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White House rejects gay judicial nominee

Supporters urged Schumer to fight for attorney accused of anti-Christian remarks

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The White House has rejected the recommended nomination of a New York attorney who would have become the first openly gay man to sit on the federal bench, because of comments he reportedly made about the Pledge of Allegiance and Christmas that were deemed anti-Christian.

In February, U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) recommended the nomination of Daniel Alter to serve as a judge for the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. Presidents traditionally follow the guidance of senators from the state where there’s a vacancy for judicial nominations.

But informed sources told the Washington Blade that the White House rejected Alter’s nomination because of remarks he reportedly made regarding a case challenging inclusion of the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. In addition, the White House reportedly objected to remarks that Alter made suggesting that merchants not wish shoppers “Merry Christmas” during the holidays.

In a 2005 article published by Cybercast News Service, Alter is quoted as saying that a general holiday greeting is more appropriate and inclusive for retailers as opposed to saying “Merry Christmas.”

“It seems both from a business … and a community perspective, that if merchandisers were going to do that … they would try to wish those in the community who may not share in celebrating Christmas a happy holiday as well,” Alter is quoted as saying.

“Our diversity has made us great and will continue to make us great and [‘Merry Christmas’] undermines both the holiday spirit as well as the message I think Americans should be sending to each other,” Alter reportedly continued.

The 2005 quotes were apparently reprinted in a 2008 CNS article that is stored in the archives on the organization’s website.

Additionally, in a 2004 article published in The New Republic, Alter is quoted as saying the U.S. Supreme Court case Elk Grove United School District v. Newdow “was a good case at the wrong time.” The case challenged use of the “under God” phrase in the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools.

The article reported Alter was “relieved” the Supreme Court decision “left open a window for future challenges.” The Anti-Defamation League had filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the Newdow case.

“When the right case does come along,” Alter reportedly said, “We’re there.”

Alter was previously an assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York and specialized in First Amendment and terrorism issues. He also served as national director of the civil rights division of the Anti-Defamation League, an organization that works to fight anti-Semitism.

The comments he reportedly made came in his capacity as an official with the Anti-Defamation League. The White House decision to reject Alter disappointed his supporters, who rallied around him and urged Schumer to advance his nomination anyway.

Schumer announced his recommended nomination of Alter during a Human Rights Campaign dinner in New York City and emphasized that his selection would make him the first openly gay male judge on the federal bench.

In a February statement, Schumer said he recommended Alter because he’s “a brilliant attorney who possesses the knowledge, balanced views and temperament required of a federal judge.”

“His outstanding leadership skills, his commitment to justice, and his extensive experience make him an exceptional choice for a position on the federal bench,” Schumer said. “I’m proud to nominate Daniel Alter. Period. But I am equally proud to nominate him because he is a history-maker who will be the first openly gay male judge in American history.”

But based on those reported statements, the White House and Schumer determined that Alter wouldn’t be able to reach the 60-vote threshold needed in the Senate to overcome a filibuster of his nomination. It’s unclear when the decision to reject Alter was made.

Schumer’s office didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment. A White House spokesperson declined to comment. Alter also declined to comment for this story.

Deborah Lauter, director of civil rights for the Anti-Defamation League, said the apparent decision to reject Alter’s nomination based on reported comments he made on behalf of the organization is “just plain unfair and unjust.”

“Any statements he made in the course of his job with ADL were just that — he was representing the views of our organization,” she said. “It’s dismaying if in fact that led to the derailing of his nomination.”

Lauter said Alter doesn’t recall speaking to The New Republic for the 2004 article and that Alter was misquoted in the 2005 CNS article.

“It was an inaccurate report and ADL should have insisted the record be corrected at the time,” Lauter said.

Lauter clarified that the Anti-Defamation League has never objected to retailers wishing customers “Merry Christmas.”

“But the bottom line is even if he made the comment, which he didn’t, it shouldn’t have disqualified him from service as a judge,” she said.

