive order since 1948,” Sarvis said, referring to the order that President Truman issued to end racial segregation in the armed forces.

Sarvis said he didn’t think a future administration would tamper with such an executive order or “try to tinker with this and make it a political football.”

“For instance, the four executive orders that I’ve referred to since 1948 have not been undone by new administrations,” Sarvis said. “I think that if the president issues an executive order after ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ is eliminated — I don’t see a new Congress or a new administration trying to undo an executive order.”

But Choi said he doesn’t want supporters of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal mistaking the Orzag letter in support of the proposal as Obama taking action on the issue. He noted the president could have transmitted repeal language to Congress for the defense budget legislation.

“Obviously, if he would have put the defense authorization bill language through to include the repeal legislation, then we wouldn’t be in this situation where he’s trying to get us to celebrate a win,” Choi said.

To follow-up on his earlier arrests at the White House and put more pressure on the president, Choi said he plans to take part in new acts of civil disobedience to draw attention to the issue of LGBT service members serving openly in the U.S. military.

“I not only plan to, but I encourage everybody else to,” Choi said. “The fact of the matter is so long as telling the truth is considered civil disobedience, we need to be committing civil disobedience every single day.”

Mission accomplished?

Several major LGBT organizations issued statements this week praising the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” compromise shortly after it was announced.

In a statement, Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese said Monday the new support from the administration means people rallying against “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” are “on the brink of historic action to both strengthen our military and respect the service of lesbian and gay troops.”

“Today’s announcement paves the path to fulfill the president’s call to end ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ this year and puts us one step closer to removing this stain from the laws of our nation,” Solmonese said.

Nicholson of Servicemembers United said in a statement that Monday’s letter was “long awaited, much needed, and immensely helpful.”

Choi said the organizations apparently had their statements “all set up” to celebrate the compromise regardless of the deal’s content.

“Just from my military perspective, it seems very much like they’re putting a ‘mission accomplished’ banner on top of a carrier, and saying our part is done and we have fulfilled our mission,” Choi said. “For people to revel in this kind of celebration instead of encouraging people to demand the fullness of repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ is certainly a misstep.”

Other LGBT groups that advocate for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal as one issue in their portfolios indicated support for the compromise measure, although they acknowledged some shortcomings.

In a statement to the Blade, Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, said her organization was “encouraged” that Congress and the administration was “taking a step” to address the legal discrimination of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

“This presents a path that could end in men and women being able to serve openly, honestly and to great benefit of our country, but it falls short of providing clear assurances of protection and a specific timeline for implementation,” she said. “The important action this week is to ensure passage of this step toward full repeal.”

In another statement, Kate Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, offered a similarly lukewarm statement on the compromise measure.

“The amendment and compromise fall short of an outright repeal, which was what we had all been hoping for,” she said. “While we are cautiously optimistic that this agreement will lead to a full repeal, it is not yet time to celebrate the end of this appalling and shameful law.”

Among the organizations to strongly support the White House’s endorsement of the compromise was SLDN. In a statement, Sarvis called the agreement a “dramatic breakthrough.”

In response to Choi’s criticism of the statements of support for reaching an agreement with the White House, Sarvis said he respects Choi’s service and commitment to overturning “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

“His view of the legislative process and the strategy is not a view that I share,” Sarvis said. “On this one, in terms of legislative strategy and timing, I have a different view and my view is I want to get what’s realistic and I want to get something that will ensure that service members can serve openly as soon as possible.”

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Congress

House passes resolution that calls for Brittney Griner’s immediate release

Detained WNBA star’s trial to begin on July 1

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A participant in the Capital Pride parade parade in D.C. demands Brittney Griner's release. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

In a resolution passed on June 24 by the U.S. House of Representatives, lawmakers called on Russia to immediately release detained WNBA star Brittney Griner. 

Griner was first arrested in Russia in the days leading up to its invasion in Ukraine. Authorities have charged her with drug trafficking after claiming that she attempted to pass through Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport while in possession of cannabis oil. 

The House’s resolution, introduced in May by U.S. Reps. Greg Stanton (D-Ariz.), Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.) and Colin Allred (D-Texas), made multiple demands of Russia, including that the country “immediately release Brittney Griner,” provide her with consular access and humane treatment and that the U.S. “raise the case of Brittney Griner and to press for her release” in all its dealings with the Russian government.

“This legislation insists on our embassy personnel having access to Ms. Griner and restates our commitment to freeing her now,” Lee said in a statement after introducing the resolution. “We continue to pray for her family and we will continue to work together as three members of Congress, along with others, to spread the message that she is held wrongfully and must be freed now.”

The resolution also expressed support for both Griner’s family and for “all prisoners unjustly imprisoned in the Russian Federation.”

