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Lieberman confident about 60 votes for ‘Don’t Ask’ repeal

Conn. senator says he’s received assurances from Collins, Lugar

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Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) is optimistic about "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" repeal in lame duck. (Blade photo by Michael Key).

Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) on Thursday expressed confidence about having the necessary 60 votes to move forward with legislation containing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal — provided certain conditions are met with the amendment process on the Senate floor.

“I am confident that we have more than 60 votes prepared to take up the defense authorization bill with the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ if only there will be a guarantee of a fair and open amendment process,” Lieberman said during a news conference. “In other words, whether we’ll take enough time to do it.”

Lieberman makes the remarks after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said on Wednesday he’s committed to bringing to the floor in the lame duck session the fiscal year 2011 defense authorization bill, which contains language that would repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

The legislation would likely come up after Dec. 1, when a Pentagon working group is due to deliver a report to Defense Secretary Robert Gates on implementing repeal.

Lieberman said he’s received assurances from GOP senators Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) as well as “others privately” that they would be open to moving forward with defense legislation containing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal provided there’s an “open amendment process” in bringing the bill to the floor.

A previous attempt in September at bringing the defense authorization bill to the floor failed when a united GOP caucus — led by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) — successfully filibustered the motion to proceed.

Many senators, including Collins and Lugar, who supported a repeal amendment in committee, said they were voting “no” because of limited amendments that senators would be allowed to submit for the legislation.

In September, Reid said he was permitting three amendments to the defense authorization bill: one to strip the bill of its repeal provision, one to address the “secret holds” that senators can place on presidential nominations and another to amend the defense legislation with the DREAM Act, an immigration-related bill.

Asked during the conference what he perceived as more open amendment process the next time around, Lieberman the exact terms are up for negotiation.

“It’s hard to put a number on it now,” Lieberman said. “That’s what I hope is going to be negotiated. Of course, we’ll do our best to encourage Sen. Reid to reach out to allow and somewhat larger number.”

Lieberman said the two items that are up for negotiation are the number of amendments to be allowed and the time for debate on those amendments.

Reid has since said the DREAM Act would come to the Senate floor during lame duck as a standalone piece of legislation.

Following the news conference, Lieberman said the removal of the DREAM Act as an amendment to the defense authorization bill would “practically speaking” help with building support for moving forward with the military budget legislation.

But Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), who present at the conference, said opposition to the defense authorization bill and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal is actually for reasons other than “how many amendments are we going to do, or long we’re going to debate.”

“This is about those who oppose this policy wanting to kill it and taking every opportunity they can and using the Senate rules to try and do that,” Shaheen said. “That’s exactly what’s going on here.”

Lieberman also maintained the Senate would have enough time to tackle “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal as it addresses other priorities, such as a nuclear arms reduction treaty and the extension of tax cuts.

“We’re just before Thanksgiving,” Lieberman said. “We’ve been told early on that we’d be here at least three weeks. That’s a lot of time into December, so we’ll be here at least until the week before Christmas. It’s just a question of how hard we’re prepared to work to get these things done. They’re all important.”

Lieberman said President Obama “has been active” on this issue and has been in communication with Reid as well as Senate Armed Services Committee Chair Carl Levin (D-Mich.) on moving forward with the defense authorization bill with “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal.

“I think he’ll, in my opinion, do everything he can to see that we get this done by the end of this year,” Lieberman said.

The news conference on Thursday was a hot spot for senators who advocate for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Among the 13 lawmakers who made an appearance were Sens. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Chris Coons (D-Del.) who recently took his seat after winning election in November.

Udall said Congress needs to take action to end “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” this year because further delay could it “could be years” for repeal to happen.

“We’ve reached an unprecedented level of gridlock here in the Senate when legislation that funds our troops provides for our national security and makes sure that we lead the world in the 21st century is blocked from even coming to the floor for debate,” Udall said. “We ought to welcome the debate — we have an idea of how that debate will turn out — but we’re going to have that opportunity to have this vote on the floor if we have courage and are steadfast.”