The decision to refuse the Alter nomination likely came sometime before July, when his supporters urged Schumer to go to bat for his recommended nominee.

In a letter dated July 2, 2010, a group of 66 attorneys who worked with Alter at the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York wrote that the designation of Alter to the federal bench is “a nomination worth fighting for.”

“We urge you to take all possible steps to ensure that Mr. Alter is nominated to the federal bench and promptly considered by the Senate Judiciary Committee,” the letter states.

Among those who signed the letter is James Comey, who served as deputy attorney general during the Republican administration of former President George W. Bush.

The attorneys wrote that Alter’s “nomination to the federal bench is in jeopardy” because of “demonstrably false statements” that reporters made while he was working for the Anti-Defamation League. The missive doesn’t detail why the statements Alter reportedly made to media outlets are “demonstrably false.”

“While we will let others set forth the factual reasons why these allegations are baseless, we write to state emphatically that the sentiments falsely ascribed to Mr. Alter are inconsistent with everything that we know about him,” the letter states. “Mr. Alter has dedicated his life to tolerance, public service, moderation, and fidelity to law. He is unfailingly kind, respectful, and open-minded. In both deed and character, Mr. Alter is the antithesis of the views that have been misattributed to him.”

The signers state that they “cannot imagine a more highly qualified nominee” and that the loss of Alter to the federal judiciary based on “false allegations” would be significant.

“By temperament, he is well-suited to the bench, possessing every quality one seeks in a judge: respect for all views, dedication to the public, tireless pursuit of the best legal argument, and a determination to reach decisions that will command the respect of all parties,” the letter states.

Lauter said the Anti-Defamation League sent its own letter to Schumer in July urging the senator to push for Alter’s nomination, but she declined to make the letter public.

“It was a private letter to the senator just clarifying the record and expressing support — enthusiastically and without reservation — for Danny Alter’s nomination,” she said.

Also lamenting the derailment of Alter’s nomination is Richard Socarides, a gay New York attorney who served as an adviser to President Clinton.

Socarides told the Blade the White House’s rejection of Alter’s nomination was evidence of a broken system.

“I don’t know Daniel Alter personally,” Socarides said. “I’m told he is highly qualified. We need more people like him in the federal judiciary. I don’t know why his nomination got derailed, but certainly a system in which someone like Alter can’t get confirmed is badly broken.”

HRC heralded Schumer’s announcement of his recommended nomination of Alter in February, but the organization is mum on his rejection.

At the time of the announcement, Joe Solmonese, HRC’s president, said in a statement that Alter “is eminently qualified for a position on the federal bench.”

“America is taking a step forward toward equality by evaluating an individual based on his accomplishments and without regard to his sexual orientation,” Solmonese said. “We commend Senator Schumer for his historic recommendation, and look forward to the President’s nomination.”

Fred Sainz, HRC’s vice president of communications, this week declined to comment on the White House rejection of Alter.

Schumer has since recommended the nomination of another openly gay man, J. Paul Oetken, to become a district judge for the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

The New York senator made the announcement in a Sept. 23 statement that said Oetken has “the right combination of skills, experience and dedication to [be] an excellent judge on the court.”

Oetken served as an attorney in private practice and was an associate counsel for former President Bill Clinton, according to the Schumer statement.

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22 Comments

22 Comments

  1. Bill

    October 20, 2010 at 6:18 pm

    Why are we wasting any more time with Obama? He is useless and certainly not a friend of the community. So much for our f–king “fierce advocate.”

    • Ronbo

      October 25, 2010 at 12:01 pm

      Come, now! Were we to have Obama in charge of Civil Rights back in the 60’s, African Americans would surely be 2/3s of a real American, by now. Progress is slow when you don’t really want it. Let’s see how quickly Obama guts Social Security.

  2. Eli

    October 20, 2010 at 6:31 pm

    Amen

  3. Keppler

    October 20, 2010 at 6:48 pm

    Was it HRC that told us that this administration was the most gay friendly of any in history? With friends like this….

