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Reid’s office gives activists non-answers on ‘Don’t Ask’

Staffers won’t commit to bring defense bill to vote



Robin McGehee, co-founder and director of GetEQUAL, at Sen. Reid's office today. (Blade photo by Michael Key)

The staff for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) offered non-answers on Monday to LGBT activists and veterans pressing for a commitment from the senator to bring “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal to a vote in the lame duck session of Congress.

A group of about 20 activists affiliated with GetEQUAL — including nine LGBT veterans led by Army Lt. Dan Choi, a gay Iraq veteran discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” — came to Reid’s Senate office in the Hart Office Building to demand answers on when the Nevada senator would move forward with major defense budget legislation containing repeal of the military’s gay ban.

“We’re here to essentially ask a very important question,” Choi said. “When is Sen. Harry Reid going to put the [fiscal year 2011 defense authorization bill] to vote that’s inclusive of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell'”?

But the staffers offered no definitive answers to the inquiries on the defense bill, which is currently pending before the Senate, and said Reid is planning to meet with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) later this week to discuss which legislative items would come up before lawmakers’ adjourn for the year.

A deputy chief of staff for Reid, who didn’t offer his name during the meeting, referred activists to a congressional military fellow and member of the U.S. Army in Reid’s office, who took activists’ questions and said he’d obtain responses for them. Reid’s office didn’t respond to Blade’s request to identify the staffers on short notice.

The fellow said he couldn’t give a date for when Reid intends to the schedule the defense authorization bill for a vote.

“If I told you it’s Tuesday and it doesn’t come up until Wednesday — they’ve got three other cloture votes that they’ve got to get through this week,” the fellow said. “There are other things that are going on this week.”

The fellow maintained that passage of the defense authorization bill is “one of the bills that has to be done this year” because the legislation provides funding for the Pentagon and operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Still, activists insisted that Senate passage of the defense authorization bill with “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal be done before the end of the year and pressed staffers on whether that would happen before Thanksgiving recess.

Most repeal supporters anticipate that the Senate would need two weeks to debate and vote on the defense authorization bill and that scheduling the vote early in lame duck is important.

Asked whether he could say whether the vote would come up before Thanksgiving, the fellow replied, “I cannot.”

In a statement to the Blade, Jim Manley, a Reid spokesperson, said there’s “nothing new yet” with any scheduling decisions on Monday with regard to the defense authorization bill.

In addition to questions about scheduling, the LGBT advocates also sought assurances that Reid wouldn’t strip the defense authorization bill pending of its “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal provision before bringing it to the floor.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chair Carl Levin (D-Mich) has reportedly been in talks with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) about moving forward with the defense authorization bill without the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal language.

The fellow said he “couldn’t tell you one way or another” whether the option of passing the defense authorization bill without the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal language is on the table.

“I honestly don’t know,” he said. “Because I am a fellow that’s one of the things that — I can look into it.”

Additionally, activists inquired about what Reid had done with Choi’s West Point graduate ring, which the Iraq veteran had given to the senator at the Netroots Nation conference in the summer to remind Reid of his commitment to repeal the 1993 law.

Robin McGehee, co-founder and director of GetEQUAL, asked whether Reid was keeping the ring in a shoebox or in his desk and whether he has “forgotten that he made a promise in July.”

The fellow said he could look into the whereabouts of Choi’s ring.

At one point, McGehee called the fellow a “the token military person” that Reid’s staff brought out to “act like” he knows LGBT issues.

“In my opinion, Sen. Reid has had the time to show the leadership, my parents are constituents of his state, and I feel like he’s failed not only them as constituents, but Lt. Choi, as a promise that he made in July,” McGehee said.

McGehee’s remarks riled the deputy chief of staff, who insisted the fellow wasn’t a token and that he was brought out because staffers thought he was the most appropriate person to answer questions.

In response, McGehee maintained activists weren’t shooting the messenger, but said if Reid wouldn’t give a commitment that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” would come up before the Senate by the end of the year, activists would be back.

“It’s in his hands now,” she said.


