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HISTORIC: Obama signs ‘Don’t Ask’ repeal

Implementation process for open service must follow

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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.”

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Florida

Florida House committee passes “Don’t Say Gay” bill

“LGBTQ people are your neighbors, family members, and friends. We are a normal, healthy part of society and we will not be erased”

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Florida State Capitol building

TALLAHASSEE – A Republican majority Florida House Education & Employment Committee passed HB 1557, the Parental Rights in Education bill, colloquially referred to as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill advancing the measure to the full House.

HB 1557 and its companion Senate bill SB 1834, would ban classroom discussions about sexual orientation and gender identity in schools, erasing LGBTQ identity, history, and culture — as well as LGBTQ students themselves.

The bill also has provisions that appear to undermine LGBTQ support in schools and include vague parental notification requirements which could effectively “out” LGBTQ-identifying students to their parents without their consent.

“The Trevor Project’s research has found that LGBTQ youth who learned about LGBTQ issues or people in classes at school had 23% lower odds of reporting a suicide attempt in the past year. This bill will erase young LGBTQ students across Florida, forcing many back into the closet by policing their identity and silencing important discussions about the issues they face,” said Sam Ames, Director of Advocacy and Government Affairs at The Trevor Project. “LGBTQ students deserve their history and experiences to be reflected in their education, just like their peers.”

In an email to the Blade, Brandon J. Wolf, the Press Secretary for Equality Florida noted; “Governor DeSantis’ march toward his own personal surveillance state continues. Today, the Don’t Say Gay bill, a piece of legislation to erase discussion of LGBTQ people from schools in Florida, passed its first committee and became another component of an agenda designed to police us in our classrooms, doctor’s offices, and workplaces. Make no mistake — LGBTQ people are your neighbors, family members, and friends. We are a normal, healthy part of society and we will not be erased.”

The Trevor Project’s 2021 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health found that more than 42% of LGBTQ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year, including more than half of transgender and nonbinary youth.

According to a recent poll conducted by Morning Consult on behalf of The Trevor Project, 85% of transgender and nonbinary youth — and two-thirds of all LGBTQ youth (66%) — say recent debates about state laws restricting the rights of transgender people have negatively impacted their mental health.

When asked about proposed legislation that would require schools to tell a student’s parent or guardian if they request to use a different name/pronoun or if they identify as LGBTQ at school, 56% of transgender and nonbinary youth said it made them feel angry, 47% felt nervous and/or scared, 45% felt stressed, and more than 1 in 3 felt sad.

If you or someone you know needs help or support, The Trevor Project’s trained crisis counselors are available 24/7 at 1-866-488-7386, via chat at TheTrevorProject.org/Get-Help, or by texting START to 678678. 

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California mom claims school manipulated child into changing gender identity

Jessica Konen gave the school permission to use the boy’s name for attendance and tried to be supportive but noted it was difficult for her

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Fox News host Laura Ingraham & Center for American Liberty CEO Harmeet Dhillon with client, Jessica Konen (Screenshot Fox News)

A Northern California mother is claiming teachers in a small school district in the state manipulated her daughter into changing her gender identity and name in a legal claim. 

The claim, filed by the ultra-conservative Center for American Liberty on behalf of the mother, alleged “extreme and outrageous conduct” by the Spreckels Union School District, leading Jessica Konen’s 11-year-old daughter to change her gender identity and drive a wedge between them.

Specifically, the claim, a precursor to a lawsuit, names two teachers – Lori Caldera and Kelly Baraki – at Buena Vista Middle who, in addition to teaching, ran the school’s Equality Club, later known as UBU (You Be You). Buena Vista is a part of the district. 

It comes after Abigail Shrier, the author of a book widely criticized as anti-trans, quoted what the two educators said last year at the California Teachers Association’s annual LGBTQ+ Issues Conference in a piece headlined “How Activist Teachers Recruit Kids.” Caldera and Baraki spoke about the difficulty of running a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) in a socially conservative community. 

After the article was published, the teachers were put on administrative leave, and the district hired a law firm to investigate, which is ongoing. The UBU club was suspended. 

