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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.”


The White House

Country’s first nonbinary state lawmaker participates in Gaza ceasefire hunger strike

Oklahoma state Rep. Mauree Turner is Muslim



Oklahoma state Rep. Mauree Turner in front of the White House on Nov. 30, 2023, while taking part in a hunger strike for a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

The country’s first nonbinary state lawmaker last week participated in a hunger strike for a permanent ceasefire in the Gaza Strip that took place in front of the White House.

Oklahoma state Rep. Mauree Turner took part in the 5-day action alongside actress Cynthia Nixon, Virginia state Del. Sam Rasoul, Delaware state Rep. Madinah Wilson-Anton, New York State Assemblymember Zohran Mamdani, Michigan state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, former New York Congressional candidate Rana Abdelhamid, Muslim Founder Amani Al-Khatahtbeh, Adalah Justice Project Director of Strategy and Communications Sumaya Awad and Linda Sarsour. The U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights, Jewish Voice for Peace, Democratic Socialists of America, IfNotNowMovement, Dream Defenders, the Institute for Middle East Understanding and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee are the organizations that either participated in the hunger strike or endorsed it. 

“This is the place where you should be,” Turner told the Washington Blade on Nov. 30 while they were standing in front of the White House.

Turner is from Ardmore, Okla., and has been a member of the Oklahoma House of Representatives since 2021. They are the first Muslim person elected to the Oklahoma Legislature.

“Oklahoma is no stranger to genocide, displacement, uprooting communities — beautiful, vibrant, vulnerable communities — just because they could,” said Turner, referring to the treatment of Native Americans in what became Oklahoma during the 1800s and early 1900s. “Specifically as a Muslim and as an Oklahoman it is my duty to be here.”

The hunger strike took place nearly two months after Hamas, which the U.S. has designated a terrorist organization, launched a surprise attack against communities in southern Israel from Gaza.

The Israeli government has said roughly 1,200 people have been killed, including at least 260 people who Hamas militants murdered at an all-night music festival in a kibbutz near the border between Israel and Gaza. The Israeli government also says more than 5,000 people have been injured in the country since the war began and Hamas militants kidnapped more than 200 others.

Yarden Roman-Gat, whose gay brother, Gili Roman, spoke with the Washington Blade on Oct. 30 in D.C., is one of the 105 people who Hamas released during a truce with Israel that began on Nov. 24 and ended on Dec. 1.

The Hamas-controlled Gaza Health Ministry says more than 15,000 people have died in the enclave since the war began. Israel after Oct. 7 cut electricity and water to Gaza and stopped most food and fuel shipments.

“It’s absolutely wild to think about what is happening to the Palestinian people in Gaza and in the West Bank,” said Turner.

Turner noted the war began two days before Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

“By October the 10th, when the world was really seeing what was happening in Gaza,” they said. “So many people who had celebrated specifically Indigenous Peoples’ Day had also sided with the Israeli government over the indigenous people of the land.”

‘The death of civilians is absolutely horrible’

Turner in response to the Blade’s question about the Israelis who militants killed on Oct. 7 emphatically said “the death of civilians is absolutely horrible.” Turner added they “cannot stress enough that when we back people into a corner, we don’t know what will happen.”

“The truth of the matter is our governments, our governmental officials do not have to put people in a corner,” said Turner.

Turner was particularly critical of the Israeli government’s actions in Gaza after Oct. 7.

“I don’t think there’s any place where a government has the power to shut off right water, food, healthcare supplies, things like that,” they said. “It’s just in doing so against a population that has 2 million people … that’s not anyone looking for equitability or justice. That is genocide against its people.”

Turner noted Republican Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt continues to publicly support Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Turner told the Blade “when we oppress people over decades and decades … we cannot, we don’t get to cherry pick” or “we don’t get to tone police or however they are fighting back to be heard, to be, to live for vibrant lives.”

“We cannot tell oppressed people how to hurt out loud,” they said, specifically referring to Palestinian people. “We can create governments that care for people from a community standpoint who are thinking creatively about how we provide aid and support and we can ask our elected officials (members Congress, President Joe Biden, state and local officials) to teach truth. We can ask them to continuously make sure that we are providing the best care and understanding of the situations at hand. We can ask them to do a ceasefire to stop sending aid to the Israeli government and emboldening their military forces.”

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Climate change threatens LGBTQ resort communities

Provincetown, Cape Cod, other destinations face ‘existential’ challenge



The beach in Fire Island Pines, N.Y., on New York's Fire Island has been the scene of extreme erosion in recent years. (Photo courtesy Actum Vice President Savannah Farrell)

As the world reckons with worsening impacts of climate change, some LGBTQ communities and destinations are grappling with the “existential” threat posed by the crisis.

The United Nations’ annual climate conference will take place in the United Arab Emirates through Dec. 12. LGBTQ climate activists, however, are concerned about representation at COP28 because the meeting is taking place in Dubai, which is in a country that criminalizes consensual same-sex sexual relations.

President Joe Biden on Nov. 14 delivered a statement on climate change policy during his administration. Biden spoke on the American Rescue Plan, the Fifth National Climate Assessment, new transparency about the state of the country’s climate and more. 

Biden emphasized “advancing environmental justice for disadvantaged communities, because they’re the ones always left behind.” Evidence of this trend can be found in LGBTQ destinations across the country.

Julian Cyr, a gay Massachusetts state senator who represents Provincetown and other towns on Cape Cod, recognizes the state’s importance to the LGBTQ community, stating that “according to the Census, it may be the highest per capita density of LGBTQ+ people certainly in the United States, and perhaps internationally.”

Provincetown, a popular gay destination located at the tip of Cape Cod, is facing worsening storms as climate change advances. These storms reshape the natural environment as well as damage the built environment. A series of Nor’easters in 2018 flooded Provincetown, damaging homes, businesses and the town hall. 

