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Obama to end ‘Don’t Ask’ this year

Pledges to implement repeal in State of the Union address

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President Obama (Blade photo by Michael Key).

President Obama earned praise from many LGBT advocates on Tuesday for pledging during his State of the Union address to implement an end to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” before the year is out.

In his speech, Obama observed that members of the U.S. military come from “every corner of this country” and are black, white, Christian, Jewish and Muslim.

“And, yes, we know that some of them are gay,” Obama said. “Starting this year, no American will be forbidden from serving the country they love because of who they love.”

In the House chamber, where Obama delivered the speech before a joint session of Congress, lawmakers reacted to the remarks largely along party lines — with Democrats applauding the comments and Republicans taking no action.

Among those who stood as they applauded were House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), who were both seen as key in pushing forward legislation allowing for repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” last year.

Notably, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the leading opponent in the U.S. Senate last year of repealing the military’s gay ban, also applauded following Obama’s remarks on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

The president’s remarks suggested that he will issue certification for repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” before the end of the year. Under the law Obama signed on Dec. 22, repeal won’t take effect until he, the defense secretary and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff certify the U.S. military is ready for repeal.

Asked via e-mail to clarify whether the remarks indeed mean Obama is committed to issuing certification before the year is out, Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, confirmed that indeed is the president’s plan.

In a statement, Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, said his organization is “pleased” the president expects that gays will be able to serve openly in the U.S. military by the end of the year.

“In fact, we think there should be certification from the president, Secretary Robert Gates and JCS Chairman Michael Mullen in this quarter,” Sarvis said. “We need to make ‘Don’t Ask’ repeal a reality sooner rather than later.”

Obama immediately followed his remarks on allowing gays to serve in the military by stating that the time has come for colleges to allow military recruiters and ROTC programs back on campus. Some schools had prohibited the military from recruiting on campus because “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” conflicts with their non-discrimination policies.

“And with that change, I call on all our college campuses to open their doors to our military recruiters and ROTC,” Obama said. “It is time to leave behind the divisive battles of the past. It is time to move forward as one nation.”

But Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said schools with non-discrimination policies protecting LGBT people should continue prohibiting the military from coming to campus — even after repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” — because openly transgender people still aren’t allowed in the armed forces.

“Students on campuses like Stanford and Harvard have already pointed out that the repeal of this policy, while an improvement, still does not allow transgender people to serve openly or to join the military,” she said. “We support the organizing efforts of students on those campuses and others in continuing to advocate for the exclusion of the military from their campuses as long as the military continues to discriminate.”

Obama mentioned other initiatives during his speech that were welcome news for LGBT advocates — even though they weren’t specifically LGBT-related — because they represented opportunities to pass pro-gay legislation.

During his address, the president said he “strongly believe[s]” Congress should “take on” the issue of illegal immigration and renewed his call for the passage of comprehensive immigration reform.

“I am prepared to work with Republicans and Democrats to protect our borders, enforce our laws and address the millions of undocumented workers who are now living in the shadows,” he said. “And let’s stop expelling talented, responsible young people who could be staffing our research labs or starting a new business, who could be further enriching this nation.”

Passage of immigration reform could present an opportunity to include the Uniting American Families Act — legislation that would end restrictions prohibiting bi-national same-sex couples from staying together in the United States.

Steve Ralls, spokesperson for Immigration Equality, said “it’s good to hear” that immigration remains a priority for the administration.

“It is an issue where there is room for bi-partisan agreement,” Ralls said. “I think on both sides of the political aisle, there’s recognition that comprehensive immigration reform needs to be tackled.”

Ralls said a UAFA-inclusive comprehensive immigration reform bill “does provide the best opportunity to move UAFA forward” in Congress.

Also during his speech, Obama expressed his desire to renew education laws that are currently on the books, which could present Congress the opportunity to pass the Student Non-Discrimination Act or the Safe Schools Improvement Act.

Obama said the Bush-era No Child Left Behind law should be replaced “with a law that’s more flexible and focused on what’s best for our kids.”

“You see, we know what’s possible from our children when reform isn’t just a top-down mandate, but the work of local teachers and principals, school boards and communities,” he said.

Passage of federal anti-bullying legislation received renewed attention late last year in the wake of a rash of suicides of gay teens who reportedly took their own lives after they had been bullied.

Despite Obama’s call to update federal education laws, Eliza Byard, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, said she’s disappointed the president didn’t explicitly address bullying in his speech.

“It was disappointing to hear nothing about the need for schools to foster a culture of respect amid all the talk of high standards and in the wake of seismic waves of tragedy for our community last fall,” Byard said. “Students can’t achieve, innovate and graduate if they’re scared to go to school, and we all lose if they grow up in a culture where difference is despised.”

Other LGBT rights supporters also expressed disappointment that Obama didn’t go further in his speech to address other issues, such as employment non-discrimination and marriage rights.

Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, said Obama shouldn’t settle on repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” as the final accomplishment for the LGBT community.

“If the president is truly serious about job creation and boosting America’s economic well-being, he must provide leadership and action in helping to pass employment protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and ending the costly and unjust federal marriage ban,” Carey said.

But the president’s State of the Union address predominantly focused on spurring job growth through education and infrastructure improvements as well as deficit reduction by cutting federal government programs.

“Our free enterprise system is what drives innovation,” Obama said. “But because it’s not always profitable for companies to invest in basic research, throughout our history, our government has provided cutting-edge scientists and inventors with the support that they need. That’s what planted the seeds for the Internet. That’s what helped make possible things like computer chips and GPS.”

Obama called this time for the country a “Sputnik moment,” recalling how even though the Soviet Union launched the first person into space in the 1950s, the United States was able to beat Russia in the space race by landing the first person on the moon.

In an online video response to the State of the Union address, lesbian Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) said the president “put out a challenge not just to compete to the global marketplace, but to win.”

“We know that in order to do that, we need to have the best educated workforce, the most innovative scientists and the most creative entrepreneurs,” Baldwin said. “I’m excited about this challenge because I know we can do it — and I plan on bringing some great Wisconsin ideas to the table as we respond to this challenge.”

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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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