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Senate panel leaves out anti-gay provisions in defense bill

Bill lacks language on ‘Don’t Ask,’ DOMA found in House measure

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Senate Armed Services Committee Chair Carl Levin (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

A Senate defense panel late Thursday approved major Pentagon budget legislation lacking anti-gay provisions found in the House version of the bill, although questions remain on whether amendments related to same-sex marriage or “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” could come up on the Senate floor.

Additionally, the Senate version of the fiscal year 2012 defense authorization bill has language repealing Article 125 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice — the long-standing military law classifying consensual sodomy for both gay and straight service members as a crime.

“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal advocates praised the Senate Armed Services Committee for excluding from its legislation the anti-gay language found in the House bill. The committee approved the defense legislation — which provides for a pay raise for troops and funding for defense programs — by unanimous vote on Thursday.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chair Carl Levin (D-Mich.), a leading proponent last year of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal, touted the committee’s passage of the legislation in a statement.

“For the 50th consecutive year, the committee has reported out a bill that supports the men and women of the armed forces and their families and provides them with the resources, training, and equipment they need to accomplish their missions,” Levin said. “In this time of fiscal problems for our nation, I am pleased that we were able to support our troops and their families while finding savings of more than $6 billion.”

Unlike the Senate bill, the House version of the legislation contains language — introduced as an amendment by Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) — that would expand the certification needed for repeal to include input from the four military service chiefs. Such language could potentially delay the process for implementing open service, which, under the repeal law signed in December, would come about after 60 days pass following certification from the president, the defense secretary and the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Additionally, the House version of the defense authorization bill, passed May 26, has language reaffirming that the Defense of Marriage Act applies to Defense Department policies and regulations as well as language prohibiting same-sex marriage ceremonies from taking place on military bases or military chaplains from presiding over these ceremonies.

During a conference call with media outlets on Friday, Levin said no member of the Senate Armed Services Committee even made an attempt to amend the defense authorization bill with measures related to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” or the Defense of Marriage Act.

Alex Nicholson, executive director of Servicemembers United, said the decision of panel members not to even introduce any anti-gay amendments during consideration of the legislation demonstrates the committee has “remained focused on serious military issues and has refused to waste time and taxpayer money trying to delay or stop the repeal of the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ law.”

“This just goes to show that this debate is settled and that Congress needs to focus on the serious issues of the day instead of being distracted by Congressman Duncan Hunter’s circus sideshow over in the House,” Nicholson said.

Still, even though the Senate Armed Services Committee excluded these anti-gay amendments from the defense bill, they could still emerge as floor amendments when the legislation comes before the full Senate.

With Democrats retaining 53 seats in the Senate, the passage of these anti-gay amendments on the Senate floor would be unlikely. However, opponents of open service and same-sex marriage may want to submit these measure on the floor to force all members of the Senate to go on the record on the issues.

Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, said he’s unaware of any plans to offer anti-gay amendments to the defense authorization bill on the Senate floor.

“However, we are most encouraged by Chairman Levin’s commitment to oppose them,” Sarvis said. “We think a majority on [Senate Armed Services Committee] share the chairman’s opposition, and, hopefully, a majority in the Senate too.”

Advocates are hoping the anti-gay language in the House bill would be stripped from the defense legislation during conference negotiations before it reaches the president’s desk. The White House has said the president opposes these provisions in the House version of the defense authorization bill, but has stopped short of saying he’d veto the legislation over this language.

While the Senate bill contains no anti-gay language, the legislation has a provision that would repeal Article 125 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which makes sodomy an offense under military law. The Senate committee included in the repeal language in its version of the defense authorization measure because the Defense Department requested it as a legislative proposal.

Supporters of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal praised the committee for including a repeal of the sodomy ban in the defense legislation. Nicholson said the move would lead to a more modern military.

“By proactively acting to remove Article 125 from the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the Senate Armed Services Committee has also reaffirmed that it is committed to modernizing the U.S. military and its personnel policies, and to removing outdated provisions that have long been viewed as unnecessary and even ridiculous by military commanders on the ground,” Nicholson said.