  4. Beverly J. Guardino,

    October 21, 2010 at 3:19 am

    If this attorney said anything regarding “Under God” or the “Pleadge of Alligence”, so what? Doesn’t everyone have freedom of speech? Or maybe he was not hired because he’s a non-believer, in addition to being Gay…Obama has continuously ignorned “Separation of Church & State”, and I wish to hell someone, anyone who is a Democrate, will run against him in 2012

  5. Ken

    October 21, 2010 at 8:25 am

    A judge not only has to be nominated, he must be confirmed. In this case, the fact that Alter appears to have pre-decided possible future cases is an important factor. This is enough to disqualify anyone–remember Kagan’s confirmation hearing? Many people will attribute his apparent bias to his gayness and if that is true, they would be convinced that any gay nominee has already pre-decided cases involving religion. That would tarnish all future gay nominees. Nevertheless, even if the allegations against Alter are eventually proven false, the controversy means that there won’t be much confidence in his decisions, and that impairs his effectiveness, Maybe it’s best to drop this one and move on to the next.

  6. Peter Rosenstein

    October 21, 2010 at 1:14 pm

    I agree that this system is obviously broken if a man like Alter can’t be nominated as a judge. Have we reaced a time where one needs to be living a life so bland as to have no opinions on anything or that we don’t allow for a personal view on anything. Unless there is more to the statements that Alter made I am extremely dissappointed that the Obama administration wouldn’t submit his name for a judicial appointment. They really need to develop some cajones and begin to stand up for the people that made up the base of their support.

  7. SteveinMI

    October 21, 2010 at 3:47 pm

    Imagine if the government followed its own Constitution. Article VI, par 3, states in part “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”

    SURE it won’t…

  8. Pogovio

    October 21, 2010 at 6:09 pm

    It’s too bad Alter’s nomination got short circuited. But what’s even worse is the childish reaction of most gay commenters. There’s no indication he was dropped by Obama because Obama didn’t want him – it was because Alter’s nomination could not get through the obstructionist Republican gantlet in the Senate, and Schumer agreed about that.

    Somebody ridiculed the idea that Obama is the most gay friendly president in U.S. history – of course he is, and that’s just a fact dictated by the rate of social progress – 50 years ago was still the dark ages, when gays were criminals in every state in the nation.

    Don’t go trashing your allies just becasue they aren’t 100%. Work against your enemies, i.e., against all Republicans, not against the best political friends we have, even if they’re luke warm. Lack of solidarity by Democrats is exactly the reason Republicans control Congress even while Democrats have large majorities.

  9. Jerry

    October 21, 2010 at 6:18 pm

    He said, she said. A christian crap ass organization whines about a gay man becoming a federal judge and our fierce, spineless advocate once more kisses bigot asses. Anyone remember Shriely Shirrod? Thank you President Barak Husein Obastard.

    • Ronbo

      October 25, 2010 at 12:10 pm

      Get off your high horse! Just because Obama has failed us at every single turn, doesn’t mean he will continue to do so. His Justice Department equates LGBT Americans with: Sex Offenders, Felons and Pedophiles. He proactively reinstated DADT – against the orders of a Federal judge. It was a simple mistake, made over and over and over again.

      GLBT Americans need to be more patient; 200+ years is not that long.

      The new Democratic logo is a turtle on its’ back. Even with holding clear majorities in the Senate and House, they could NOT get a single pro-equality bill passed. Was it fear that Obama might veto it? I can’t wait to see Obama “fix” Social Security!

  10. Bill

    October 21, 2010 at 8:30 pm

    @ Pogovio – You can read, right? The article CLEARLY STATES that “The White House has rejected the recommended nomination.” Could it be more clear? Do you work for the WH PR Office? Why are you giving our “fearless leader” aid and comfort? We are getting screwed by a liar and a hypocrite. Call it for what it is and move on. There is NO DIFFERENCE between what we got form Bush and what were getting from Obama.

