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Pentagon official: No ‘Don’t Ask’ report before Dec. 1

Senate panel questions Gen. Ham on study

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A co-chair of the Pentagon’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” working group has said he doesn’t think an upcoming report on implementing repeal will be complete before the Dec. 1 deadline — despite requests from lawmakers and LGBT advocates to make the study available earlier.

Army Gen. Carter Ham, one of two co-chairs leading the Defense Department working group, made the remarks during his confirmation hearing on Thursday before the Senate Armed Services Committee. The four-star general has been nominated to become commander of U.S. Africa Command.

During the hearing, Senate Armed Services Committee Chair Carl Levin (D-Mich.) noted Ham said prior to his testimony he wasn’t authorized to discuss the content of the report at this time. The committee chair reiterated his commitment to hold hearings and hear testimony from Ham shortly after the working group provides the report to Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

Still, Levin said he had questions about the timing of the report and asked whether the Pentagon working group, which Ham co-chairs along with Pentagon general counsel Jeh Johnson, would be finished with its study before the Dec. 1 deadline.

Ham replied that he thinks “it will take until the first of December” for the Pentagon working group to complete its work because those crafting the report are still awaiting input from the military service secretaries and service chiefs.

“The key factor remaining for us in the review group is to receive the review and comment by the service chiefs and service secretaries, which is ongoing,” Ham said. “We anticipate their comments soon, Mr. Johnson and I will review those comments, make final adjustments to the report, which is currently in draft form and then deliver to the secretary of defense on 1 December.”

Asked by Levin whether the group could make “every effort” to make the report available before Dec. 1, Ham replied, “Yes sir, in consultation with the secretary’s office.”

On Monday, Sens. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) sent a letter to the Pentagon asking for the release of the report “as soon as possible.” The Human Rights Campaign issued a similar statement on the report last week and argued that an early release of the report could influence fence-sitting senators who have yet to endorse “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal.

Also during the hearing, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a strong opponent of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal and critic of the Pentagon report, asked questions suggesting the survey that was conducted as part of the working group’s efforts was biased in favor of repeal.

Over the summer, the Pentagon sent out 400,000 surveys to active duty service members to solicit their views on serving alongside openly gay troops in the U.S. military. According to a recent media report in the Washington Post, the survey found that more than 70 percent of respondents think the effect of ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” would be positive, mixed or nonexistent.

McCain asked whether 400,000 surveys were indeed sent out, which Ham confirmed, and then asked how many responses were received. Ham said the Pentagon group received a little more than 115,000 responses.

“Like 25 percent?” McCain continued, suggesting that the response rate was too low to consider the data valid.

But Ham corrected the Arizona senator and said the received responses made up 28 percent of the surveys sent out.

McCain also asked questions about the wording of the survey and suggested bias in favor of repeal was present here as well.

“Isn’t it true that the survey said in a preamble — said DOD is considering changes to the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy that quote ‘would allow gay and lesbian service members to serve in the military without risk of separation because of their sexual orientation,'” McCain said. “Is that true?”

Ham confirmed that this wording was indeed part of the preamble for the survey.

The content of recent media reports about the upcoming report was also discussed during the hearing. Lieberman asked whether the information revealed by the leaks was “just one part” of what the Pentagon group intended to do and inquired about other information that would emerge.

Ham responded by outlining the terms of reference for the report and said there were “two tasks.” One was to assess the impact of repeal on concerns such as battle effectiveness and recruitment, and the other was to develop a plan to implement an end to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

The general noted the working group obtained information from service members through surveys, focus groups, an online inbox and town hall meetings. To obtain to views of gay service memebers currently in the armed forces without outing them under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Ham said the working group established a “confidential conversation mechanism” through a third-party company.

“All in all, senator, we believe this is probably, as far as I could tell, the most comprehensive assessment of a personnel policy matter that the Department of Defense has conducted,” Ham concluded.

Lieberman said he agrees that the report is “very comprehensive” and “should inform the decision that Congress makes in voting.”

Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), who in May opposed a repeal amendment in committee, also praised the report during the hearing and emphasized it should guide congressional action on the issue.

