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Charges dropped against Choi, Pietrangelo

Trial for White House arrests cancelled

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Charges against U.S. Army Capt. Jim Pietrangelo II (left) Lt. Dan Choi stemming from their ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ protests outside the White House were dropped Wednesday. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The trial for two gay Army officers arrested for chaining themselves to the White House fence in protest over “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was cancelled Wednesday after charges were dropped in the case.

On the scheduled trial date, prosecutor Christine Chang announced before the D.C. Superior Court that the government was dropping the charges against Lt. Dan Choi and Capt. Jim Pietrangelo II for their acts of civil disobedience.

Choi and Pietrangelo had faced penalties stemming for chaining themselves to the White House gates March 18 and April 20. The Army officers were charged with two counts of a failure to obey a lawful order and could have been fined up to $1,000 for their offense.

Following the court appearance, Chang told the Blade the U.S. attorney’s office is “not proceeding with the case at this time,” but declined to comment on why the charges were dropped.

Mark Goldstone, a local attorney representing Choi and Pietrangelo in court, said he was “shocked” the U.S. Attorney’s office decided to dismiss the charges.

Goldstone said he suspected someone from the White House called the U.S. Attorney’s office Wednesday to cancel the trial for “purely political reasons.”

“I think they’re embarassed about defending ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which is an abomination,” Goldstone said.

Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, told the Blade that the White House had no involvement in dropping the charges against Choi and Pietrangelo.

Following the trial, Choi said his efforts to draw attention to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” were not “just for a sound bite” or “to get famous.”

Had the trial proceeded, Choi said he would have talked about how “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” affects LGBT service members and how “people are dying because they kill themselves” under the current law.

At several points during his coming out process, Choi said he wanted to “put a bullet” into his West Point pistol and shoot himself.

“You know all of the consequences of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,'” Choi said. “You’re not just getting fired from your job, it’s not just a national security issue, and it’s not just a matter of taxpayer money. It’s really about the enforced shame that it causes.”

Pietrangelo said after his court appearance he wasn’t surprised that the U.S. Attorney office’s dismissed the charges because he’s “absolutely confident that we had justice on our side.”

“We won even before we went into the court room is how I felt,” Pietrangelo said. “We were prepared to litigate the whole dirty mess that ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ is.”

Pietrangelo said he intends to participate in further acts of civil disobedience to keep drawing attention to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” but declined to offer any details about his plans.

Litigation in the courts and legislation in Congress is pending that could lead to repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” The House and a Senate committee in May approved a measure that would lead to the end of the law, and people following Capitol Hill expect the full Senate to take up the issue within months.

Still, Choi said the administration has been “more than incompetent” and “unwilling” to follow through with President Obama’s promise to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

Choi said he plans to continue participating in acts of civil disobedience as long as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” remains in effect and everyone needs to step up to their responsibility.

Asked whether he would return to the White House, Choi replied, “Let me just say going to jail and being shackled up is nothing compared to allowing ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ to exist on the books.” He declined to elaborate further on his plans.

Paul Yandura, a gay D.C. activist and organizer with GetEqual, which helped organize the protests, noted the officers who arrested Choi and Pietrangelo came to the court on the scheduled date of the trial, suggesting the U.S. Attorney’s office was prepared to have them testify.

Yandura said activists following the court apperance asked the prosecutor whether she was prepared for the case and Chang responded she was prepared but couldn’t provide further comment.

“Someone told her at the last minute to drop all charges,” Yandura said. “It’s probably because it’s an embarassment that repeal’s not done. … They just decided to shut this down before we had two trials talking about ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.'”

Yandura also noted that the stay-away order precluding Choi and Pietrangelo from approaching the White House has been lifted, meaning both men engage in further acts of civil disobedience there.

Goldstone said he had planned to present at trial evidence that included previous public statements from Obama asking for continued pressure to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

“Obama needed proof of agitations … for political cover,” Goldstone said. “Dan and Jim took his command as a direct command.”

Activists affiliated with GetEqual had presented Obama with a subpoena to testify on behalf of Choi and Pietrangelo during the trial. Neither the president nor any White House official was seen at court during the scheduled day for the trial.

