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HISTORIC: Obama signs ‘Don’t Ask’ repeal

Implementation process for open service must follow



President Obama signs "Don't Ask" repeal legislation into law (Blade photo by Michael Key).

The long fight to end a 17-year-old law barring open gays from serving in the U.S. military culminated in a significant milestone on Wednesday when President Obama signed into law a bill allowing for repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

Prior to the signing, Obama said the legislation will strengthen national security and “uphold the ideals that our fighting men and women risk their lives to defend.”

“No longer will our country be denied the service of thousands of patriotic Americans who are forced to leave the military, regardless of their skills, no matter their bravery or their zeal, no matter their years of exemplary performance because they happen to be gay,” Obama said.

During his remarks, the president also seemed to address those who have concerns about openly gay and lesbian people serving in the U.S. military to allay worries about the change to come.

“Now, with any change, there’s some apprehension,” Obama said. “That’s natural. But as commander-in-chief, I am certain that we can affect this transition in a way that only strengthens our military readiness; that people will look back on this moment and wonder why it was ever a source of controversy in the first place.”

The president signed the legislation in an auditorium at the Department of Interior before an audience of about 500 invitees that included both gay rights supporters and U.S. lawmakers such as Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.) as well as gay Reps. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and Jared Polis (D-Colo.).

Flanking Obama during the signing were gay former service members — Marine Staff Sgt. Eric Alva and Navy Cmdr. Zoe Dunning — as well as lawmakers who worked to pass the legislation, such as Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.), Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine). Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, who has testified before Congress in favor of open service, was also behind the president during the signing.

When he finished signing the bill, Obama declared, “This is done!” and embraced those who were with him on stage as the audience chanted, “U-S-A! U-S-A!”

Prior to the signing, Vice President Joseph Biden told the audience that the legislative repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” marks the fulfillment of the one of the promises to the LGBT community on which he and Obama campaigned in 2008.

“This fulfills an important campaign promise the president and I made, and many here on this stage made, and many of you have fought for, for a long time, in repealing a policy that actually weakens our national security, diminished our ability to have military readiness, and violates the fundamental American principle of fairness and equality — that exact same set of principles that brave gay men and women will now be able to openly defend around the world,” he said.

President Obama signed the bill after the U.S. Senate on Saturday voted to approve the legislation, 65-31. All Democrats who were present voted in favor of the bill; Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) didn’t vote. Eight Republicans voted in favor of the legislation: Collins, Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio), Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) and Richard Burr (R-N.C.).

Gay service members discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” who were present in the audience during the signing told the Washington Blade that the occasion overwhelmed them with joyous feelings.

Stacey Vasquez, an Army paralegal who was discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in 2003, said she was waiting for the moment “for so many years” and she couldn’t be happier.

“I had moments where I had my doubts of whether we were going to make it or not, but we were on the Hill every single day working on this,” Vasquez said. “People were very responsive to our stories about being discharged and why the law was unfair. It was just a matter of getting past the politics.”

Maj. Margaret Witt, an Air Force service member who last month became the first gay person discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” to be reinstated in the military by court order, said the moment of the bill signing will “go down in history.”

“I’m really happy to be here and hopefully carry the spirit of all those who are out there serving today,” Witt said. “It took years — years and years of really hard work and dedication.”

C. Dixon Osburn, who co-founded Servicemembers Legal Defense Network in 1993, said he was feeling “euphoria” following the bill signing and called the moment “the most significant advance in LGBT equality ever.”

“I think when you reduce it down to its essential — the young man and lesbian is not going to have to call SLDN hiding, quivering, wondering if they’re going to jail or if their career is going to be over the next day,” Osburn said. “America is now going to be with them for the first time, and they can serve with honor and integrity. Multiply that by a million, and that’s the significant change that we have today.”

Even though Obama has signed the legislation, repeal won’t take effect immediately. Language in the bill states that open service won’t be implemented until the president, the defense secretary and the chair of the Joint Chiefs certify that the U.S. military is ready for repeal.

There is no set deadline for when this certification must happen. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said he wants to first institute training to facilitate open service before issuing certification.

After certification, an additional 60-day waiting period for congressional review must pass before “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is officially off the books and gays can serve openly without fear of discharge.

During his remarks, Obama said he’s spoken with the military service chiefs about implementing the change and expects that it will be done quickly.

“I have spoken to every one of the service chiefs and they are all committed to implementing this change swiftly and efficiently,” Obama said. “We are not going to be dragging our feet to get this done.”

On Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said during a news conference that the president believes implementation of repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” would be “a matter of months.”

Aubrey Sarvis, SLDN’s executive director, has been pushing for certification to happen in a matter of weeks so that open service can begin in the first quarter of next year. He added that his organization will be “looking closely” at the new regulations that the Pentagon issues on gays in the military following certification.

“The regulations will be critical,” he said. “We’ll be working closely with [the Defense Department] on that and at SLDN, I think, our key role in 2011 — and probably the following year — will be oversight. Oversight of how the regulations are issued [and] oversight on how they are administrated.”

Even though the president has signed the bill into law, opponents of open service in the military continue to pursue avenues to block “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal before it’s implemented.

On Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell tried to attach an amendment to the fiscal year 2011 defense authorization bill pending before the Senate to expand the certification responsibilities to include the military service chiefs. Since many of the chiefs have expressed opposition to open service at this time, such a measure could have delayed implementation indefinitely.

However, the amendment was blocked on Tuesday after Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), the sponsor of repeal legislation in the Senate, objected to the measure.

Sarvis said there is “room for mischief” as long as certification is outstanding because opponents of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal could continue to propose similar amendments that would meddle with the process.

“No one should be mistaken that opponents will try to undo this before it gets off the ground,” Sarvis said.

Legislative repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was one of President Obama’s major promises to the LGBT community, but a number of gay rights supporters say they are expecting more from him during his presidency.

John Aravosis, the gay editor of Americablog, said repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is but one item crossed off the list and other promises are still outstanding, such as repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act and passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.

“By now, I was expecting ENDA passed and [‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’] repealed, with a promise to get to DOMA soon,” Aravosis said.” We still have to wait until next year to see whether [‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’] is truly and fully repealed, and forget about ENDA and DOMA for years to come. I’m glad the [‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’] legislation passed this weekend, and I’m glad the president finally got engaged. But we are at best getting one of the three big civil rights promises the president made to us, and that’s it for a long time coming.”

Dan Choi, an Iraq war veteran discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” who has chained himself to the White House in protest over the law, also said he wants more from Obama.

Asked by the Blade what his feelings were during the signing, Choi replied, “I want to get married — that’s my feeling,” referencing Obama’s opposition to same-sex marriage.

“I think today is a day that we can applaud him for signing it, and I recognize that it wouldn’t have been signed by his opponents, and I cheer for him and our hearts are with him,” Choi said. “This morning was historic, but this afternoon we start planning on how to hold him accountable for all the other promises and all the other things that we deserve as citizens.”



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

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



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



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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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



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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