“I think it’s important, if I may, to quote from what Sen. Lieberman just said,” Webb said. “He said this study ‘should inform the decision that the Congress makes in voting.’ We tend to forget that in our political haste here. This is a very important study for us, not simply to receive, but to examine and to discuss.”

A former Navy secretary, Webb noted he spent five years at the Pentagon and said he “can’t remember a study on this type of issue that has been done with this sort of care.”

“Not even having seen it or knowing the results, but I know the preparation that went into it,” Webb said. “So it’s going to be a very important study for us to look at and examine.”

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3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Don

    November 18, 2010 at 5:41 pm

    Senator McCain:

    Suppose during the 2008 election that only 25% of 400,000 registered Democratic voters voted for President Obama and this became a contributing factor to you winning the presidential election, would you then say ‘well, that’s just the way the cookie crumbles when those 400,000 voters had a chance to vote?’ Of course you would, because the hypothetical outcome favors YOUR political interest! Well, keep dreaming! You simply can’t handle the fact that you lost to PRESIDENT OBAMA and so now you and your colleagues want to stick it to him. Furthermore, you also had to convince your wife to go public saying that she suddenly had a change of heart and now supports your pathetic stance on Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, just to cover your ass! You know, as well as the rest of us Americans, that Cindy does not truely support your position on Don’t ask Don’t Tell as well as same sex marriage. Whether you want to admit it or not, gays and lesbians have always served this country proudly and will continue doing so. Frankly, as a retired gay Navy verteran, I’m deeply disappointed with your politics.

    • EL Dorado

      November 19, 2010 at 1:23 pm

      And to add insult to injury, the arrogant SOB is actually thinking of running again in 2012?! He should instead be retiring from the Senate for good and disappear like Bob Dole!

  2. EL Dorado

    November 19, 2010 at 1:21 pm

    What difference does it make what the report concludes? It’s a stonewalling tactic. It’s obvious from the tone of questions by McCain that he will simply dismiss the report as tainted, biased and inaccurate if it recommends and provides a strategy for ending the ban. The opposition won’t give up any ground on the matter and will simply try to shelve and ignore the report while voting to keep the ban in place! Watch and see.

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National

Jim Obergefell announces bid for seat in Ohio state legislature

Marriage plaintiff moves on to new endeavor

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First Amendment Defense Act, gay news, Washington Blade
Jim Obergefell has announced he'd seek a seat in the Ohio state legislature.

Jim Obergefell, the lead plaintiff in the litigation that ensured same-sex couples have the right to marry nationwide, announced on Tuesday he’d pursue a new endeavor and run for a seat in the state legislature in his home state of Ohio.

“You deserve a representative who does the right thing, no matter what. You deserve a representative who fights to make things better for everyone,” Obergefell said. “I’ve been part of a national civil rights case that made life better for millions of Americans. Simply put, I fight for what’s right and just.”

Obergefell, who claims residency in Sandusky, Ohio, is seeking a seat to represent 89th Ohio District, which comprises Erie and Ottawa Counties. A key portion of his announcement was devoted to vowing to protect the Great Lakes adjacent to Ohio.

“We need to invest in our Great Lake, protect our Great Lake, and make the nation envious that Ohio has smartly invested in one of the greatest freshwater assets in the world,” Obergefell said.

Obergefell was the named plaintiff in the consolidated litigation of plaintiffs seeking marriage rights that led the U.S. Supreme Court to rule in 2015 for same-sex marriage nationwide. Obergefell was widower to John Arthur, who died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and was seeking the right to be recognized as his spouse on his death certificate. The ruling in the consolidated cases ensured same-sex couples would enjoy the full benefits and responsibilities of marriage.

“We should all be able to participate fully in society and the economy, living in strong communities with great public schools, access to quality healthcare, and with well-paying jobs that allow us to stay in the community we love, with the family we care about,” Obergefell said in a statement on his candidacy.

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National

FDA-funded blood donation study recruiting gay, bi men

D.C.’s Whitman-Walker, L.A. LGBT Center working on study to ease restrictions

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gay blood ban, gay news, Washington Blade
A new study could make it easier for gay and bi men to donate blood.