Federal Government

Lambda Legal praises Biden-Harris administration’s finalized Title IX regulations

New rules to take effect Aug. 1



U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona (Screen capture: AP/YouTube)

The Biden-Harris administration’s revised Title IX policy “protects LGBTQ+ students from discrimination and other abuse,” Lambda Legal said in a statement praising the U.S. Department of Education’s issuance of the final rule on Friday.

Slated to take effect on Aug. 1, the new regulations constitute an expansion of the 1972 Title IX civil rights law, which prohibits sex-based discrimination in education programs that receive federal funding.

Pursuant to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in the landmark 2020 Bostock v. Clayton County case, the department’s revised policy clarifies that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity constitutes sex-based discrimination as defined under the law.

“These regulations make it crystal clear that everyone can access schools that are safe, welcoming and that respect their rights,” Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said during a call with reporters on Thursday.

While the new rule does not provide guidance on whether schools must allow transgender students to play on sports teams corresponding with their gender identity to comply with Title IX, the question is addressed in a separate rule proposed by the agency in April.

The administration’s new policy also reverses some Trump-era Title IX rules governing how schools must respond to reports of sexual harassment and sexual assault, which were widely seen as imbalanced in favor of the accused.

Jennifer Klein, the director of the White House Gender Policy Council, said during Thursday’s call that the department sought to strike a balance with respect to these issues, “reaffirming our longstanding commitment to fundamental fairness.”

“We applaud the Biden administration’s action to rescind the legally unsound, cruel, and dangerous sexual harassment and assault rule of the previous administration,” Lambda Legal Nonbinary and Transgender Rights Project Director Sasha Buchert said in the group’s statement on Friday.

“Today’s rule instead appropriately underscores that Title IX’s civil rights protections clearly cover LGBTQ+ students, as well as survivors and pregnant and parenting students across race and gender identity,” she said. “Schools must be places where students can learn and thrive free of harassment, discrimination, and other abuse.”

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Mich. Democrats spar over LGBTQ-inclusive hate crimes law

Lawmakers disagree on just what kind of statute to pass



Members of the Michigan House Democrats gather to celebrate Pride month in 2023 in the Capitol building. (Photo courtesy of Michigan House Democrats)

Michigan could soon become the latest state to pass an LGBTQ-inclusive hate crime law, but the state’s Democratic lawmakers disagree on just what kind of law they should pass.

Currently, Michigan’s Ethnic Intimidation Act only offers limited protections to victims of crime motivated by their “race, color, religion, gender, or national origin.” Bills proposed by Democratic lawmakers expand the list to include “actual or perceived race, color, religion, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, ethnicity, physical or mental disability, age, national origin, or association or affiliation with any such individuals.” 

Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel have both advocated for a hate crime law, but house and senate Democrats have each passed different hate crimes packages, and Nessel has blasted both as being too weak.

Under the house proposal that passed last year (House Bill 4474), a first offense would be punishable with a $2,000 fine, up to two years in prison, or both. Penalties double for a second offense, and if a gun or other dangerous weapons is involved, the maximum penalty is six years in prison and a fine of $7,500. 

But that proposal stalled when it reached the senate, after far-right news outlets and Fox News reported misinformation that the bill only protected LGBTQ people and would make misgendering a trans person a crime. State Rep. Noah Arbit, the bill’s sponsor, was also made the subject of a recall effort, which ultimately failed.

Arbit submitted a new version of the bill (House Bill 5288) that added sections clarifying that misgendering a person, “intentionally or unintentionally” is not a hate crime, although the latest version (House Bill 5400) of the bill omits this language.

That bill has since stalled in a house committee, in part because the Democrats lost their house majority last November, when two Democratic representatives resigned after being elected mayors. The Democrats regained their house majority last night by winning two special elections.

Meanwhile, the senate passed a different package of hate crime bills sponsored by state Sen. Sylvia Santana (Senate Bill 600) in March that includes much lighter sentences, as well as a clause ensuring that misgendering a person is not a hate crime. 

Under the senate bill, if the first offense is only a threat, it would be a misdemeanor punishable by one year in prison and up to $1,000 fine. A subsequent offense or first violent hate crime, including stalking, would be a felony that attracts double the punishment.