Goldstone said he didn’t plan to present any other witnesses at the trial because he said Choi and Pietrangelo are the “best possible spokespersons” on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

Among those who made an appearance in court on the scheduled trial date were Robin McGehee, co-founder of GetEqual, as well as Anthony Woods, a gay Army officer discharged in 2008 under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and who unsuccessfully ran to represent California in Congress earlier this year.

McGehee said civil disobedience won out in this case and charges were dropped because the White House didn’t want the attention on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

“Dan and Jim got what they wanted, which was to apply the pressure and to draw attention to the issue,” she said.

Woods said he wanted to attend the scheduled trial as a “show of solidarity” for Choi; he and Choi graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 2003.

“I think he knows there are very real consequences to what he’s doing, which makes what he’s doing that much more heroic,” Woods said.

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Virginia

Man who killed one in 2000 Roanoke gay bar shooting dies in prison

One of the worst bias attacks targeting LGBTQ community

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Ronald Edward Gay died while serving life sentences for attacking a Virginia gay bar. (Washington Blade clipping from Sept. 29, 2000)

A man sentenced to four consecutive life terms in prison for the September 2000 shooting at a gay bar in Roanoke, Va., in which one man lost his life and six others were wounded, died of natural causes on Jan. 15, according to the Virginia Department of Corrections.

A spokesperson for the Department of Corrections told WSLA 10 TV News that Ronald Edward Gay died while being treated at a hospital near the Deerfield Correctional Center, a state prison where he had been living as an inmate. He was 75. 

Witnesses and law enforcement officials reported at the time of the shooting that a middle-aged man later identified as Gay arrived alone at Roanoke’s Backstreet Café, a popular gay bar, on the night of Sept. 22, 2000.

According to an account by an eyewitness to the incident who spoke last week with the Roanoke Times newspaper, after ordering a beer and standing next to the bar for a short time, Gay reached into the long trench coat he was wearing, pulled out a 9mm pistol, and fired a round “straight into the chest of 43-year-old Danny Overstreet, before opening fire on the rest of the bar.”

Overstreet, a beloved regular patron at the Backstreet Café, died at the scene of the shooting. Six others, who were wounded by bullets fired by Gay, later recovered, but they and many others who were present and witnessed the shooting were left emotionally scarred, the Roanoke Times reported.

In the weeks following the shooting, news media outlets, including the Washington Blade and the Washington Post, reported findings of an investigation by local police that Gay told police he went to Backstreet specifically to target gay people because he became bitter after years of being taunted and teased for his last name of “Gay.”

The Roanoke Times reported that, among other things, Gay told police “God told him to do it” and that he once wrote that there was an evil inside of him telling him “to shoot or have no rest.”

Gay later pleaded guilty to multiple charges against him, including murder. On July 23, 2001, he was sentenced to four consecutive life sentences in prison for the shooting incident and the murder of Overstreet.

The Backstreet incident in Roanoke was considered by LGBTQ rights advocates and others to be one of the worst incidents in which LGBTQ people were targeted for a shooting until the June 2016 shooting at the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., in which 49 people died and 53 more were wounded in a mass shooting by 29-year-old Omar Mateen.

Mateen, who was shot and killed by Orlando police after a three-hour standoff, told police in a phone call from inside the nightclub after the shooting began that he swore allegiance to the leader of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and his attack against the gay nightclub was motivated by the U.S. military intervention in Iraq and Syria. The FBI later classified the incident as a terrorist attack.

The Roanoke Times reported that the shooting incident at Backstreet Café prompted LGBTQ residents and allies to gather in the days and weeks after the incident for vigils and marches. About 1,000 people walked through the streets of downtown Roanoke to honor the life of Overstreet and to urge Congress to pass federal hate crimes legislation, the newspaper reported.

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Va. senator introduces anti-transgender student athlete bill

Democrats have vowed to thwart anti-LGBTQ measures in state Senate

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transgender, Gender Conference East, trans, transgender flag, gay news, Washington Blade
(Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

A Virginia lawmaker has introduced a bill that would ban transgender students from joining school sports teams that are consistent with their gender identity.