Spreckels is a town of about 400 people in the agricultural Salinas Valley, approximately 90 miles south of San Francisco

According to the complaint, Konen’s daughter began attending Equality Club meetings after being invited by a friend when she started sixth grade at Buena Vista. After attending one session, she decided it wasn’t for her until Caldiera convinced her to come back. At the gatherings, Caldera and Baraki held LGBTQ-centered discussions and introduced students to different gender identities and sexualities. 

During her time in the club, Konen’s daughter began exploring her own gender identity and sexuality, choosing to wear more masuline clothes. At some point, she decided to change her name and pronouns, which she has since changed back to her original name and pronouns. 

Konen said she was aware her daughter was bisexual but did not know she began using a male name and gender pronouns until she was called into the school when her daughter was in seventh grade. The meeting caught both Konen and her daughter by surprise – Konen’s daughter had said she wanted to notify her mother, but she did not know the meeting was that day. 

Konen gave the school permission to use the boy’s name for attendance and tried to be supportive but noted it was difficult for her. 

However, when Shrier’s article was published and circulated around the small town, everything changed. At this time, Konen’s daughter was again using a female name and pronouns.

In the leaked recording from the LGBTQ conference, Caldera and Baraki were discussing how they kept meetings private, among other things. 

“When we were doing our virtual learning — we totally stalked what they were doing on Google, when they weren’t doing school work,” Baraki said. “One of them was googling ‘Trans Day of Visibility.’ And we’re like, ‘Check.’ We’re going to invite that kid when we get back on campus.”

However, Caldera told the San Francisco Chronicle that the quotes were either taken out of context or misrepresented. According to Caldera, the stalking comment was a joke. She also defended their work, saying students lead the conversation and they provide honest and fair answers to their questions.
In addition, a spokesperson for the California Teachers Association criticized the group bringing the lawsuit forward, according to the Associated Press: “We are concerned about a political climate right now in which outside political forces fuel chaos and misinformation and seek to divide parents, educators and school communities for their own political gain, which is evident in this complaint. The Center for American Liberty is concerned with pushing its own political agenda through litigation and has filed multiple lawsuits against various school districts and communities.”

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GOP majority city council to repeal LGBTQ+ law in Pennsylvania

“I don’t know of any reasons for repealing it other than a political move […] This issue should not be politicized”

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Chambersburg, Pennsylvania (Photo Credit: Borough of Chambersburg)

The council of this central Pennsylvania borough (town) will meet on Monday, January 24 for a likely vote to repeal an ordinance passed this last October that safeguards residents against discrimination based on their sexual orientation, ethnicity or gender identity.

Opposition to the ordinance is led by newly installed borough council president Allen Coffman, a Republican. In an interview with media outlet Penn Live Saturday, Coffman said, “All of us that ran in this election to be on council we think we got a mandate from the people,” he said. “People we talked to when we were campaigning did not like this ordinance at all. I don’t know what the vote will be, but I have a pretty good idea.”

The political makeup of the council changed with the November municipal election, which ushered in a 7-3 Republican majority.

The ordinance, which extends protections against discrimination to gay, transgender or genderqueer people in employment, housing and public accommodations, was passed in October by the then-Democratic majority council, Penn Live reported.

“I don’t know of any reasons for repealing it other than a political move,” said Alice Elia, a Democrat and the former Chambersburg borough council president. “This issue should not be politicized. It’s an issue of justice and having equal protection for everybody in our community. It shouldn’t be a political or a Democratic or Republican issue. This should be something we are all concerned about.”

Coffman told Penn Live that the ordinance serves no purpose and is redundant. He points out that Pennsylvania’s Human Relations Commission handles discrimination complaints from residents across the state.

“There are no penalties, no fines,” he said. “There’s nothing that the ordinance can make someone do. The most they can hope for is that the committee request the two parties to sit down with a counselor or mediator and talk about it. Quite frankly there is nothing that compels them to. There’s no teeth in this.”

Penn Live’s Ivey DeJesus noted if Chambersburg succeeds in repealing the ordinance, it would mark the first time an LGBTQ inclusive law is revoked in Pennsylvania. To date, 70 municipalities have ratified such ordinances.

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is one of the 27 states in the nation that have no explicit statewide laws protecting people from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity in employment, housing and public accommodations.

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