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Lawsuit challenges ‘Don’t Ask’ separation pay

ACLU files class-action litigation

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Mike Almy, a former Air Force officer, is among those who received half separation pay as a result of his discharge under "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." (Blade photo by Michael Key)

A new lawsuit filed over the halved separation pay given to some U.S. service members discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is raising questions about why the Defense Department hasn’t taken action to resolve the issue.

Last week, the American Civil Liberties Union and ACLU of New Mexico filed a lawsuit in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims over administration policy cutting in half the severance pay that discharged troops who serve for at least six years in the armed forces would normally receive if they were separated for a reason other than homosexual conduct.

The policy was implemented in 1991, two years before Congress enacted the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” statute, and could be changed by implementing new regulations without action from lawmakers or the courts.

Joshua Block, staff attorney for the ACLU’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender project, said his organization filed the class action lawsuit, known as Collins v. United States, as a result of this severance pay inequity.

“Basically, if you’re discharged under ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ [and serve for at least six years], under the policy there’s virtually no way you can qualify for full separation pay,” Block said.

The issue only affects service members separated under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” who received honorable discharges and who have served for at least six years because only under those conditions do troops qualify for severance pay.

Further, because of the statute of limitations, the lawsuit would only affect service members who’ve been discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” within the last six years.

Block said the litigation was brought on behalf of all service members involuntarily discharged in the past six years and estimated that at least 100 discharged service members will qualify as part of the class of plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

The lead plaintiff in the litigation is Richard Collins, a former staff sergeant who was in the Air Force for nine years before he was discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

“After nine years of honorable service, it’s not fair that I should be deprived of the same benefits given to other dedicated service members who are adjusting to civilian life,” Collins said in a statement.

Another discharged service member who was affected by the pay inequity is Mike Almy, a gay former Air Force communications officer who testified earlier this year before the Senate about being discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in 2006.

“I think it’s absolutely ridiculous,” Almy said. “It’s pouring salt on the wound. ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ is horrendous enough as it is already. And then, when gays are thrown out the door, they’re even discriminated against once again in the severance pay that they receive.”

Almy said he received separation pay of $40,000 upon his discharge from the Air Force when he would otherwise have been entitled to $80,000.

The lawsuit was filed after the ACLU engaged with the Defense Department in November 2009 to change the policy in efforts that were ultimately unsuccessful. Correspondence had continued until as recently as August, when the ACLU threatened to sue the Pentagon over the lack of action.

Block said he’s hopeful the Pentagon would drop the policy as a result of the lawsuit and pay discharged troops they compensation they would normally receive.

“From our perspective, the litigation shouldn’t have been necessary in the first place, so we obviously hope that the government will do the right thing and pay these people the separation pay that they earned,” he said.

Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, said SLDN and the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force identified the issue more than a year ago as something that the administration could resolve with a policy change.

“In this case, [Defense] Secretary [Robert] Gates has the authority to stop this practice, and he should,” Sarvis said. “Not only should they stop it, we’ll also be seeking — as we have in the past — restitution on their back pay.”

Although the lawsuit has been filed, Sarvis noted “litigation is always protracted” and said the lawsuit could take years to resolve. Consequently, Sarvis said SLDN plans to continue pressing Gates to change the policy administratively and was set this week to meet with Pentagon officials to discuss the matter.

But why does the adminstration continue the policy when President Obama has said he wants to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the issue could be resolved with a stroke of a pen?

Eileen Lainez, a Pentagon spokesperson, said in a statement that department policy authorizes half separation payments to members who are “not fully qualified to continue to serve” and who are being involuntarily separated under honorable conditions.

“Currently, members being discharged for [‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’] … receive half separation pay, because the law says they are not qualified to continue in service,” she added.

Almy said he has “no idea” why the Pentagon continues this policy and said the rationale for upholding the policy is similarly unknown to others.

“From the personnel people that I’ve been able to talk to at the Pentagon, no one really knows what the reason for that was,” Almy said.

Block also said he’s unsure why the adminstration hasn’t changed this policy as he noted the administration has a stated goal of wanting to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” through legislative action.

“They have to get that through Congress, and we understand they’re working on that, but this was a regulation that was passed before ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ even came into existence,” Block said. “The administration can get rid of it anytime it wants without needing congressional approval to do so.”

