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‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ repeal ‘barely hanging on’

Activists apply last-minute pressure to White House, Senate

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The prospects for repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” this year continue to fade as LGBT advocates pressure the White House and Congress in hopes that lawmakers will take action before they adjourn for the year.

One Senate Democratic aide, who spoke to the Washington Blade on condition of anonymity, said repeal — currently pending before the U.S. Senate as part of the fiscal year 2011 defense authorization bill — is “barely hanging on with life support.”

“The only way to resuscitate this effort and get a ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ vote is for President Obama and [Defense Secretary Robert] Gates to start pushing directly, something we on the Hill had expected the president and Gates to do long ago,” the aide said.

Frustration over the lack of movement on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” prompted activists affiliated with GetEQUAL to take action on Monday and chain themselves to the White House fence in an act of civil disobedience.

The 13 protesters included Lt. Dan Choi, a gay Iraq war veteran who was discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” this year, and Robin McGehee, co-founder and director of GetEQUAL.

In a statement, GetEQUAL said three generations of LGBT activists were arrested as a result of the action. Others who were arrested include former Marine Corps Sgt. Justin Elzie, who became the first Marine discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in 1993, as well as Michael Bedwell, a long-time advocate of LGBT rights and open service in the U.S. military.

As the protesters were chained to the White House fence, Choi called on President Obama to act on his promise to end “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

“After all his rhetoric, I think we must conclude that there is truth to the knowledge in homophobia of both sorts: there is a loud homophobia of those with platforms and there is a silent homophobia for those who purport to be our friends and do nothing,” Choi said. “Loud homophobia and silent homophobia have the same result. They must be combated and this is what we intend to do today.”

While the protesters were chained to the White House fence, they chanted the often-used GetEQUAL refrain of “I am … somebody … and I deserve … full equality.” The protesters also added a new refrain, “Barack Obama … Silent Homophobia!”

The protesters superglued their handcuff locks, and, despite repeated warnings from U.S. Park Police, didn’t remove themselves from the White House fence. As police forcibly removed the activists, they dragged their feet as they were hauled into a paddy wagon. It took five police officers to remove Choi from the fence, handcuff him and drag him to the van.

Army Capt. Jim Pietrangelo II, who previously was arrested for chaining himself to the White House, led the chants of the protesters with a bullhorn from Lafayette Park and shouted out to Obama as police dragged the activists away.

“Why are these courageous heroes having to be arrested now?” he shouted. “Mr. President, could you follow the lead of these brave Americans and stop ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell?’”

Pietrangelo called on Obama to issue an executive order to stop the discharges under the military’s gay ban.

In a statement, Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, responded to the protest and said Obama is committed to legislative repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

“As we have said repeatedly, the president remains committed to a legislative repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’” Inouye said. “The White House continues to work with Congress toward achieving that comprehensive and lasting solution.”

On Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs expounded on Obama’s commitment to legislative repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” as he acknowledged that the president hasn’t yet reached out to senators to lobby them on the issue.

Asked whether Obama had made any phone calls to “swayable senators” such as Susan Collins (R-Maine), who voted “no” on moving forward with the defense authorization bill in September, Gibbs replied that he doesn’t believe the president has spoken to the Maine senator on the issue.

But Gibbs said he’d put passage of the defense authorization bill in the “same category” for passage as other items he mentioned that Obama wants to see in lame duck, resolving a tax cut issue and ratification of the START Treaty, a nuclear arms reduction agreement with Russia.

“The president believes that this can be done in a way, and should be done, as you heard Secretary Gates and others say, in the next few weeks,” Gibbs said.

Amid doubts about whether the White House would push aggressively for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal this year, Senate leaders are reportedly considering dropping the repeal language from the defense authorization bill to move forward.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chair Carl Levin (D-Mich.) reportedly acknowledged to reporters on Tuesday that taking the repeal provision out of the defense bill is on the table.

“I’m trying to get the bill through Congress,” Levin was quoted as saying. “I’m the committee chairman for a 900-page bill. ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ is two pages of 900 pages. My focus is different from the media focus. I’m just trying to get a bill passed.”

Levin maintained that he wants get both passage of the defense authorization bill and repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” but added “if I can’t get both done, I want to get one of them done.”

The White House issued a statement last week saying it opposed stripping the defense authorization legislation of its repeal language. Gibbs reiterated that position during the press conference.

“We ought to keep this in the defense authorization bill, we ought to pass this in the defense authorization bill, and we ought to end the policy that the courts are rapidly getting close to ending on a timetable that those in the bureaucracy might not [like],” Gibbs said.

Additionally, activists continued to pressure Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who’s responsible for the legislative calendar in the chamber, to bring up the defense authorization bill with the repeal language.

On Monday, the staff for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) offered non-answers 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 Choi — 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 a 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 immediately respond to the Blade’s request to identify the staffers.

The source said he couldn’t give a date for when Reid intends to 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 source said. “There are other things that are going on this week.”

The source 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 Reid source replied, “I cannot.”