Sarvis said the decision to repeal the sodomy ban is is “timely and welcomed” and noted an end to ban was among the recommendations of the Pentagon working group report on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” issued in November.

“After a decade of discussions with the House and Senate Armed Services Committees and specific recommendations to the Hill, we welcome the Senate Armed Services Committee’s decision to repeal Article 125 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) relating to sodomy,” Sarvis said.

Despite the praise for the inclusion of language to repeal the sodomy ban, the statute has rarely been enforced in recent years for private, consensual sex. Experts have earlier told the Washington Blade that nearly all Article 125 prosecutions in recent years have involved additional infractions and violations, such as allegations of rape or sexual harassment or of sexual activity between an officer and a lower-ranking enlisted person.

The House version of the defense legislation doesn’t contain this language because the House Armed Services Committee ignored the request from the Pentagon to change the law. Sarvis expressed optimism that the repeal language for the sodomy ban would remain intact in the legislation following conference discussions between the House and Senate.

“Hopefully, the House conferees will recognize that these recommendations also come from a group of distinguished legal scholars from the military, private practice, and academia who felt strongly about the need for updates to the UCMJ,” Sarvis said. “These much needed changes will be to the benefit of all service members, straight and gay.”

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The White House

Biden, Harris, deliver remarks for White House Office of Gun Violence Prevention

Pulse survivor Brandon Wolf among those who spoke

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President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris listen as U.S. Rep. Maxwell Alejandro Frost (D-Fla.) addresses an audience in the Rose Garden including federal, state and local officials, survivors and family members, and gun violence prevention advocates on Sept. 22, 2023. (Photo courtesy of Brandon Wolf)

President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, and U.S. Rep. Maxwell Frost (D-Fla.) addressed an audience from the Rose Garden of the White House on Friday to honor the establishment of a first-ever White House Office of Gun Violence Prevention.

In a press release Thursday announcing the move, the administration said its aim is to implement and expand the provisions of last year’s Bipartisan Safer Communities Act along with those contained in the president’s executive orders targeting issues of gun violence.

Additionally, Biden explained in his remarks, the office will coordinate more support for survivors, families and communities, including mental health services and financial aid; identify new avenues for executive action; and “expand our coalition of partners in states and cities across America” given the need for legislative solutions on the local and state level.

Harris, who will oversee the office, pledged to “use the full power of the federal government to strengthen the coalition of survivors and advocates and students and teachers and elected leaders to save lives and fight for the right of all people to be safe from fear and to be able to live a life where they understand that they are supported in that desire and that right.”

The vice president noted her close experiences with the devastating consequences of gun violence in her work as a federal prosecutor, San Francisco district attorney, California attorney general and in her current role.

Biden’s comments also included highlights of his administration’s accomplishments combatting gun violence and a call to action for Congress to do more. “It’s time again to ban assault weapons and high capacity magazines,” he told lawmakers.

The president also credited the the work of advocates including those who were gathered at the White House on Friday: “all of you here today, all across the country, survivors, families, advocates — especially young people who demand our nation do better to protect all; who protested, organized, voted, and ran for office, and, yes, marched for their lives.”

Taking the stage before introducing Biden, Frost noted that “Right before I was elected to Congress, I served as the national organizing director for March for Our Lives, a movement that inspired young people across the nation to demand safe communities.”

“The president understands that this issue especially for young people, especially for marginalized communities, is a matter of survival,” the congressman said. And the formation of this office, “comes from Pulse to Parkland,” he said, adding, “we fight because we love.”

Human Rights Campaign National Press Secretary Brandon Wolf, a survivor of the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting, which was America’s second deadliest mass shooting and the deadliest against the LGBTQ community, shared a comment with the Washington Blade after Friday’s ceremony:

“Seven years ago, when my best friends and 47 others were murdered at our safe place — Pulse Nightclub — we promised to honor them with action. This is what that looks like. This deep investment in the fight to end gun violence matters, and I cannot wait to see Vice President Harris lead these efforts. We can blaze the path toward a future free of gun violence. And today marked an important step in that direction.”