    • Chris

      October 26, 2010 at 1:59 am

      OK Here’s Bill again with the rage
      How’s this for throwing us under the bus

      The Lesbian and Gay Victory Fund, a group that funds out gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans candidates regardless of party affiliation, said that so far, sixteen lesbian and gay individuals have received appointments from President Barack Obama.
      The fund said many of them applied for their positions through the Gay and Lesbian Leadership Institute’s Presidential Appointments Project.

      The appointees are:

      * Anthony Bernal – Scheduler, Office of Dr. Jill Biden
      * John Berry – Director-Designate, Office of Personnel Management
      * Brian Bond – Deputy Director, White House Office of Public Liaison
      * Ebs Burnough – Deputy Scheduler, Office of the First Lady
      * Michael Camunez – Domestic Policy Cluster Head, Presidential Personnel
      * Brook Colangelo – Chief Information Officer, White House Office of Administration
      * Brad Kiley – Director, White House Office of Management and Administration
      * Fred Hochberg – Director-Designate, U.S. Export-Import Bank
      * Karine Jean-Pierre – White House Liaison, U.S. Department of Labour
      * David Medina – Deputy Chief of Staff, Office of the First Lady
      * Dave Noble – White House Liaison, National Aeronautics and Space Administration
      * Mark Perriello – Director of Priority Placement, Presidential Personnel
      * Nancy Sutley – White House Council on Environmental Quality
      * Moe Vela – Director of Operations, Office of the Vice President
      * Kei Koizumi – Assistant Director for Federal Research and Development, Office of Science and Technology Policy
      * Alison Nathan – White House Counsels Office

      Give Pres Obama some kind of credit! Then again it’s tr0lls who didn’t support nor wanted him in the first place…YAWN

  11. The Reasonable Man

    October 22, 2010 at 1:13 pm

    All the drama queens who are ranting about this “grave injustice” apparently failed to read the entire article. Paul Oetken — an openly gay man and outstanding attorney — has since been recommended by Schumer for a seat on the bench in the SDNY. With his credentials, and lack of controversial statements in his past, he will no doubt sail through the confirmation process. Give it a rest.

    • Ronbo

      October 25, 2010 at 12:13 pm

      I think the lady doth protest too much. Does the Reasonable Man think an African-American is 2/3rds of a real American, also?

  12. SkepticInJersey

    October 22, 2010 at 4:08 pm

    Someone makes a statement that may be considered anti-Christian and immediately a judgment (no pun intended) is made that he or she has pre-decided future cases, but if the same person had made pro-Christian statements they’re OK to sit for cases? That’s like saying a gay judge can’t sit for cases involving sex but a straight one can. Ridiculous. Clearly they knew he’d never make it through the approval process but it is a litmus test just the same and in violation of the sacred Constitution.

  13. Bill Serrani

    October 22, 2010 at 5:25 pm

    If this were a Repugnacant nominee with a Repugnacant prez & congress the guy would be in so fast.

  14. Bobbie VandeGriff

    October 23, 2010 at 2:48 pm

    a[[ears that a religous litmus test is now necessary in order to beconsidered for a government position. Hearsay is permissible for dismissal whereas, unconditional support of all things “christain” is required.

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National

Venezuelan man with AIDS dies in ICE custody

Pablo Sánchez Gotopo passed away at Miss. hospital on Oct. 1

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Pablo Sanchez Gotopo, who was living with HIV/AIDS, died in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody in Mississippi on Oct. 1, 2021. (Courtesy photo)

A Venezuelan man with AIDS died in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody on Oct. 1.

An ICE press release notes Pablo Sánchez Gotopo, 40, died at Merit Health River Oaks in Flowood, Miss., which is a suburb of Jackson, the state capital. The press release notes the “preliminary cause of death was from complications with acute respiratory failure, Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), pneumonia, acute kidney failure, anemia and COVID-19.”