“The climate crisis is … already forcing us to do a lot of planning and reevaluation of coastal resilience of our built environment,” said Cyr. 

All hope isn’t lost yet for Massachusetts destinations. 

Then-Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, in 2022 introduced the Climate Roadmap, which aims for zero carbon emissions by 2050. The state also is building the country’s first offshore wind farm, Vineyard Wind. 

Cyr said citizens can push for climate change legislation by making the urgency known to their local elected officials.  

“This is truly existential for coastal, low-lying communities like those that I represent,” said Cyr. “It’s really important that constituents weigh in with their elected officials and make sure that they know that this issue is crucially important. I don’t know how we not solve this issue.”

Experts are seeing similar effects in nearby LGBTQ destinations, such as Cape Cod.

“One thing that we do see already is the effect of storms,” said Mark Adams, a retired Cape Cod National Seashore cartographer. “Those storms are the signal of sea level rise.”

Adams said that as a result of rising temperatures and new, intense storms, he is also starting to see damaged ecosystems, unnatural migration patterns of local wildlife, and planting-zones moving northward. Adams told the Washington Blade these changing ecological relationships may mean an uncertain future for life along the coast: the self-sustaining lifestyle and seafood could be at risk as ocean acidification puts shellfish in danger. 

“If you can’t get oysters and clams, that would really change life on Cape Cod,” he said. 

In addition to the damage caused by storms, Cape Cod’s natural environment is also facing the threat of littering and plastic pollution. While the area’s beaches keep tourism alive, fishing gear and marine debris washing up on the shore are growing concerns for the community. 

Adams said this is where the choices individuals make to avoid plastics will make a huge difference in the future of these communities. 

“There are little choices we can make to get off of the petroleum stream,” he said.

A car in floodwaters in Miami Beach, Fla., in July 2018. Climate change has made Miami Beach and other coastal cities more susceptible to flooding. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Aspen Gay Ski Week adapts to warmer winters

Aspen Gay Ski Week was the first gay ski week, and it is the largest such event in the world, and is the only non-profit gay ski week.

Rising temperatures and short winters are growing concerns for destinations like Aspen, Colo., that depend on snow, according to AspenOUT Executive Director Kevin McManamon.

“As our seasons get shorter … we have to plan for the future,” McManamon said.

Colorado has also faced increased forest fires in recent years.

The Marshall Fire in 2021 devastated the state, destroying buildings and killing two people. Increasingly dry conditions feed into these fires, which will mean more impacts on humans, nature, and infrastructure.

McManamon nevertheless said he is optimistic about Aspen Gay Ski Week’s future due to the organization’s forward thinking. One such initiative is its involvement with Protect Our Winters, an organization that advocates for protecting the environment with the support of the outdoor sports community. 

“The cool part about being here in Aspen and having a great relationship with Aspen Skiing Company is that they are … on the leading edge of climate change,” said McManamon. 

Stronger storms threaten Fire Island

Fire Island Pines on New York’s Fire Island has been a safe haven for the LGBTQ community since the 1950s.

Fire Island Pines Property Owners’ Association President Henry Robin notes natural disasters cause more damage in the community as opposed to those that are across the Great South Bay on Long Island because Fire Island is a “barrier island.”

“When Superstorm Sandy hit, or when a Nor’easter hits, or a hurricane hits, the brunt of the storm is first taken by the Pines,” said Robin. 

Robin said “the Pines is thriving” just over 11 years since Sandy, but there is no climate change response. The federal government implemented a beach restoration project for Fire Island, and later, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers created an engineered beach for the Pines. 

Robin also formed three task forces — comprised of community members — to address local concerns, many of which were climate related, according to focus groups and a survey. Robin is also hoping to introduce recycling programs and solar energy to the Pines. 

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The White House

US announces additional sanctions for Ugandan officials

Anti-Homosexuality Act signed on May 29



LGBTQ and intersex activists protest in front of the Ugandan Embassy in D.C. on April 25, 2023. (Washington Blade photos by Michael K. Lavers)

Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Monday announced sanctions against current and former Ugandan officials who committed human rights abuses against LGBTQ people and other groups.

“After Uganda’s flawed 2021 presidential elections, I announced a visa restriction policy targeting those believed to be responsible for, or complicit in, undermining the democratic process in Uganda,” said Blinken in a statement. “At that time, I implored the government of Uganda to significantly improve its record and hold accountable those responsible for flawed electoral processes, violence and intimidation.”

Blinken announced “the expansion of the visa restriction policy to include current or former Ugandan officials or others who are believed to be responsible for, or complicit in, undermining the democratic process in Uganda or for policies or actions aimed at repressing members of marginalized or vulnerable populations.” 

“These groups include, but are not limited to, environmental activists, human rights defenders, journalists, LGBTQI+ persons and civil society organizers,” he said. “The immediate family members of such persons may also be subject to these restrictions.”  

Blinken added the U.S. “stands by the Ugandan people and remains committed to working together to advance democracy, human rights, public health and mutual prosperity.”  

“I once again strongly encourage the government of Uganda to make concerted efforts to uphold democracy and to respect and protect human rights so that we may sustain the decades-long partnership between our countries that has benefited Americans and Ugandans alike,” he said.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni on May 29 signed the Anti-Homosexuality Act, which contains a death penalty provision for “aggravated homosexuality.” The State Department a few weeks later announced visa restrictions against unnamed Ugandan officials.

The Biden-Harris administration in October said it plans to remove Uganda from a program that allows sub-Saharan African countries to trade duty-free with the U.S. The White House has also issued a business advisory for Uganda in response to the Anti-Homosexuality Act.

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