The senators joked among themselves that they would work through Christmas Eve — or for Lieberman, who’s Jewish, the eighth day of Hanukkah — to finish the effort in repealing”Don’t Ask, Don’t  Tell.”

Sen. Roland Burris, known as a strong voice for repeal during his tenure in the Senate, said he thinks ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” would be an important victory, but noted the vote in the Senate “may come too late” for show his support.

Because he was appointed to his position in the Senate in 2009, Burris is required by Illinois state law to give up his seat to Republican Senator-elect Mark Kirk during the lame duck session of Congress and may even leave the U.S. Senate this week.

“As a black American, I know what it means to go through discrimination and unfairness, and there’s no way in the world we can have a strong military and deny those persons who are gay and lesbian … an opportunity to serve their country,” Burris said. “I support that wholeheartedly and am just sorry that I may not be here to cast the vote.”

It remains to be seen how Kirk would vote on the legislation in Burris’ stead. As a U.S. House member, Kirk voted against a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal amendment in May that came to the House floor.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) went a step further than other senators at the news conference when she said she believes “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is unconstitutional. Some repeal advocates have been asking for President Obama to declare the law unconstitutional so he could discontinue enforcement of the law.

“I’m not a lawyer, but I believe in my heart of hearts that ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ is unconstitutional,” Feinstein said. “As a matter of fact, a federal district court has found that that, in fact, is the case, and it’s simple because it treats the same case of people differently.”

Still, not every member of the U.S. Senate is on board with repeal. Asked during the news conference whether he had spoken to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) about getting him to support an end to the law, Lieberman said he has had such conversations, but he has had “no success” in converting the Arizona senator.

Among those present at the news conference were advocates working for repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” including Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, Winnie Stachelberg, senior vice president for external affairs for the Center for American Progress, and Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network.

Lt. Col. Victor Fehrenbach, a gay Air Force pilot who’s served in the military for 19 years, was also present at the conference and told his story about how he’s now facing potential discharge under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

“Right now, my ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ is somewhere in the Pentagon, and I am fighting back in federal court with SLDN and my legal team to stay in the Air Force,” he said.

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Tennessee

6 killed in shooting at Christian school in Nashville

The shooter was identified as Audrey Hale, 28, of Nashville, according to police who identifies as transgender

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Covenant School, Covenant Presbyterian Church, on Burton Hills Dr. in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo courtesy of the Nashville Metro Police Department)

In a press conference Nashville Police Chief John Drake told reporters that earlier Monday morning a 28-year-old local female armed with two “assault-type rifles and a handgun” was killed by responding officers.

“At one point she was a student at that school,” Drake told reporters hours after the shooting at the Covenant School. “But unsure what year […] but that’s what I’ve been told so far.”

The shooter was identified as Audrey Hale, 28, of Nashville, according to the chief, who identifies as transgender.

According to Drake, three children and three adults were killed in the shooting at The Covenant School on Burton Hills Boulevard, a private Christian school.

Children’s Hospital Vanderbilt University Medical Center spokesperson John Howser told reporters “We can now confirm three children and two adults from the school shooting were transported to our Adult Emergency Department (the two adults) and (the three children) to the Pediatric Emergency Department at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital,” Howser said adding “All five patients have been pronounced dead.”

Police identified the three slain students as Evelyn Dieckhaus, Hallie Scruggs, and William Kinney, all age nine.

The three faculty members killed were Cynthia Peak and Mike Hill, both 61, and school head Katherine Koonce, 60.

At his only scheduled public event at the White House, President Joe Biden called the shooting “sick” and renewed his call for Congress to ban assault weapons.

Drake noted that the shooter was killed on the school’s second floor by his officers acknowledging that the victims were students and staff members of the school.

The school has students from preschool through sixth grade and on a normal day has about 200 students and 40 staff members on campus.

