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Murphy amendment certified for House consideration

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The House Rules Committee late Wednesday found in order an amendment to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” allowing for a vote on the measure when lawmakers take up major defense budget legislation.

Lawmakers on the panel approved the amendment, introduced by Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.), by voice vote as part of a rule governing debate for the fiscal year 2011 defense authorization bill.

The Rules Committee is charged with determining what rule governs the debate on legislation that comes to the House floor, including the length of time for discussion and whether certain amendments will be allowed.

The committee’s certification of Murphy’s amendment means the measure will be able to come to the floor when lawmakers take up the defense budget legislation, which is scheduled to happen either Thursday or Friday.

The rule allows for 10 minutes of debate on the Murphy amendment before House lawmakers take an up-or-down vote on the measure.

In testimony before the committee, Murphy urged lawmakers to find his amendment in order so that Congress could move forward with doing away with “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

Murphy brought particular attention to the case of former Army Sergeant Darren Manzella, a gay soldier who served in Iraq war and was discharged in 2008 after he came out to his comrades and talked about his story on CBS’ 60 Minutes.

“I’m here today for Darren and for the 13,500 brave servicemen and women kicked out of the military simply because they are gay,” Murphy said. “The arguments in support of this policy are weak and outdated, and the time to repeal this policy is now.”

Murphy said the U.S. military is “stretched thin” and it makes no sense to “kick out people who want to serve — who are willing to serve and die for their country.”

Following Murphy’s remarks, Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), a gay lawmaker and member of the Rules Committee, choked back on tears as he expressed appreciation to Murphy for championing the issue to end what he called one of the last “bastions of discrimination.”

After he left the witness stand, Murphy embraced Polis briefly before leaving the committee room.

Murphy told the Blade he feels “very good” as the votes approach both the House floor and the Senate Armed Services Committee later this week.

“I think I’m confident of the votes in the House and also in the Senate Armed Services Committee,” Murphy said. “And I think it’s good for national security, and for the American taxpayer, not to waste our money.”

Polis told the Blade he was similarly hopeful about the passage of Murphy’s amendment, which he said would allow “the military to end the [‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’] policy, which is the stated intention of the commander-in-chief.”

“I’m optimistic that we’ll be passing it on the floor of the House [Thursday],” he said.

A Democratic leadership aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the defense authorization bill could come up for consideration on Thursday, but may be pushed back for consideration of jobs legislation.

“Consideration of the defense authorization is still expected to start [Thursday], but it is possible that the [“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”] amendment from Rep. Murphy could be pushed into Friday,” the aide said.

The aide said the delay will “allow additional time for the whip effort” and supporters of repeal in the House “continue to be very optimistic on the amendment’s chances.”

While certifying Murphy’s amendment, the committee blocked consideration of a substitute amendment by a vote of 3-8 that would have revised the terms of reference for the Pentagon study on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and require that it be delivered to Congress well as the military service chiefs. 

The amendment was offered by Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), ranking Republican of the House Armed Services Committee.

In testimony before the committee, McKeon said his amendment would have mandated the Pentagon examine what impact repeal would have on the Defense of Marriage Act as well as readiness and unit cohesion.

In a possible preview of what will happen with the Murphy amendment when it reaches the House floor, lawmakers on the panel were split on the issue of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

Some members of the Rules Committee expressed support for moving legislatively to end “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” at this time while others said they wanted to hold off until the Pentagon completes its review.

McKeon said in testimony he was among those wanting to wait until the Defense Department working group completes its work.

“We don’t know what effect this would have on recruitment, retention and morale,” he said. “Not making Mr. Murphy’s amendment in order would be keeping the faith with the two-and-a-half million men and women in uniform … in saying that their voices do count.”

McKeon said he received letters this week from the service chiefs of Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps asking Congress to hold off on repeal until the Pentagon study is complete.

Earlier in the day, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), an opponent of repeal, also made public four letters from the service chiefs asking Congress to refrain from taking action at this time.