ICE said U.S. Border Patrol took Sánchez into custody near Del Rio, Texas, on May 17. He arrived at the Adams County Detention Center in Natchez, Miss., four days later.

“Upon arrival to an ICE facility, all detainees are medically screened and administered a COVID-19 test by ICE Health Service Corps (IHSC) personnel,” said ICE in its press release. “Sánchez’s test results came back negative.”

The press release notes Sánchez on July 28 received another COVID-19 test after he “began showing symptoms of COVID-19.” ICE said he tested negative, but Adams County Detention Center personnel transferred him to a Natchez hospital “for additional advanced medical care.”

ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations staff in its New Orleans Field Office, according to the press release, “coordinated with hospital staff to arrange family visitation” after Sánchez’s “health condition deteriorated.” Sánchez was transferred to Merit Health River Oaks on Sept. 25.

“ICE is firmly committed to the health and welfare of all those in its custody and is undertaking a comprehensive agency-wide review of this incident, as it does in all such cases,” says the press release.

Venezuela’s political and economic crises have prompted more than 10,000 people with HIV to leave the country, according to the New York-based Aid for AIDS International.

Activists and health care service providers in Venezuela with whom the Washington Blade has spoken in recent years have said people with HIV/AIDS in the country have died because of a lack of antiretroviral drugs. Andrés Cardona, director of Fundación Ancla, a group in the Colombian city of Medellín that works with migrants and other vulnerable groups, told the Blade last month that many Venezuelans with HIV would have died if they hadn’t come to Colombia.

The Blade has not been able to verify a Venezuelan activist’s claim that Sánchez was gay. It is also not known why Sánchez decided to leave Venezuela and travel to the U.S.

ICE detainee with HIV described Miss. detention center as ‘not safe’

Activists and members of Congress continue to demand ICE release people with HIV/AIDS in their custody amid reports they don’t have adequate access to medications and other necessary medical treatment.

Two trans women with HIV—Victoria Arellano from Mexico and Roxsana Hernández from Honduras—died in ICE custody in 2007 and 2018 respectively. Johana “Joa” Medina Leon, a trans woman with HIV who fled El Salvador, died in 2019, three days after ICE released her from a privately-run detention center.

The Blade in July 2020 interviewed a person with HIV who was in ICE custody at the Adams County Detention Center. The detainee said there was no social distancing at the privately-run facility and personnel were not doing enough to prevent COVID-19 from spreading.

“It’s not safe,” they told the Blade.

The entrance to the Adams County Detention Center in Natchez, Miss. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Elisabeth Grant-Gibson, a Natchez resident who supports ICE detainees and their families, on Wednesday told the Blade that she was able to visit the Adams County Detention Center and other ICE facilities in the Miss Lou Region of Mississippi and Louisiana from November 2019 until the suspension of in-person visitation in March 2020 because of the pandemic.

“Medical neglect and refusal of medical care has always been an issue in the detention center at Adams County,” said Grant-Gibson. “After the facilities were closed to public visitation, those problems increased.”

Grant-Gibson told the Blade she “worked with a number of families and received phone calls from a number of detainees, and I was told again and again that detainees were being refused the opportunity to visit the infirmary.”

“When they did visit the infirmary, they were given virtually no treatment for the issues they were presenting with,” said Grant-Gibson.

ICE in its press release that announced Sánchez’s death said fatalities among its detainees, “statistically, are exceedingly rare and occur at a fraction of the national average for the U.S. detained population.” ICE also noted it spends more than $315 million a year “on the spectrum of healthcare services provided to detainees.”

“ICE’s Health Service Corps (IHSC) ensures the provision of necessary medical care services as required by ICE Performance-Based National Detention Standards and based on the medical needs of the detainee,” notes the ICE press release. “Comprehensive medical care is provided from the moment detainees arrive and throughout the entirety of their stay. All ICE detainees receive medical, dental, and mental health intake screening within 12 hours of arriving at each detention facility, a full health assessment within 14 days of entering ICE custody or arrival at a facility, and access to daily sick call and 24-hour emergency care.”