D.C.’s Whitman-Walker Institute and the Los Angeles LGBT Center are among LGBTQ supportive organizations in eight U.S. cities working with the nation’s three largest blood donation centers on a study to find a way to significantly ease blood donation eligibility for men who have sex with men or MSM.

The study, which is funded by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, calls for recruiting a total of 2,000 gay and bisexual men in eight U.S. cities selected for the study to test the reliability of a detailed donor history questionnaire aimed at assessing the individual risk of a gay or bisexual man transmitting HIV if they donate blood.

A statement released by the study organizers says the questionnaire, which could be given to a gay or bisexual person showing up at a blood donation site, could be a replacement for the FDA’s current policy of banning men who have had sex with another man within the previous three months from donating blood.

In the early years of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, the FDA put in place a permanent ban on blood donations by men who have sex with men. In 2015, with advanced HIV testing and screening techniques readily available, the FDA lifted its permanent ban on MSM blood donations and replaced it with a 12-month restriction for sexual activity between MSM.

The FDA further reduced the time of sexual abstinence for MSM to three months in 2020.

LGBTQ rights organizations and others advocating for a change in the current FDA restriction point out that at a time when the nation is facing a severe shortage of blood donations due to the COVID pandemic, the three-month donation deferral requirement for MSM is preventing a large number of blood donations from men whose risk of HIV infection is low to nonexistent.

Under the FDA-funded and initiated study, the American Red Cross, Vitalant, and OneBlood — the nation’s three largest blood donation centers — have been conducting the questionnaire testing since the study was launched in March 2021.

“To gather the necessary data, the blood centers will partner with LGBTQ+ Centers in Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Orlando, New Orleans/Baton Rouge, Miami, Memphis, Los Angeles, and Atlanta,” the study organizers say in a statement on a website launched to help recruit volunteers for the study.

“The study will enroll a total of 2,000 gay and bisexual men (250 – 300 from each area) who meet the study eligibility criteria,” the statement says.

Among the criteria for being eligible, the statement says, is the person must be between 18 and 39 years old, have expressed an interest in donating blood, must have had sex with at least one other man in the three months before joining the study, and must agree to an HIV test. A negative test result is also required for acceptance into the study.

The study is officially named ADVANCE, which stands for Assessing Donor Variability And New Concepts in Eligibility.

“The ADVANCE study is a first step in providing data that will help the FDA determine if a donor history questionnaire based on individual risk would be as effective as time-based deferral, in reducing the risk of HIV in the blood supply,” the study organizers statement says.

“If the scientific evidence supports the use of the different questions, it could mean men who have sex with men who present to donate would be assessed based upon their own individual risk for HIV infection and not according to when their last sexual contact with another man occurred,” the statement continues. “The ADVANCE study is groundbreaking because it’s the first time a study is being conducted that could result in individual risk assessment for men who have sex with men to donate blood,” the statement says.

The Whitman-Walker Institute, which is among the community-based organizations involved in helping organize and conduct the study, is an arm of Whitman-Walker Health, the LGBTQ supportive D.C. health center.

Christopher Cannon, director of Research Operations for Whitman-Walker Institute, said that since the D.C.-based part of the study was launched early last year prior to the official announcement of the study on March 20, D.C. has surpassed the original city goal of recruiting 250 participants for the study.

“We are currently at 276 as of last Friday’s report,” Cannon told the Blade in a Jan. 13 interview. “And the current goal is now 300,” he said. “So, we’re hoping to push this over that goal line in the coming days and weeks.

Cannon said that like the community organizations involved in the study in other cities, Whitman-Walker Institute’s role has been focused on recruiting gay and bisexual men to participate in the study and to send them to the American Red Cross headquarters building at 430 17th St., N.W. near the White House. That site, which serves as a blood donation center, is also serving as the site where study participants are screened, interviewed, and presented with a detailed questionnaire.

“We promote the study within Whitman-Walker,” Cannon said. “We promote it to our networks. We did social media promotions across the city.’

Although Whitman-Walker doesn’t have the final draft of the questionnaire being presented to study participants, Cannon said he has seen “bits and pieces” of it.  