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Arizona

Anti-transgender Ariz. ballot measure dies

SCR1013 will not go before voters in November

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Arizona state Sen. Ken Bennett (R-Prescott) (YouTube screenshot)

BY ERIN REED | In a stunning defeat for anti-transgender activists in Arizona, a major bill targeting trans people in schools has failed. The bill, Senate Concurrent Resolution 1013, would have banned trans students from using bathrooms matching their gender identity. It also would have forced teachers to misgender their trans students unless parental permission was received. 

Most importantly, the bill would have placed the issues on the November election ballot, bypassing Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs’ veto, which has been used against similar legislation. This represents the first major ballot referendum on trans people that has been defeated in 2024 and could signal Republican hesitancy around the electoral impacts of such referendums.

The bill was brought forward by Sen. John Kavanaugh, who has previously sponsored other legislation targeting trans people in schools. Kavanaugh’s district includes portions of Scottsdale, Ariz., which is notably the same city where the Alliance Defending Freedom is headquartered

The ADF has been intricately involved in the drafting and defending of anti-trans laws across the U.S. this year and has backed Chloe Cole, who is leading a similar referendum effort in California.

In the Senate Education Committee earlier this month, over 500 people registered opposition to the bill, and only 32 registered in favor, one of the most lopsided testimony ratios in any bill this year nationwide. Speaking against the bill in the hearing, Democratic Sen. Christine Marsh pointed out the negative consequences that hearing such a bill would have, stating, “This will become a debate on a statewide level harming god knows how many kids and forcing them into further isolation, harassment, bullying, victimization and vulnerability that comes. I think the effect of that will be incalculable.”

When it came time for a committee decision, Republican Sen. Ken Bennett voted in favor of the bill but stated he had concerns with the way the bill was written and that he would have trouble supporting it for final passage in the Senate.

Then, on Monday, the bill was brought forward for a final vote on the full Senate floor. Democratic senators read statements from parents and trans youth who would be impacted by the bill as the votes rolled in. Then, Bennett voted “no,” explaining his vote: “I am very concerned about putting this bill to a vote of the people. These bills combined are roughly a third of the entire U.S. Constitution. When we put things on the ballot for people to vote on them, if something goes awry, if there are unintended consequences, we have to go back to the people to fix it.”

The defeat means that in Arizona, the question will not advance to the November ballot. However, in other states, ballot measures are currently being pursued. In California, the group “Protect Kids California” has enlisted high-profile anti-trans activists such as Cole and Chris Elston to collect signatures. Measures there would out trans students to their parents, ban them from participating in sports and using bathrooms that match their gender identity, and would ban gender-affirming care for trans youth. Similar ballot measures are also being pursued in Colorado. Nevertheless, with the defeat of SCR1013, there may be hesitancy to push for this as a major ballot issue in 2024 in a swing state like Arizona.

Anti-LGBTQ legislation is not highly popular, especially in general election contests. In the most recent school board elections in 2023, Moms for Liberty lost 70 percent of their school board elections, having run primarily on anti-trans issues in schools. Meanwhile, Democrats took the House and Senate in Virginia after Gov. Glenn Youngkin pushed a party platform at rallies that targeted trans youth throughout the state. Anti-trans politics have also previously failed to help Republicans in Arizona. In the 2022 governor’s race, Republicans attempted to target Hobbs’ husband for providing counseling for trans youth in the closing weeks of the campaign — a gambit that failed to swing results in their favor.

That is certainly what Gaelle Esposito, a partner at Creosote Partners who has worked with major organizations supporting trans people in the state, believes. When asked about what the bill’s defeat says in an election year, she responded, “we are also starting to see that Republicans recognize that anti-trans hatred and pure bigotry is not a big winner for them. It’s not like they have seen time and again, including here in Arizona, that this just doesn’t play well with voters. It doesn’t sit well with people.”

Esposito added a hopeful message: “The fact that we didn’t see the full force of their network trying to squeeze them to get this on the ballot shows they know it too. That they, in an election year here in Arizona, where so much is critical for them, this went down in flames … I think shows how the tide is turning in our favor.”

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Erin Reed is a transgender woman and researcher who tracks anti-LGBTQ+ legislation around the world and helps people become better advocates for their queer family, friends, colleagues and community. Reed also is a social media consultant and public speaker.

The preceding post was previously published at Erin in the Morning and is republished with permission.

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District of Columbia

Trial for man charged with assaulting gay men in D.C. park postponed for third time

Indictment says attacker squirted victims with pepper spray

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Meridian Hill Park (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The trial for a 50-year-old man who was arrested July 14, 2022, on charges that he allegedly assaulted five men he believed to be gay at D.C.’s Meridian Hill Park between 2018 and 2021 was postponed for the third time last month and has now been rescheduled for Aug. 19 of this year.   