An ICE spokesperson on Wednesday pointed the Blade to its Performance-Based Detention Standards from 2011, which includes policies for the treatment of detainees with HIV/AIDS.

A detainee “may request HIV testing at any time during detention” and ICE detention centers “shall develop a written plan to ensure the highest degree of confidentiality regarding HIV status and medical condition.” The policy also states that “staff training must emphasize the need for confidentiality, and procedures must be in place to limit access to health records to only authorized individuals and only when necessary.”

“The accurate diagnosis and medical management of HIV infection among detainees shall be promoted,” reads the policy. “An HIV diagnosis may be made only by a licensed health care provider, based on a medical history, current clinical evaluation of signs and symptoms and laboratory studies.”

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Rachel Levine on becoming four-star admiral: ‘It comes from my desire to serve’

Trans official sworn-in to U.S. Public Health Service

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For Rachel Levine, the appointment to her new role as a four-star admiral complementing her existing duties as assistant secretary for health is another way for the first openly transgender Senate-confirmed presidential appointee to serve.

“I think that this just really comes from my desire to serve in all capacities,” Levine said in an interview Tuesday with the Washington Blade. “To serve the first day in my field of academic medicine and pediatrics, but then in Pennsylvania and now in the federal government, and it furthers my ability to do that.”

Levine, 63, also recognized the importance of the appointment as a transgender person within the U.S. Public Health Service, for which she was ceremonially sworn in on Tuesday

“I think for the LGBTQ+ community, it is a further sign of progress and our president’s commitment to equity, to inclusion and diversity,” Levine said. “So I think that it is a very important milestone, and I’m pleased to serve.”

As part of her duties, Levine will lead an estimated 6,000 public health service officers serving vulnerable populations, including deployments inside and outside the country for communities beleaguered with the coronavirus, according to the Department of Health & Human Services. The role involves working closely with U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murphy, whom Levine called her “friend and colleague.”

The U.S. Public Health Service, Levine said, has deployed “many, many times,” including its greatest number ever of deployments to vulnerable populations during the coronavirus pandemic. Among the places the service has deployed, Levine said, was in her home state of Pennsylvania, where she recently served as secretary of health.

Not only is Levine the first openly transgender person to serve in the uniformed health service as a four-star general, but she’s also the first woman to serve in that capacity.

“We have 6,000 dedicated committed public servants really all focused on our nation’s health, and they serve in details to the CDC and the FDA and the NIH, but also clinically with the Indian Health Service, and the federal prison system,” Levine said. “They’re also detailed and deployed throughout the country, and they deployed like never before for COVID-19 as well as the border, as well as dealing with floods and hurricanes and tornadoes.”

Although the Public Health Service is primarily focused on addressing public health disasters within the United States, Levine said it has a record of deployments overseas, including years ago when it was deployed to Africa under the threat of Ebola.

Secretary of Health & Human Services Xavier Becerra had high praise for Levine in a statement upon news of taking on a leadership position in the service.

“This is a proud moment for us at HHS,” Becerra said. “Adm. Levine — a highly accomplished pediatrician who helps drive our agency’s agenda to boost health access and equity and to strengthen behavioral health — is a cherished and critical partner in our work to build a healthier America.”

Levine, however, was careful to draw a distinction between her appointment within the Public Health Service and being a service member within the U.S. armed forces.

“It is not a military branch, it’s not the armed forces: It’s a uniformed force, so it’s different,” Levine said. “For example, the Army, the Navy, our military, there are two other uniformed branches, and that is ours, the United States Public Health Service Commissioned Corps and NOAA.”

The new role, Levine said, would complement her duties as assistant secretary for health. Although not only secretaries of health have been commissioned to take the uniform, Levine said she wanted to undertake that as part of her role in the Biden administration.

The two appointments were not simultaneous, Levine said, because of a general process she undertook, which was completed just this week.