In one of the letters to McCain, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz said Congress should wait for the study to be complete “as a matter of keeping faith with those currently serving in the armed forces.”

“To do otherwise, in my view, would be presumptive and would reflect an intent to act before all relevant factors are assessed, digested and understood,” Schwartz said.

But in a response to these letters, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. John Shalikashvili wrote in a letter made public later in the day that Congress should act on the pending legislation.

“While I fully agree that Congress should take no action that usurps the Pentagon’s evaluation process and recommendations, there is nothing in those letters that gives Congress any reason to delay enacting the legislative compromise that was proposed this week,” Shalikashvili said.

Also speaking out during the hearing in opposition to repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal at this time was Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.).

Dreier, who supported “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” when it was enacted in 1993, said he would be inclined to support repeal of the law but only after the Pentagon has time to complete its study.

“I wonder why it is that we need to have this vote at this moment,” he said. “We are just a few months away from getting a report that I suspect will allow for the opportunity to ensure that people aren’t thrown of the military who want to have a chance to serve their country.”

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) also didn’t speak favorably about a vote on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” although his opposition wasn’t as strong as other opponents of repeal during the committee discussion.

Skelton recalled the April 30 letter in which Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he would “strongly oppose” legislative action at this time. Skelton also emphasized the importance of the study as a way to inform how to move forward on the issue, saying it’s “not a rubber stamp.”

But Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.), a strong supporter of repeal, was particularly passionate about Congress moving to address “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” immediately.

“What we’ve failed to mention is that 14,000 people in this 17-year period of time have been put out of the military,” he said. “Some of them were people that had specialties that are hard to replace.”

Hastings said he knows of at least 16 people who were discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” that specialized in Arabic translation.

Also in support of Congress moving now to address the issue was Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), who said a study on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” wasn’t necessary for Congress to know that it should act against discrimination.

“To me, it just comes down to this simple view that I have, which is an important view, and that is prejudice and bigotry are wrong, whether it is in the workplace or in the armed forces,” he said.

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Anticipation builds amid delay: Will Biden name LGBTQ ambassadors?

United States has never had lesbian woman, trans person as envoy

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Biden administration, gay news, Washington Blade

More than 100 days into his presidency, President Biden has yet to name picks for a multitude of ambassadorial positions in a delay unusual for a presidency at this stage, raising questions about whether he’ll miss an opportunity to exhibit America’s LGBTQ community overseas through the appointment of the first-ever lesbian and transgender person as ambassadors.

Many of these ambassadorial vacancies, which complement the diplomatic corps of the U.S. government to serve as a representation of American diversity overseas, are in key positions. Nearly 90 ambassadorial positions, including sought-after posts in Israel, the United Kingdom, Mexico, Italy and China, remain vacant according to an April article in USA Today.

The delay in ambassadorial appointments appears to come from pressure on Biden to refrain from the traditional practice of naming donors who bundled for his presidential campaign to the prestigious posts as opposed to foreign policy experts. Biden declined during his campaign to commit to refusing to reward donors with ambassadorial appointments, but the issue has taken hold in progressive circles.

On the other hand, many donors and bundlers for Biden’s presidential campaign were LGBTQ people, who would reasonably expect an ambassadorial appointment as a reward for helping get Biden to the White House.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, under questioning from the Washington Blade on Tuesday on whether Biden is missing an opportunity to name lesbian and transgender ambassadors in historic firsts, urged patience.

“Given we haven’t named many ambassadors quite yet — and we hope to soon; stay tuned — certainly the president looks to ensuring that the people representing him, not just in the United States, but around the world, represent the diversity of the country, and that certainly includes people who are LGBTQ, members of the transgender community,” Psaki said.

Asked to clarify her definition of “soon” in this context — whether it means days, weeks, or months — Psaki declined to provide a more definite timeline.

“I think it depends on when the president makes some decisions,” Psaki said. “And he’ll continue to consider a range of options for a lot of the positions that are out there and still remain vacant.”