Allred, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, took to Twitter following the passage of the resolution.

“I’m proud the House has spoken in passing our resolution and calling for Brittney Griner’s swift release,” Allred wrote. “Every day an American is held abroad is a lifetime, and I will keep working with @POTUS to do all we can to bring home every American detained abroad.”

Griner’s WNBA team, the Phoenix Mercury, welcomed the House’s passage of the resolution this past weekend.

“[Rep.] Stanton and many others are continuing to work with the White House, State Department and Brittney’s family to secure her safe return home,” the team wrote on Twitter.

The resolution comes after reporting revealed missteps on the part of the U.S. government in handling communication related to Griner’s detention. 

According to past reporting, the U.S. Embassy in Moscow failed to connect Griner with outside phone calls permitted by the Russian government when Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, attempted to call her. Cherelle Griner reportedly called 11 times on June 18 on the couple’s fourth anniversary but was unable to reach her wife due to what the State Department claimed to be a “logistical error.”

While the resolution is being heralded by its supporters, it contains no provisions intended to enforce the House’s demands for the release and humane treatment of Griner and others held by Russia. With less than one percent of criminal defendants in Russia being acquitted, it is unclear whether the resolution will do anything to persuade the country’s courts to permit Griner’s release.

Griner appeared in Russian court on Monday for a preliminary hearing prior to her trial that has now been scheduled to begin on July 1. It was also confirmed by Griner’s attorney on Monday that her detention had been extended for six months pending her trial. 

If convicted, she could face up to 10 years in prison.

“We must keep Brittney’s case on the forefront and make clear to the White House that her release should be one of the highest priorities for our government,” Cherelle Griner said in May.

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New York

Protests, revelry mark NYC Pride

Tens of thousands protested Roe ruling on Friday night

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The New York City Pride parade passes down Christopher Street in Manhattan's West Village on June 26, 2022. (Photo courtesy of Sean Robinson)

New York City Pride, one of the largest Pride celebrations in the world, rang in the weekend with equal parts celebration and protest. 

Although the annual Pride march was on Sunday, the entire weekend was filled with an outpouring of public anger in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. 

Protesters took to the streets of Manhattan on Friday with an estimated 17,000 people gathering to protest the ruling, which made abortion imminently illegal in roughly half of states. At least 25 people were arrested at the Friday night protests, which spread from Washington Square Park through Midtown to Bryant Park. 

In light of the Supreme Court’s landmark decision — which advocates say will harm members of the LGBTQ community — NYC Pride announced that Planned Parenthood would kick off Sunday’s Pride march as the first group to walk. In their statement, NYC Pride said that “[The Supreme Court’s] dangerous decision puts millions in harm’s way, gives government control over our individual freedom to choose, and sets a disturbing precedent that puts many other constitutional rights and freedoms in jeopardy.” 

“As millions gather for LGBTQIA+ Pride this weekend in New York City and cities across the country, our voices will be heard — for the LGBTQ people impacted and the millions with whom we stand in solidarity,” read the statement. “Pride was born of protest and will always be a space to fight injustice and discrimination. Join us as we advocate for bodily autonomy at this year’s NYC Pride March.” 

In addition to the march; NYC Pride had a full slate of Pride programming during the week leading up to it, including Pride Island at Governor’s Island, Youth Pride and a human rights conference. Queer clubs and bars throughout the city hosted various Pride-themed events throughout the weekend.

NYC Pride was not the only organization mobilizing this weekend. 

Reclaim Pride NYC hosted a “Queer Liberation March for Trans and BIPOC Freedom, Reproductive Justice, and Bodily Autonomy,” in partnership with pro-choice groups and community organizations. 

“The [Queer Liberation March] is the annual people’s protest march without corporate funding; corporate floats; politicians’ grandstanding; or police control or involvement,” said the Reclaim Pride Coalition. 

Although Pride originated from a moment of violent tension between police and LGBTQ people at the Stonewall Inn, officers on Sunday carefully patrolled the entire NYC Pride march route. When the apparent sound of gunshots nearly sparked a stampede in Washington Square Park during the parade, the New York Police Department said there were “no shots fired,” later confirming that the sounds were due to fireworks being set off at the park. 

The Washington Post noted fears of violence against the queer community circulated at Pride celebrations across the country.

Police also responded to reports of a shooting at San Francisco Pride, although no suspects or witnesses were found. In light of the epidemic of gun violence — from last month’s elementary school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, to the massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla., in 2016 that left 49 people dead — a fear of active shooters and widespread public anger at the prospect of less rights characterized Pride’s usually jubilant atmosphere.