In a statement to the Blade, Jim Manley, a Reid spokesperson, said there’s “nothing new yet” with regard to scheduling decisions on 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 of its “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal provision before bringing it to the floor.

The Reid source 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.

McGehee 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 would look into the whereabouts of Choi’s ring.

At one point, McGehee called the fellow a “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.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. AndrewW

    November 17, 2010 at 4:26 pm

    Remarkably Robin McGehee continues to believe Obama has a “magic-wand” he is refusing to use on the Congress. It is childish and ignorant. We only have 55 LGBT-supportive votes in the US Senate – does GetEQUAL actually think the President can deliver 5 Republicans? That’s absurd.

    These silly publicity stunts will continue to haunt us. Just thinking Reid will want to help us after all the childish harassment GetEQUAL has orchestrated, including Dan Choi calling Reid a “pussy.”

    We need to engage in activities and actions that change minds or garner support – the publicity stunts do the opposite. More and more people are laughing at us and avoiding us. GetEQUAL is seeking attention so they can raise money, NOT as a useful way to help achieve our full equality.

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Utah

VIDEO: Utah deal promoted as national model for LGBTQ rights, religious liberty

Data finds state has 2nd highest support for LGBTQ rights

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(Screen capture via YouTube)

A new video from the premier LGBTQ group in Utah, challenging the idea LGBTQ rights must be at odds with religious liberty, promotes an agreement reached in the state as a potential model to achieve a long sought-after update to civil rights law at the federal level.

The video, published Friday by Equality Utah, focuses on a 2015 agreement in Utah between the supporters of LGBTQ rights and the Mormon Church to enact a compromise acceptable to both sides. The agreement by those two sides led to an LGBTQ civil rights law in the state, which has Republican control of the state legislature and the governor’s mansion.

Troy Williams, executive director of Equality Utah, says in the video dialogue is key to achieving meaningful success, whether its among the people of Utah, a state legislature or lawmakers in Congress.

“When you are working with LGBT rights in a state like Utah, and you want to advance legal equality, you can’t do it without working with Republicans, with conservative, with people of faith,” Williams says.

Williams, speaking with the Washington Blade over a Zoom call, said the main audience for the video is people on “the center right and the center left” willing to listen to other side when it comes to LGBTQ rights and religious liberty.

“People that have the courage to reach out to each other, and sit down across from each other and say, ‘Hey look, let’s hammer this out,” Williams said. “That’s who my audience is.”

Not only did Utah enact non-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people, but the state under a Republican governor administratively banned widely discredited conversion therapy for youth. When lawmakers proposed legislation that would ban transgender youth from competing in school sports, the proposal was scuttled when Gov. Spencer Cox (whom Williams called a “super Mormon”) said he’d veto it after it came to his desk.

Marina Gomberg, a former board for Equality Utah, is another voice in the video seeking dispel the narrative religious liberty and LGBTQ rights are in conflict.

“in order to protect LGBTQ people, we don have to deny religious liberty, and in order to provide protections for religious liberties, we don’t have to deny LGBTQ people,” Gomberg says. “The idea that we do is a fallacy that Utah has dismantled.”

In July, new polling demonstrated the surprisingly the Utah, despite being a conservative state, has the second highest percentage of state population in support for non-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people. The data Public Religion Research Institute from 77 percent of Utah residents support LGBTQ people, which is just behind New Hampshire at 81 percent.

Tyler Deaton, senior adviser for the pro-LGBTQ American Unity Fund, said the Utah agreement demonstrates the possibility of reaching an agreement at the federal level once “second order” issues are put into perspective.

“The first order question has to be how are we winning the culture,” Deaton said. “Do people even want to pass the bill? And if they do, you then figure out the details.”

The American Unity Fund has helped promote as a path forward for LGBTQ non-discrimination at the federal level the Fairness for For All Act, legislation seeking to reach a middle ground on LGBTQ rights and religious freedom. Polling earlier this year found 57 percent of the American public back a bipartisan solution in Congress to advance LGBTQ civil rights.

Supporters of the Equality Act, the more established vehicle for LGBTQ rights before Congress, say the Fairness for For All Act would give too many carve-out for LGBTQ rights in the name of religious freedom. The Equality Act, however, is all but dead in Congress and has shown no movement in the U.S. Senate.

Skeptics of the Utah law would point out the law doesn’t address public accommodations, one of the more challenging aspects in the fight for LGBTQ rights and one or remaining gaps in civil rights protections for LGBTQ people in the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last year in Bostock v. Clayton County. As a result, it’s perfectly legal in Utah for a business owner to discriminate against LGBTQ coming as patrons.

Williams, however, shrugged off the idea the lack of public accommodations protections in Utah make the agreement in the state makes it any less of a model, making the case the spirit behind the deal is what matters.

“I think copying and pasting Utah’s law doesn’t work for lots of reasons,” Wililams said. “What’s most important is a model of collaboration because when you are sitting around the table with each other — Democrats and Republicans, LGBTQ people and people of faith — that’s when the transformation happens. That is when the mutual respect is really forged.”

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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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