Multiple calls and emails from the Washington Blade to both Arbit and Santana requesting comment on the bills for this story went unanswered.

The attorney general’s office sent a statement to the Blade supporting stronger hate crime legislation.

“As a career prosecutor, [Nessel] has seen firsthand how the state’s weak Ethnic Intimidation Act (not updated since the late 1980’s) does not allow for meaningful law enforcement and court intervention before threats become violent and deadly, nor does it consider significant bases for bias.  It is our hope that the legislature will pass robust, much-needed updates to this statute,” the statement says.

But Nessel, who has herself been the victim of racially motivated threats, has also blasted all of the bills presented by Democrats as not going far enough.

“Two years is nothing … Why not just give them a parking ticket?” Nessel told Bridge Michigan.

Nessel blames a bizarre alliance far-right and far-left forces that have doomed tougher laws.

“You have this confluence of forces on the far right … this insistence that the First Amendment protects this language, or that the Second Amendment protects the ability to possess firearms under almost any and all circumstances,” Nessel said. “But then you also have the far left that argues basically no one should go to jail or prison for any offense ever.”

The legislature did manage to pass an “institutional desecration” law last year that penalizes hate-motivated vandalism to churches, schools, museums, and community centers, and is LGBTQ-inclusive.

According to data from the U.S. Department of Justice, reported hate crime incidents have been skyrocketing, with attacks motivated by sexual orientation surging by 70 percent from 2020 to 2022, the last year for which data is available. 

Twenty-two states, D.C., Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands have passed LGBTQ-inclusive hate crime laws. Another 11 states have hate crime laws that include protections for “sexual orientation” but not “gender identity.”

Michigan Democrats have advanced several key LGBTQ rights priorities since they took unified control of the legislature in 2023. A long-stalled comprehensive anti-discrimination law was passed last year, as did a conversion therapy ban. Last month the legislature updated family law to make surrogacy easier for all couples, including same-sex couples. 

A bill to ban the “gay panic” defense has passed the state house and was due for a Senate committee hearing on Wednesday.

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Drag queen announces run for mayor of Ind. city

Branden Blaettne seeking Fort Wayne’s top office



Branden Blaettner being interviewed by a local television station during last year’s Pride month. (WANE screenshot)

In a Facebook post Tuesday, a local drag personality announced he was running for the office of mayor once held by the late Fort Wayne Mayor Tom Henry, who died last month just a few months into his fifth term.

Henry was recently diagnosed with late-stage stomach cancer and experienced an emergency that landed him in hospice care. He died shortly after.

WPTA, a local television station, reported that Fort Wayne resident Branden Blaettne, whose drag name is Della Licious, confirmed he filed paperwork to be one of the candidates seeking to finish out the fifth term of the late mayor.

Blaettner, who is a community organizer, told WPTA he doesn’t want to “get Fort Wayne back on track,” but rather keep the momentum started by Henry going while giving a platform to the disenfranchised groups in the community. Blaettner said he doesn’t think his local fame as a drag queen will hold him back.

“It’s easy to have a platform when you wear platform heels,” Blaettner told WPTA. “The status quo has left a lot of people out in the cold — both figuratively and literally,” Blaettner added.

The Indiana Capital Chronicle reported that state Rep. Phil GiaQuinta, who has led the Indiana House Democratic caucus since 2018, has added his name to a growing list of Fort Wayne politicos who want to be the city’s next mayor. A caucus of precinct committee persons will choose the new mayor.

According to the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, the deadline for residents to file candidacy was 10:30 a.m. on Wednesday. A town hall with the candidates is scheduled for 6 p.m. on Thursday at Franklin School Park. The caucus is set for 10:30 a.m. on April 20 at the Lincoln Financial Event Center at Parkview Field.

At least six candidates so far have announced they will run in the caucus. They include Branden Blaettne, GiaQuinta, City Councilwoman Michelle Chambers, City Councilwoman Sharon Tucker, former city- and county-council candidate Palermo Galindo, and 2023 Democratic primary mayoral candidate Jorge Fernandez.

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