In a statement, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee tweeted: “I am closely monitoring the tragic situation at Covenant. As we continue to respond, please join us in praying for the school, congregation and Nashville community.”

NBC News reported that just days ago, a 17-year-old suspect wounded two administrators at a Denver high school before he was found dead.

In February, three students were gunned down at Michigan State University. And in January, two students were fatally shot at a charter school in Des Moines, Iowa.

The Washington Post and other media outlets reporting that U.S. Rep. Andrew Ogles (R-Tenn.), who represents the Nashville district where the Covenant School is located, said Monday in a statement that he was “utterly heartbroken” by the mass shooting.

Gun reform activists including Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter Jamie was killed in the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on Feb. 14, 2018, have called out Ogles for his hypocrisy posting tweets of Ogles posing with his children all carrying assault rifles in a 2021 family Christmas card photo:

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The White House

Vice president to visit three African countries that criminalize homosexuality

Ugandan lawmakers passed anti-homosexuality bill last week

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Vice President Kamala Harris arrives in Accra, Ghana, on March 26, 2023. (Photo courtesy of Harris' Twitter page)

Vice President Kamala Harris this week will visit three countries in Africa that criminalize consensual same-sex sexual relations.

Harris and her husband, second gentleman Douglas Emhoff, arrived in Ghana on Sunday. They will travel to Tanzania and Zambia before returning to the U.S. on April 2.

Ghana, Tanzania and Zambia are among the dozens of countries in which consensual same-sex sexual relations remain criminalized.

The Washington Blade last week reported LGBTQ and intersex Ghanaians remain in limbo as lawmakers continue to debate the Promotion of Proper Human Sexual Rights and Ghanaian Family Values Bill that, would among other things, further criminalize LGBTQ and intersex people and make advocacy on their behalf and allyship illegal. A Ghanaian representative who spoke during a March 20 meeting that focused on the integration of LGBTQ and intersex rights into the U.N. Security Council’s work said the body is not an appropriate venue to discuss them.

“You know that a great deal of work in my career has been to address human rights issues, equality issues across the board, including as it relates to the LGBT community,” said Harris on Monday during a press conference with Ghanaian President Nana Afuko-Addo that took place in Accra, the Ghanaian capital. “I feel very strongly about the importance of supporting the freedom and supporting and fighting for equality among all people and that all people be treated equally. This is an issue that we consider and I consider to be a human rights issue and that will not change.”

Tanzanian President Samia Suluhu, with whom Harris is scheduled to meet on Thursday, last month described LGBTQ rights as “imported cultures.” The Tanzanian government has also banned children’s books from schools because of their LGBTQ-specific content. 

The State Department in 2019 recalled then-U.S. Ambassador to Zambia Daniel Foote after the Zambian government sharply criticized him for publicly defending a gay couple who had been convicted of violating the country’s colonial-era sodomy law and sentenced to 15 years in prison. 

Then-Zambian President Edgar Lungu later pardoned the couple. Current Zambian President Hakainde Hichilema, which whom Harris will meet on March 31, last September reiteated his government does not support LGBTQ and intersex rights.

Harris arrived in Africa less than a week after Ugandan lawmakers approved a bill that would further criminalize homosexuality and LGBTQ and intersex people. White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the measure if signed “would impinge upon universal human rights, jeopardize progress in the fight against HIV/AIDS, deter tourism and investment in Uganda, and damage Uganda’s international reputation.”

“The bill is one of the most extreme anti LGBTQI+ laws in the world,” she said on March 22 during her daily press briefing. “Human rights are universal — no one should be attacked, imprisoned or killed simply because of who they are or who they love.”

President Joe Biden in 2021 signed a memo that committed the U.S. to promoting LGBTQ and intersex rights abroad as part of the White House’s overall foreign policy. Then-State Department spokesperson Ned Price later told the Blade the decriminalization of consensual same-sex sexual relations is one of the Biden-Harris administration’s five priorities as it relates to LGBTQ and intersex rights overseas.