Senate Bill 766, which state Sen. Jennifer Kiggans (R-Virginia Beach) introduced on Friday, would require “each elementary or secondary school or a private school that competes in sponsored athletic events against such public schools to designate athletic teams, whether a school athletic team or an intramural team sponsored by such school, based on biological sex as follows: (i) ‘males,’ ‘men,’ or ‘boys’; (ii) ‘females,’ ‘women,’ or ‘girls’; or (iii) ‘coed’ or ‘mixed.'”

“Under the bill, male students are not permitted to participate on any school athletic team or squad designated for ‘females,’ ‘women,’ or ‘girls’; however, this provision does not apply to physical education classes at schools,” adds the bill. “The bill provides civil penalties for students and schools that suffer harm as a result of a violation of the bill. Such civil actions are required to be initiated within two years after the harm occurred.”

Kiggans introduced her bill less than a week after Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin took office.

Youngkin during his campaign said he does not support allowing trans children to play on sports teams that are consistent with their gender identity. Elizabeth Schultz, an anti-LGBTQ former member of the Fairfax County School Board, has been named the Virginia Department of Education’s Assistant Superintendent of Public Instruction.

The General Assembly’s 2022 legislative session began on Jan. 12 with Republicans in control of the state House of Delegates. Democrats still control the state Senate, and they have pledged to thwart any anti-LGBTQ bills.

“Let’s be clear: This is part of an ongoing, nationwide effort to exclude trans people from enjoying the benefits of sports like their cisgender peers,” tweeted the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia on Friday after Kiggans introduced SB 766. “We won’t tolerate this.”

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Comings & Goings

Hazen inducted into Cooperative Hall of Fame

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Paul Hazen

The Comings & Goings column is about sharing the professional successes of our community. We want to recognize those landing new jobs, new clients for their business, joining boards of organizations and other achievements. Please share your successes with us at: [email protected] 

The Comings & Goings column also invites LGBTQ+ college students to share their successes with us. If you have been elected to a student government position, gotten an exciting internship, or are graduating and beginning your career with a great job, let us know so we can share your success. 

Congratulations to Paul Hazen on his being inducted into the 2022 Cooperative Hall of Fame.  On receiving the honor, he said, “I am very lucky to be given the opportunity to combine my work in international development with my volunteer cooperative development work in Washington DC.”

Hazen is executive director, U.S. Overseas Cooperative Development Council (OCDC) and has devoted his career to elevating the cooperative voice domestically and internationally. U.S. co-ops include Ace Hardware, Land O’Lakes, Inc., Sunkist, REI and the Associated Press. Hazen helped establish federal legislation promoting rural co-op development.  

Prior to joining OCDC, he was CEO of Washington, D.C.-based National Cooperative Business Association CLUSA International. During his 25-year tenure with the organization, he held key positions, including chief operating officer, vice president of public policy, vice president of member services and director of consumer cooperatives.

He worked for Rep. Al Baldus (Wisc.). He was executive director of Rural Housing Inc. in Madison, Wisc., where he developed co-ops and affordable housing projects in rural communities. 

As a volunteer, Hazen formed the Community Purchasing Alliance (CPA) with 12 congregations in D.C.  In 2020, CPA secured more than $18.7 million in contracts resulting in an investment of $13 million in D.C.-based small businesses owned by people of color.

Ben Finzel

Congratulations also to Ben Finzel, who was inducted into the National Capital Public Relations Hall of Fame. Upon receiving the honor, he said “To be recognized by your peers is wonderful; to be honored by them is amazing. I still can’t quite believe I have done enough to be worthy of this recognition, but I know enough to be thankful and appreciative of this high honor. Thank you PRSA National Capital Chapter for including me in such inspiring company; I will be forever grateful.”

Finzel is president of RENEWPR, a D.C.-based public affairs, communications consulting firm. In 2004, he helped launch FH Out Front, the first global LGBTQ communications practice at an international firm, Fleishman Hillard, and served as its first global chair. He started DC Family Communicators, a professional networking group for LGBTQ communications professionals. Finzel served on the Victory Campaign Board of the LGBTQ Victory Fund from 2007 to 2017.

His firm is currently celebrating its seventh year in business. To recognize that accomplishment, Finzel is launching an endowed scholarship at his alma mater, Texas Tech University. His business is certified as an LGBT Business Enterprise by the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce.

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