The arrest of Michael Thomas Pruden came two weeks after a federal grand jury handed down an indictment on June 29, 2022, charging him with five counts of assault on federal park land, one count of impersonating a federal officer and a hate crime designation alleging that he assaulted four of the men because of their perceived sexual orientation. 

Prosecutors with the Office of the U.S. Attorney for D.C. filed a motion in court on Jan. 10 of this year opposing a request by Pruden’s defense attorney to postpone the most recent prior trial date set for Feb. 26. 

“Following indictment in June 2022, the defendant has delayed the trial in this case several times, including by firing two prior attorneys,” the prosecutors’ motion states. “While the government has not previously objected to any continuance, no further delay is warranted,” the motion says. “This is a straightforward case that should proceed to trial as currently scheduled.”

The indictment against Pruden by a U.S. District Court for D.C. grand jury provides some of the details surrounding the case.

“After nightfall, Meridian Hill Park was informally known in the Washington, D.C., community to be a meeting location for men seeking to engage in consensual sexual encounters with other men,” the indictment says. “This practice is colloquially known as ‘cruising,’” the indictment continues. 

“Michael Thomas Pruden frequented Meridian Hill Park after nightfall and on multiple occasions, including those described below, assaulted men in Meridian Hill Park by approaching them with a flashlight, giving them police-style commands and spraying them with a chemical irritant,” the indictment states. 

Virginia court records show that the D.C. indictment against Pruden was handed down 11 months after a U.S. District Court jury in Alexandria, Va., found him not guilty of a charge of assault with a dangerous weapon for allegedly pepper spraying and hitting in the head with a large tree branch a man in Daingerfield Island Park in Alexandria, which is also known as a gay cruising site. 

Federal Public Defender A.J. Kramer, who is representing Pruden in the D.C. case, said in his own motion calling for postponing Pruden’s Feb. 26 trial date that he has at least two other unrelated trials coming up soon and what he called voluminous documents recently provided to him by prosecutors made the latest postponement necessary. 

“Firstly, while Mr. Pruden prefers to go to trial as soon as possible, counsel cannot be ready by February 26, 2024,” his motion states. “Given that the case against Mr. Pruden is actually five cases spanning a three-year period, the discovery is extremely voluminous, in excess of 7,000 pages,” he states in his motion. “Due to this as well as counsel’s other pending matters in the coming weeks, counsel is unable to effectively prepare motions and prep for trial under the current timeline.”

By the 7,000 pages of “discovery” documents, Kramer was referring to the requirement that prosecutors turn over to the defense attorney in advance of a trial details of the evidence prosecutors plan to present at a trial. U.S. District Court Judge Jia M. Cobb approved Pruden’s request for the postponement in a Feb. 5 ruling. 

Court records also show that Pruden was released on personal recognizance following his arrest into the custody of his mother, who lives in Norfolk, Va., where he has been staying since his release. Among other things, conditions for his release prohibit him from having any contact with the individuals he is charged with assaulting and require that he always remain inside his mother’s residence from sunset to sunrise. 

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Texas

Abbott tells UN to ‘pound sand’ amid criticism of anti-LGBTQ policies in Texas

Governor signed seven anti-LGBTQ laws last year

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Texas Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signs the “Save Women’s Sports Act” on Aug. 7, 2023. (Photo courtesy of the Office of the Governor)

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) on Sunday dismissed news coverage of a letter issued last month to the United Nations that expressed alarm over the “deteriorating human rights situation” for LGBTQ people in the Lone Star State.

Signed by Equality Texas, ACLU of Texas, GLAAD, the Human Rights Campaign, and the University of Texas at Austin School of Law Human Rights Clinic, the letter details how Texas legislators introduced 141 bills targeting the LGBTQ community, passing seven into law.

“The UN can go pound sand,” Abbott wrote in a post on X.

In 2023, the governor signed a ban on gender affirming care for transgender youth, a ban on diversity, equity, and inclusion programs at public universities, a ban on transgender athletes competing in college sports, a law allowing schools to use religious chaplains for counseling services, a ban on “sexually oriented performances” on public property accessible to minors (which targets drag shows), a law allowing schools to restrict LGBTQ books, and a ban on nondiscrimination ordinances by local governments.

The groups argued in their letter that these policies constitute a “systemic discriminatory policy” in violation of international human rights laws, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a multilateral treaty whose tenets are enforced by the UN Human Rights Committee.

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