A senior administration official told reporters during a conference call that previewed Harris’ trip that she “is very much focused on opportunities in Africa and a positive message and the great things we can do in partnership with African countries. And you’re going to really see that as the theme of the trip, given Africa’s role in the world and what we think can be done with Africans, for the sake of Africans in the United States and the rest of the world.” 
 
“But that doesn’t mean that she would shy away from discussing difficult issues, and you know her track record on the LGBTQ issue,” added the official. “She spent her whole career fighting for rights of overlooked and marginalized people, including LGBTQ people.” 

The official further stressed the Biden-Harris administration “is very clear about the right for all people to live free of harm and discrimination and to realize their full potential and to fully participate in society.”  

“The vice president has been clear about that throughout her engagements in the United States and elsewhere in the world, and it won’t be any different when she is in Africa,” added the official. “We have said, you know, including in recent days — expressed the concerns we have about certain developments that we’ve seen on the African continent, whether it’s laws or practices that are anti-LGBTQ. And that’s not consistent with what this administration stands for.” 

The official also said they “don’t think that is a choice between taking a firm stand on that set of really important issues and the big positive opportunity that the vice president sees in Africa and she’s going to emphasize on this trip.”

The Blade will provide further updates of Harris’ trip as they become available.

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New Mexico

LGBTQ protections added to N.M. Human Rights Act

Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham signed House Bill 207 on Friday

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New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signs House Bill 7 on March 24, 2023. (Photo courtesy of the Office of the Governor of New Mexico)

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed House Bill 207 into law on Friday that expands protections for LGBTQ New Mexicans under the state’s Human Rights Act. For transgender residents, Grisham also signed House Bill 31, a measure that removes the requirement that name changes be published in a newspaper.

The Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper reported that HB 31 also lets people 14 and older petition a district court for a name change and prohibits the court from requiring notice to the applicants’ parents if it finds notice would jeopardize the applicant’s safety.

“While hundreds of bills have been introduced across the country to restrict the rights of queer and trans people, New Mexico is committed to making our state a safer place for everyone by closing a loophole to ensure our taxpayer dollars cannot be used to discriminate against our LGBTQ+ friends and neighbors,” state Rep. Kristina Ortez (D-Taos) said in a statement.

State Rep. Christine Chandler (D-Los Alamos), the sponsor of HB 31, noted that the measure will benefit trans New Mexicans seeking to change their names as well as ensure safety for victims of domestic violence who may change their names to be more secure.

“Removing this antiquated publishing requirement protects New Mexicans’ privacy and allows them to safely move on with their lives,” Chandler said.

These measures are the latest in legislation passed this session to protect LGBTQ New Mexicans as well as women’s rights.

On March 16, Grisham signed into law House Bill 7, the Reproductive and Gender-Affirming Health Care Act, which prohibits public bodies, including local municipalities, from denying, restricting, or discriminating against an individual’s right to use or refuse reproductive health care or health care related to gender.

“New Mexicans in every corner of our state deserve protections for their bodily autonomy and right to health care,” said Grisham as she signed HB 7. “I’m grateful for the hard work of the Legislature and community partners in getting this critical legislation across the finish line.”

“Trans and nonbinary individuals deserve the support and care necessary to survive and thrive,” said Ortez, who co-sponsored HB 7. “Protecting gender-affirming health care is a critical part of making sure trans and nonbinary New Mexicans can succeed in school, establish healthy relationships with their friends and family, and live authentically as themselves.”

“In New Mexico we value the freedom and dignity of making your own personal decision about reproductive and gender-affirming health care,” said Ellie Rushforth, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico managing reproductive rights and gender equity attorney. “Now more than ever it is critical that New Mexicans and our neighbors have access to the full spectrum of health care in every corner of our state. We thank the governor for supporting and signing HB 7 into law. This is lifesaving legislation.”

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