At the same time, Psaki made a point to commend the work of Foreign Service officers at the State Department with whom Biden has sought to restore trust after years of scorn from former President Trump.

“I will say, having served at the State Department for a couple of years, there are incredible career service employees who are serving in these embassies around the world who are representing the United States and our values.” Psaki said. “That continues to be the case, but, of course, we’re eager to have ambassadors in place and confirmed to represent the president and the vice president and the United States.”

The appointment of members of the LGBTQ community to ambassadorships has a significant place in the movement’s history. In 1998, Jim Hormel became the first openly gay person to serve as U.S. ambassador after being named U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg. But the victory came after a struggle when anti-gay senators, including the late Jesse Helms, refused to confirm Hormel explicitly because he’s gay. President Clint0n ended up appointing Hormel as an ambassador through a recess appointment, which averted the need for Senate confirmation.

Presidents regardless of party have achieved historic firsts with the appointment of openly gay men as ambassadors. Michael Guest in the George W. Bush administration was confirmed as U.S. ambassador to Romania, making him the first openly gay person to obtain Senate confirmation for an ambassadorship. Former President Obama over the course of two terms appointed a record seven openly gay men as ambassadors, including John Berry as U.S. ambassador to Australia and Daniel Baer as U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security & Cooperation in Europe.

Richard Grenell, named by President Trump as U.S. ambassador to Germany, currently has the distinction of being the openly gay person with the most prestigious ambassadorial appointment. Consistent with his reputation as a firebrand on social media, Grenell hit Germany hard as ambassador to compel the G-5 country to meet its military spending obligations as a NATO partner. Grenell has something to show for his efforts: The country began to spend closer to 2 percent of its GDP on defense.

And yet for all these appointments, no president has ever named an open lesbian or trans woman for a position as U.S. ambassador, an oversight that stands out after the rapid progress on LGBTQ rights in recent years. At a time when transgender rights are in focus amid anti-trans attacks in state legislatures, the appointment of an openly transgender ambassador would also send a signal of solidarity with the transgender community.

There’s no indication Biden won’t appoint an LGBTQ person for a position as U.S. ambassador, which could be an easy achievement from him with the LGBTQ community, but the delay raises questions on whether or not they will happen, in addition to keeping the diplomatic corps from being fully staffed and functional.

Moreover, the position of LGBTQ international liaison at the State Department, a position Biden campaigned on filling after Trump let the position remain vacant, remains unfilled. During the Obama years, Randy Berry served in that role and travelled internationally to work with LGBTQ groups overseas and demonstrate U.S. solidarity with them.

It’s unclear why the international LGBTQ liaison position continues to remain vacant within the Biden administration. A State Department spokesperson referred the Blade on Wednesday back to the White House on potential LGBTQ ambassadorial appointments or the international LGBTQ liaison role.

To be sure, Biden has made several key LGBTQ appointments in the limited time in his presidency. Among them are Pete Buttigieg as transportation secretary, making him the first-ever openly gay person to win Senate confirmation for a Cabinet-level role, and Rachel Levine as assistant secretary of health, which made her the first openly transgender person to win Senate confirmation for any presidential appointment.

In the past few weeks alone, Biden has signaled he’d name openly lesbian and transgender people to high-ranking civilian positions at the Defense Department. Brenda Sue Fulton, a lesbian activist who fought to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the transgender military ban, got the nod as assistant secretary of defense for manpower and reserve affairs, while Shawn Skelly, a transgender national security expert who served in the Air Force for 20 years as a Naval Flight Officer, obtained the nod to become assistant secretary of defense for readiness. Meanwhile, Gina Ortiz Jones, a lesbian Iraq war veteran who twice ran to represent Texas’ 23rd congressional district, was nominated to become Air Force under secretary.

Even the State Department itself has a person from the LGBTQ community serving as its public face. Ned Price, who conducts daily briefings with the media as State Department spokesperson, is the first openly gay person to serve in that prominent position.

