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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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National

LGBTQ groups largely praise Biden’s State of the Union speech

HRC president attended with House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.)

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President Joe Biden delivers his 2023 State of the Union speech on Feb. 7, 2023. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

LGBTQ rights groups have largely praised President Joe Biden’s State of the Union speech that he delivered on Tuesday.

“It’s our duty to protect all the people’s rights and freedoms,” said Biden. “Make no mistake: If Congress passes a national abortion ban, I will veto it. Let’s also pass the bipartisan Equality Act to ensure LGBTQ Americans, especially transgender young people, can live with safety and dignity.” 

The Equality Act would add sexual orientation and gender identity to federal civil rights law. The bill has passed the U.S. House of Representatives in two previous Congresses, but did not come up for a vote in the U.S. Senate. 

“In re-upping his call for Congress to pass the Equality Act and protect transgender youth, the president is leading by example to expand freedom so no one is left behind,” GLAAD President Sarah Kate Ellis commented on Twitter. 

Likewise, Equality PAC, the political arm of the Congressional LGBTQ Equality Caucus, was committed to the president’s vision of a safer U.S. for LGBTQ+ people. 

“At a time where LGBTQ Americans, especially those who are trans, are increasingly under attack by right wing extremists, these [legal] protections have never been more dire,” remarked U.S. Reps. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) and David Cicilline (D-R.I.), who co-chair Equality PAC. “We remain committed to working with President Biden and members of Congress to pass the Equality Act and enshrine additional LGBTQ rights into law.” 

The National LGBTQ Task Force in its response to the State of the Union noted how all of the issues on which Biden touched — Social Security, fair wages, Medicaid expansion, access to education, reproductive rights and police reform — have the LGBTQ community “at the center of all the issues.” 

“LGBTQ people are often disproportionately impacted because of the discrimination our community faces every single day. LGBTQ people are not fully able to participate or benefit from all that our country has to offer. For too many queer people, the American dream is out of reach,” said National LGBTQ Task Force Executive Director Kierra Johnson. 

Research from the Trevor Project notes 36 percent of LGBTQ youth have reported they have been physically threatened or harmed due to either their sexual orientation or gender identity. Sixty percent of LGBTQ youth who wanted mental health care in the past year were not able to get it, and 89 percent of them said seeing LGBTQ representation in the media made them feel good about being LGBTQ.

Human Rights Campaign President Kelley Robinson, who attended the State of the Union alongside House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), said “we appreciate that President Biden is making a point to focus national attention on this urgent topic and stand up for transgender kids, because we need our nation’s leaders to show up and prove that, collectively, we are greater than hate.” 

Log Cabin Republicans President Charles Moran had a far different take.

“Last night, all Americans heard from President Biden was a laundry list of expensive new spending bills and tired campaign slogans, couched between a series of lies about Republicans and the U.S. economy. Meanwhile, inflation is still wrecking American families, our debt is skyrocketing out of control, and nearly half of American families — including LGBT ones — are worse off financially than they were just a year ago,” said Moran in a statement. “Not surprisingly, we heard nothing from Biden condemning the woke, race-and-gender-obsessed forces coddled by his administration. LGBT conservatives are thankful that we now have a Republican House to put a stop to the Democrats’ radical policies and look forward to working with Republican leadership to advance our own pro-America, pro-equality and pro-freedom agenda.”

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Federal Government

Rachel Levine tackles bad information on COVID, gender-affirming care

Assistant health secretary is highest ranking transgender person in Biden administration

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Assistant Secretary of Health Rachel Levine (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

In a visit to one of America’s most prestigious institutions of higher learning, Adm. Rachel Levine answered questions and offered insight about two of the most controversial healthcare issues of this decade, long COVID-19 and gender-affirming care.

Long COVID is the mysterious phenomenon in which patients endure debilitating, long-term effects from being infected by the coronavirus and gender-affirming care, treatments for transgender youth that are being targeted by lawmakers nationwide.

“Long COVID is real,” said Levine, the assistant secretary for health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the highest-ranking transgender official in the Biden administration. “We heard from patients who have suffered heart issues, lung issues, issues of fatigue and brain fog, after their COVID-19 infection. And we heard from providers at Yale who are forming a multidisciplinary clinic in order to evaluate and treat these patients.” 

In a public session held Monday at the Yale Law School, four of these “long haulers” shared their challenges with the admiral: Shortness of breath, pulmonary disorders, lifestyle and work limitations and disabilities that are hidden to most observers.