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U.S. Federal Courts

Federal judge: drag is ‘vulgar and lewd,’ ‘sexualized conduct’

Ruling ‘bristles with hostility toward LGBTQ people’

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J. Marvin Jones Federal Building, U.S. Courthouse in Amarillo, Texas (Photo: Library of Congress)

Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas issued a ruling Thursday denying relief to a group of university students who sought to host a drag show over the objections of their school’s president.

A Trump appointed jurist with deep ties to anti-LGBTQ and anti-abortion conservative legal activists, Kacsmaryk argued that drag performances probably do not constitute speech protected by the First Amendment.

As Slate Senior Writer Mark Joseph Stern wrote on X, this conclusion “conflicts with decisions from Texas, Florida, Tennessee and Montana which held that drag is constitutionally protected expression.”

“It also bristles with undisguised hostility toward LGBTQ people,” he added.

Kacsmaryk’s 26-page decision describes drag performances as lewd and licentious, obscene and sexually prurient, despite arguments the plaintiffs had presented about the social, political, and artistic merit of this art form.

As the Human Rights Campaign recently wrote, “drag artists and the spaces that host their performances have long served as a communal environment for queer expression.”

The group added, “It is a form of art and entertainment, but, historically, the performances haven’t only served to entertain, but also to truly advance the empowerment and visibility of LGBTQ+ people.”

Nevertheless, anti-LGBTQ conservative activists and organizations have perpetuated conspiracy theories about members of the community targeting children for sexual abuse including by bringing them to drag performances.

Among these is a group with ties to the Proud Boys that was cited by Kacsmaryk in his ruling: Gays Against Groomers, an anti-LGBTQ and anti-transgender extremist group, according to the Anti-Defamation League and Southern Poverty Law Center.

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The White House

Harris to oversee White House Office of Gun Violence Prevention

Goal is to implement and expand upon legislation, executive actions

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U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, September 2023. (Official White House photograph by Lawrence Jackson)

The White House announced Thursday evening that President Joe Biden on Friday will establish the first-ever White House Office of Gun Violence Prevention, to be overseen by Vice President Kamala Harris.

The office will focus on implementing and expanding upon executive and legislative actions, including the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, “to reduce gun violence, which has ravaged communities across the country.”

Serving under Harris will be Stefanie Feldman, “a longtime policy advisor to President Biden on gun violence prevention,” and “leading gun violence prevention advocates Greg Jackson and Rob Wilcox.”

“Every time I’ve met with families impacted by gun violence as they mourn their loved ones, and I’ve met with so many throughout the country, they all have the same message for their elected officials: ‘do something,'” Biden said in a statement.

The president noted his signing of last year’s bipartisan gun violence prevention law, a flagship legislative accomplishment for the administration, along with his issuance of more executive actions than any president in history to address this problem.

Calling these “just the first steps,” Biden said the establishment of the White House Office on Gun Violence Prevention will “build upon these measures and keep Americans safe.”

He also urged Congress to do more by passing legislation requiring universal background checks, and baning assault weapons and high capacity magazines.

In a statement, Harris said, “This epidemic of gun violence requires urgent leadership to end the fear and trauma that Americans experience every day.”

“The new Office of Gun Violence Prevention will play a critical role in implementing President Biden’s and my efforts to reduce violence to the fullest extent under the law,” she said, “while also engaging and encouraging Congressional leaders, state and local leaders, and advocates to come together to build upon the meaningful progress that we have made to save lives.”

“Our promise to the American people is this: we will not stop working to end the epidemic of gun violence in every community, because we do not have a moment, nor a life to spare,” the vice president said.

Then Vice President Biden hugs Brandon J. Wolf as he talks with family members of the victims and survivors in the June 12th mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, at the Amway Center in Orlando, Florida, June 16, 2016.
Wolf, a Pulse survivor, was recently appointed National Press Secretary of the Human Rights Campaign.
(Official White House Photo by David Lienemann)
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