“They ask very direct questions about the person’s sex life, sexual partners, sex acts, numbers of partners,” Cannon said. “There are questions about condom use, PrEP use, drug use. How recently have you had sex? Lots of related questions,” he said.

“It’s really about trying to figure out effectively which are the best questions,” according to Cannon. “The hope is by analyzing the questions and identifying maybe the best 10 to 12 questions that can be universally used…to get the best answers that identify the individuals that may have the highest risk,” he said. Doing that, he points, out can help determine which men who have sex with men should be eligible to safely donate blood.

A statement released by Whitman-Walker last March calls the study a “monumental research effort” that has the potential to lift the stigma imposed on gay and bisexual men whose ability to donate blood is currently based on their sexual orientation.

“The ADVANCE study is designed to understand if, by asking carefully crafted and research-informed research questions, blood collectors can screen potential blood donors for their individual HIV risk factors rather than applying a ban against sexually active gay and bisexual men,” the statement says.

“The goal is to move away from overly broad questions that exclude potential donors and spread stigmatizing messages about MSM and their HIV risks,” it says.

Cannon said that as of last week, study organizers had recruited a total of 879 study participants nationwide out of the goal of 2,000 participants needed to complete the study. He said issues related to the COVID pandemic created delays in the recruitment efforts, but study organizers were hopeful the study could be completed by this summer.

Information about participating in the study or learning more about it can be obtained at advancestudy.org.

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Federal Government

Veterans can now identify as transgender, nonbinary on their VA medical records

About 80 percent of trans veterans have encountered a hurtful or rejecting experience in the military because of their gender identity

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Graphic via U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough announced Wednesday that his department added the options of transgender male, transgender female, nonbinary and other, when veterans select their gender, in medical records and healthcare documentation.

“All veterans, all people, have a basic right to be identified as they define themselves,” VA Secretary Denis McDonough said in a statement. “This is essential for their general well-being and overall health. Knowing the gender identity of transgender and gender-diverse veterans helps us better serve them.”

The statement also noted that the change allows health-care providers to better understand and meet the medical needs of their patients. The information also could help providers identify any stigma or discrimination that a veteran has faced that might be affecting their health.

McDonough speaking at a Pride Month event last June at the Orlando VA Healthcare System, emphasized his support for Trans and LGBQ+ vets.

McDonough said that he pledged to overcome a “dark history” of discrimination and take steps to expand access to care for transgender veterans.

With this commitment McDonough said he seeks to allow “transgender vets to go through the full gender confirmation process with VA by their side,” McDonough said. “We’re making these changes not only because they are the right thing to do, but because they can save lives,” he added.

In a survey of transgender veterans and transgender active-duty service members, transgender veterans reported several mental health diagnoses, including depression (65%), anxiety (41%), PTSD (31%), and substance abuse (16%).  In a study examining VHA patient records from 2000 to 2011 (before the 2011 VHA directive), the rate of suicide-related events among veterans with a gender identity disorder (GID) diagnoses was found to be 20 times higher than that of the general VHA patient population.

McDonough acknowledged the VA research pointing out that in addition to psychological distress, trans veterans also may experience prejudice and stigma. About 80 percent of trans veterans have encountered a hurtful or rejecting experience in the military because of their gender identity.

“LGBTQ+ veterans experience mental illness and suicidal thoughts at far higher rates than those outside their community,” McDonough said. “But they are significantly less likely to seek routine care, largely because they fear discrimination.

“At VA, we’re doing everything in our power to show veterans of all sexual orientations and gender identities that they can talk openly, honestly and comfortably with their health care providers about any issues they may be experiencing,” he added.

All VA facilities have had a local LGBTQ Veteran Care Coordinator responsible for helping those veterans connect to available services since 2016.

“We’re making these changes not only because they are the right thing to do but because they can save lives,” McDonough said. He added that the VA would also change the name of the Veterans Health Administration’s LGBT health program to the LGBTQ+ Health Program to reflect greater inclusiveness.

Much of the push for better access to healthcare and for recognition of the trans community is a result of the polices of President Joe Biden, who reversed the ban on Trans military enacted under former President Trump, expanding protections for transgender students and revived anti-bias safeguards in health care for transgender Americans.

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