The LGBTQ Victory Institute, which at the start of the Biden administration had signaled the appointment of a lesbian, transgender person and LGBTQ person of color as U.S. ambassadors were among its goals, expressed confidence Biden would name these appointments in due time.

“President Biden will roll out his picks for ambassadorships over the next few months and it presents an incredible opportunity to choose diverse and groundbreaking LGBTQ nominees,” said Ruben Gonzales, executive director of the LGBTQ Victory Institute. “As President Biden has already made history with the number of LGBTQ women and transgender people he has nominated for Senate-confirmed positions, we predict this commitment to LGBTQ diversity will continue when ambassadors are nominated. The impact of our first LGBTQ women ambassadors, first LGBTQ ambassadors of color and first trans ambassadors would be enormous – an impact not lost on the Biden administration.”

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White House: Biden to use bully pulpit to back transgender youth

Biden made commitment to transgender youth in speech to Congress

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White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday President Biden will fulfill the pledge he made in his speech to Congress to have the backs of transgender youth by using the bully pulpit, deferring to the U.S. Justice Department on potential legal action against attacks from state legislatures.

Psaki made the remarks under questioning from the Washington Blade in the aftermath of Biden’s speech last week before a joint session to Congress, when he called on lawmakers to pass the Equality Act and told transgender youth he’d have their back amid a flurry of anti-transgender in state legislatures.

“Well, certainly the president has put in place – has signed executive orders, he’s also used the power of the bully pulpit and his presidency to convey that transgender rights are human rights, and that is the view and belief of his administration and how he expects policies to be implemented,” Psaki said.

Many of the state measures are aimed at restricting transgender youth’s access to school sports by prohibiting biological boys from playing in girls’ events, essentially transgender girls from participation. Other measures prohibit transition-related health care. Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee on Tuesday signed legislation requiring parental notification for LGBTQ-inclusive school curricula.

Psaki specifically addressed measures that would prohibit transgender youth from playing sports in her remarks on how Biden would follow-up on his pledge.

“That includes ensuring that transgender youth have the opportunity to play sports and to be treated equally in states across the country, so he will look to members of his administration to implement what his view and what his value is as president,” Psaki said.

Asked in a follow-up if she would rule out legal action against states as part of that effort, Psaki deferred entirely to the Justice Department.

“I will leave that to the Department of Justice,” Psaki said.

The Justice Department for weeks hasn’t respond to multiple requests to comment on whether it will tale legal action against the measures against transgender youth, which critics say amount to unlawful sex discrimination under the law.

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Biden calls for passage of Equality Act in speech to Congress

LGBTQ legislation at an impasse as first 100 days approaches

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President Biden, delivering his first joint speech before Congress on the eve of his 100th day of his presidency, urged Congress to pass the Equality Act to protect LGBTQ people against discrimination, signaling support for transgender youth amid a flurry of attacks in state legislatures.

“I also hope Congress will get to my desk the Equality Act to protect LGBTQ Americans,” Biden said. “To all transgender Americans watching at hone, especially young people who are so brave: I want you to know your president has your back.”

Although the U.S. House has acted to pass the Equality Act, the legislation has remained at an impasse in the U.S. Senate, where 60 votes are needed to overcome a filibuster. Biden had pledged during his presidential campaign to sign the Equality Act within his first 100 days in office, but has fallen short of that goal upon that milestone.

It remains to be seen whether Biden in his joint speech before Congress will create new traction for the Equality Act. In 2010, when former President Obama brought up “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal in his State of the Union speech, it made waves a led to Congress passing legislation that year during the lame duck session.

Biden included the Equality Act in a speech where he articulated other agenda items, including passage of health care, corporate tax increases and the DREAM Act. Seated behind Biden were House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Vice President Kamala Harris, marking the first time in history two women seated behind a U.S. president in a speech before a joint of Congress.

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