“Hearing the patients tell their stories is so meaningful,” she said, calling it a privilege to better understand the challenges they face.

“That helps us drive policy as well as research,” Levine said. 

“I was very active,” said Hannah Hurtenbach of Wethersfield, Conn., a 30-year-old registered nurse who was diagnosed with post-COVID cardiomyopathy, cognitive brain fog and pulmonary issues. “I loved hiking and being outside. I was constantly on the move and now I barely leave my couch. I barely leave my house and I can’t really handle even a part time job now when I used to work full time. So that has been really difficult at age 30 to be facing those sorts of issues that I never really anticipated feeling.”

Hurtenbach told the Washington Blade she appreciated Levine’s visit.

“Sharing my experience today with the admiral was probably one of the more highlight moments of this experience,” she said. “Knowing that the federal government is taking action, is paying attention, and listening to these stories means more to me than anything else, and especially knowing that what I’ve gone through over the last couple of years can be led and used into the future research and help others just like myself.”

A woman named Christine told the Blade that even though she is so impacted by long COVID that she needs assistance to walk and has to pause as she speaks because of her shortness of breath, she felt attending this event was worth all the struggle to get there.

“I’m so glad I came. I learned a lot from hearing from the others,” she said, who like her are trying to recover from long COVID.

Levine told the Blade that so far, she herself has not contracted COVID, and that she is double-vaccinated and double-boosted. With the president announcing the end of emergency COVID declarations on May 11, she said the administration is pushing Congress to approve extra funding for long COVID and other related needs. But how can she expect to get that through a House of Representatives full of anti-vaxxers, anti-maskers and COVID-deniers, including in GOP leadership?

“Long COVID is real and we hear you,” she said. “We plan to engage Congress to talk about the funding that we need. And we’ll continue to work. We do have to get past misinformation in this country, but we are here to give the correct information about COVID-19 and long COVID, and we’ll continue to engage Congress on that.”

Hurtenbach expressed disappointment in those colleagues in healthcare who came out publicly in opposing vaccines and mask mandates.

“I just wish they had paid better attention in school and learned more of the science,” the nurse said. “I wish they would trust the science that they are supposed to be promoting for their patients as well.” 

Following Monday morning’s public meeting, Levine held a private session with long COVID patients and Yale doctors, researchers, counselors, physical therapists and other providers. Then in the afternoon, the admiral spoke at another event, held at Yale Medical School: “A Conversation on LGBTQI+ Health and Gender-Affirming Care.” Although it was closed to press, Yale Asstistant Professor of Medicine Diane Bruessow attended the event and shared with the Blade what Levine told those gathered, which is that she remains positive and optimistic. 

“I think over time, things will change, and things will get better,” said Levine, adding the caveats, “I don’t know if they will get better everywhere in the United States. I also don’t know if it’s going to be quick. I think the next two years will be really, really hard.” Especially with more than 270 anti-trans pieces of legislation moving their way through state legislatures.

“But I am going to stay positive. I’m going to think that over time, things will improve,” Levine said, pledging that both she and the Biden administration would do everything they can to help families with trans kids. “I think the tide will turn.”

Levine: Long COVID is real

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National

Patrons of The Eagle NYC robbed of thousands

NYPD investigators believe the criminals used facial recognition to access the victims’ phones and funds once they were incapacitated

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The Eagle NYC (Screenshot/YouTube)

The New York City Police Department, (NYPD) confirmed that a series of robberies committed at The Eagle NYC, a Chelsea gay leather bar last Fall, had the three victims losing thousands of dollars after the criminals used facial recognition to access the victims’ phones.

NBC News Out correspondent Matt Lavietes reported the three men, who were in their late 30s and 40s, visited The Eagle NYC, on separate nights in October and November and were each robbed of $1,000 to $5,000, according to the NYPD’s deputy commissioner of public information. 

No arrests have been made and the investigation is ongoing, authorities said.

Capt. Robert Gault of the city’s 10th Precinct, who spoke about the incidents at a police community council meeting last week, told NBC News that NYPD investigators believe the criminals used facial recognition to access the victims’ phones and funds once they were incapacitated.

“What we think is happening with this scheme is they’re being lured away from the club, maybe to say, ‘Hey, you wanna come with me? I got some good drugs,’ or something like that,’” Gault said. “And then, once they get into a car to do whatever it is that they’re going to do, at some point or another, they don’t know what happened when they wake up.”

Criminals use facial recognition to patrons at NYC gay bar:

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