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National

‘Gay marriage, gay sex are going to fall like fucking dominoes’

Anger, fear as protesters decry Supreme Court ruling

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Hundreds of protesters gathered Friday after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Just moments after the U.S. Supreme Court delivered its decision on Friday overturning its landmark ruling in Roe v. Wade that had legalized abortion nationwide for 49 years, hundreds gathered outside the court to both protest and celebrate the ruling.

In a 6-3 decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the court found that access to abortion was not a right guaranteed under the language of the Constitution. The ruling effectively reversed the court’s 1973 decision that mandated states to allow the procedure in most instances throughout the first two trimesters of pregnancy.

Immediately following the decision, a group of those welcoming the decision quickly gathered in front of the court.

Anna Lulis, a member of Students for Life of America, welcomed the decision as long overdue.

“I think it is a huge victory for human rights,” Lulis said. “For far too long, since 1973, human rights have been infringed upon at an egregious level.”

Beside Lulis, Olivia Cowin, a member of Survivors LA, shared a similar reason for gathering outside the court.

“This is a celebratory day to show our support of the unborn and of women and support both simultaneously,” Cowin said.

But across the way from the court’s west side, Virginia resident Alysia Dempsey feared what the verdict in Dobbs could mean for women’s rights – including those of her four daughters.

“I believe in women’s rights, and I think that our country needs to be able to start listening to each of our stories and to have empathy for them in so many different aspects,” Dempsey said. “I feel like we’re sort of going back in time with regard to so many rights.”

Hailing from Arizona, a state under Republican legislative leadership where Planned Parenthood has already halted all abortion services pending legal clarity from the state, Hannah Waldrip cast doubt on the sincerity of anti-abortion rationale.

“For a country about personal rights and personal freedom, we’re doing an awful lot right now to limit women’s or people with uterus’ ability to do what they want with their body,” Waldrip said.

Stark divisions between the groups arose as ideological lines could be seen physically emerging between the crowds. 

And as the day progressed, those protesting the ruling quickly began to outnumber its supporters.

(Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Among the protesters, the color green – a symbol for abortion rights activists borne out of similar movements in Argentina and elsewhere in Latin America – could be seen lining the street on scarves, shirts, stickers, and elsewhere.

As the crowd grew and green began to eclipse the simmering pavement beneath the protesters, several speakers emerged at the center of the crowd.

One of those speakers was Elizabeth Paige White, a civil rights lawyer working under nationally renowned attorney Ben Crump.

In connecting Friday’s decision to the United States’ history of patriarchal structure, White called into focus the disproportionate effect the repeal of nationwide abortion access is widely expected to have on minorities and communities of color with fewer resources to travel to abortion-friendly states.

“As Black, brown, and all these women out here know, we’ve been fighting for our rights since the inception of this country,” White said. “We have been fighting to have rights over our own bodies since the inception of this country.”

With the repeal of Roe, decisions on whether to legalize or outlaw abortion will now be left to each state. As of Friday’s ruling, 13 states are set to make almost all abortions illegal, having passed “trigger bans” designed to take effect in the immediate aftermath of Roe’s demise or within the next month.

However, many abortion rights supporters, activists, and lawmakers still fear that the curtailing of reproductive rights won’t end with the court’s decision.

Sen. Catherine Cortez-Masto (D-Nev.) addressed the crowd with a message of urgency and revelation.

“At the end of the day, let me just say, here’s what’s next,” Cortez-Masto said. “I’ve got some of my Republican colleagues based on this decision who are already drafting legislation to restrict abortion in this country. If they win this election, they will pass that legislation and it will preempt all of the state laws we have protecting women in this country when it comes to our right to choose.”

Beyond a nationwide restriction on abortion, some fear even more privacy restrictions are coming.

Such privacy rights have been established in other Supreme Court rulings based on the same Due Process and Equal Protection clauses of the 14th Amendment that justices used to interpret nationwide abortion rights nearly half a century ago. These cases have included those that established access in all states to contraception, same-sex marriage, interracial marriage, and the right to same-sex relations in the privacy of one’s home.

(Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Among the crowd gathered on Friday, such was a sobering outlook for many.

“Gay marriage, interracial marriage, gay sex are going to fall like fucking dominoes if we let them,” one speaker outside the court said.

Anger and fear could be felt permeating the crowd. Activists, however, were determined to turn their compatriots’ fears into action and change.

“We must get out in the streets,” the speaker said. “We need millions of people all around the country because this affects every single living, breathing person in this country whether they realize it yet or not.”

Among protesters’ trepidation regarding the future of women’s rights and privacy rights in America, many clung to a message of hope as speakers and activists pledged to continue fighting.

“They have worked to keep us down, they worked to keep us enslaved, they worked to keep us out of the polls, they worked to keep us out of political offices, they’ve worked to keep us in the home,” White said. “But we know, as we fought for centuries, that this will not stand.”

(Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)
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