It hasn’t been an easy road for Levine. During her Senate confirmation process, when she was hounded by anti-transgender attacks in conservative media and rude, invasive questioning by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) on her gender identity.

Levine, however, said she hasn’t encountered any hostility regarding her new role (as of now) and shrugged off any potential attacks in the future and said the move is about her career “to serve and to help people.”

“I’ve continued that for our nation as the assistant secretary for health and this is just a further demonstration of my commitment to service,” Levine said. “I don’t know what others will say, but that’s the genesis of my wanting to serve in the United States Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, and to place on the uniform.”

Levine’s new appointment comes shortly after a group of Democratic senators led by Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) sent her a letter dated Sept. 30 calling on her and Miriam Delphin-Rittmon, assistant secretary for mental health and substance use, to issue new guidance for hospital or residential care on mental health needs of transgender people.

Asked about the letter, Levine said mental health issues are under the authority of Delphin-Rittmon and the two “will work together and we will respond.”

Specifically, the senators in the letter call on the Behavioral Health Coordinating Council, or BHCC, and experts in the field of adolescent trans care to offer guidance on best practices for inpatient mental health care among these youth.

Asked what the response will look like, Levine said, “We’re going to work on that.”

“We will be looking at what they’re asking for and the requirements, and we’ll talk with them and the stakeholders and we’ll look to issue appropriate guidance,” Levine said.

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Colin Powell, leaving mixed legacy on ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ dies at 84

Key figure once opposed gays in military, then backed review

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gay news, Washington Blade, Colin Powell, gay marriage
Colin Powell leaves behind a mixed legacy on 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell."

Colin Powell, the first ever Black secretary of state who served in top diplomatic and military roles in U.S. administrations, died Monday of coronavirus at age 84, leaving behind a mixed record on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

The world continues to grapple with the pandemic and the public grows increasingly frustrated with its persistence as many remain unvaccinated despite the wide availability of vaccines. Powell was fully vaccinated, according to a statement released upon his death. Powell reportedly suffered from multiple myeloma, a condition that hampers an individual’s ability to combat blood infections.

Rising to the top of the military as chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Powell supported in 1993 Congress moving forward with “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” a law that barred openly gay people from serving in the U.S. military.

During a key moment congressional testimony, Powell and other top military officials were asked whether or not allowing gay people in the military would be compatible with military readiness. Each official, including Powell,” responded “incompatible.” Congress would enact “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” that year.

Things changed when President Obama took office 15 years later and advocates for repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” were eager to claim Powell’s voice among their ranks. After all, Powell was highly respected as a bipartisan voice after having served as secretary of state in the administration of George W. Bush and endorsing Obama in the 2008 election.

After the Obama administration in 2010 announced it would conduct a review of the idea of allowing gay people to serve openly in the military, Powell came out in support of that process. Advocates of repeal called that a declaration of reversal, although the statement fell short of a full support for gay people serving openly in the military.

“In the almost 17 years since the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ legislation was passed, attitudes and circumstances have changed,” General Powell said in a statement issued by his office, adding, “I fully support the new approach presented to the Senate Armed Services Committee this week by Secretary of Defense Gates and Admiral Mullen.”

Congress acted to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the policy was lifted in 2011. At the time, Powell was widely considered a supporter of ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and publicly counted among supporters of repeal, although the Blade couldn’t immediately find any statements from him to that effect.

In 2012, Powell had similar vaguely supportive words on same-sex marriage, saying he had “no problem with it” when asked about the issue.

“As I’ve thought about gay marriage, I know a lot of friends who are individually gay but are in partnerships with loved ones, and they are as stable a family as my family is, and they raise children,” Powell said. “And so I don’t see any reason not to say that they should be able to get married.”

The Blade also couldn’t immediately find any statement from Powell on transgender people serving in the military. After the Obama administration in 2016 lifted decades-old regulations against transgender service, former President Trump issued a ban by tweet the following year. President Biden reversed that ban and allowed transgender people to serve and enlist in the military in his first year in office.

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