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BREAKING: Obama, Pentagon certify ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ repeal

Military’s gay ban will be off the books in 60 days

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President Obama and Pentagon leaders gave the green light on Friday to start the 60-day time period for when “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” will be off the books and openly gay Americans will be entirely free to serve in the U.S. military.

After consultation during a Friday meeting at the White House, Obama — along with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen — issued certification to Congress that the armed forces are ready for open service.

“Today, we have taken the final major step toward ending the discriminatory ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ law that undermines our military readiness and violates American principles of fairness and equality,” Obama said in a statement. “In accordance with the legislation that I signed into law last December, I have certified and notified Congress that the requirements for repeal have been met.  ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ will end, once and for all, in 60 days—on September 20, 2011.”

Under the repeal law signed in December, the military’s gay ban will be lifted once the president, the defense secretary and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff certify the armed forces are ready for open service. Consequently, now that repeal has been certified, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” will be off the books on Sept. 20.

“I believe the U.S. armed forces are ready for the implementation of the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Mullen said in a statement. “I conveyed that opinion yesterday to the President and to the secretary of defense, and today we certified this to Congress. My opinion is informed by close consultation with the service chiefs and the combatant commanders over the course of six months of thorough preparation and assessment, to include the training of a substantial majority of our troops.”

Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, said the “final countdown to repeal begins today” as a result of certification.

“Service members celebrate this historic announcement, and they are ready for this change,” Sarvis said. “Our nation’s top military leaders have testified that commanders see no significant challenges ahead, and now the president, Secretary Panetta, and Chairman Mullen have certified to Congress that the armed forces are prepared for the end of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.'”

Alex Nicholson, executive director of Servicemembers United, said certification of repeal means gay service members can “breath a huge sigh of relief.”

“While we still must wait 60 days for this change to formally take effect and for the law to officially be off the books, this step is nothing short of historic,” Nicholson said. “This is the final nail in the coffin for the discriminatory, outdated, and harmful ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ law.”

Gay service members who had left the U.S. military because of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” hailed certification for repeal as an important milestone.

Stacey Vasquez, a former Army recruiter who was discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in 2003, said she finds it hard to believe that the long struggle to end the military’s gay ban is finally coming to an end.

“I think it’s hard for me to put into words because there have been so many steps for me,” Vasquez said. “I went through a court battle for seven years and worked on repeal in my job for a year, and then I’ve lobbied Congress for nine years.”

She continued, “I don’t know if you’ve had one of those moments where you say, ‘Is it really done because you’ve had so many steps and you feel like you move forward and then you move back a step? I’m kind of thinking to myself, ‘Is it really done?'”

Still, Vasquez said she’s “happy” that certification has happened and plans to make an attempt to re-enlist in the Army after “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is off the books.

Brian Fricke, a gay Iraq war veteran who left the Marine Corps in 2005 because of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” also said certification brings him a sense of relief. and vindication that he thinks is shared by other service members.

“For me, personally, there’s a sense of vindication,” he said. “When I left, I had a partner at the time and I was always afraid of being found out. I couldn’t relax when I was on my R&R away from work because I was fearful of that.

Additionally, Fricke said he thinks other service members will share his feelings following the formal lifting of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

“I feel like a lot of the gay and lesbian troops are going to feel a lot of relief immediately, even if they’re not going to come out to people,” he said. “They are going to be able to relax when they’re off duty and be able to go in public to the movies and hold hands and not have to worry about retribution.”

Fricke wasn’t discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” but opted not to enlist in 2005 because of the burden of serving under the military’s gay ban. He said he doesn’t plan to return to the armed forces.

Although “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” will remain on the books until Sept. 20, discharges under the anti-gay law have already been halted. The Pentagon earlier this month put in place a moratorium on separations in response to a court order imposing an injunction against enforcing the anti-gay law.

As a result, gay service members can already serve openly without fear of discharge, although openly gay people are still barred from enlisting in the armed forces.

The injunction — initially issued last year by a California federal district court — was reinstituted earlier this month by the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in the case of Log Cabin Republicans v. United States, pending litigation challenging the constitutionality of the military’s gay ban.

The moratorium on discharges could be lifted — making gay service members vulnerable once again — if the U.S. government succeeds in efforts to convince the court to place a stay on the injunction. On Monday, the Justice Department requested this stay and maintained the Obama administration wants an “orderly process for repealing” the military’s gay ban.

R. Clarke Cooper, Log Cabin’s executive director, issued a statement saying his organization’s lawsuit helped lead to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal certification.

“Log Cabin Republicans are proud to have helped put an end to ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,'” Cooper said. “It is our hope that the clear precedent established in federal court that will ensure an absolute end to this unconstitutional law.”

Even with “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” on its way to being off the books, supporters of open service say more work is necessary to ensure gay and straight service members stand on equal footing.

One option to address this issue is an executive order from the president that would ensure non-discrimination for gay service members. Currently, gay service members have no recourse outside of their chain of command if they feel they’re experiencing discrimination on the job.

Sarvis, who has called for such a directive since February, renewed his call this week for such an executive order on the basis that “every service member deserves equal respect in the work environment.”

“Signing legislation that allows for repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ was necessary, but it is not sufficient for ensuring equality in the military,” Sarvis said. “It’s critical that gay and lesbian service members have the same avenues for recourse as their straight counterparts when it comes to harassment and discrimination.”

Other inequities exist between gay service members with partners or spouses and straight service members in marriages on issues such as living expenses and medical care, travel, housing benefits. Much of this inequity is because of the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits federal recognition of same-sex marriage.

LGBT advocates are also expressing concerns about transgender people still being unable to serve openly in the U.S. military. But openly transgender Americans can’t serve openly not because of law, but by regulation — so the change could be implemented administratively.

An executive order prohibiting discrimination against service members based on sexual orientation and gender identity would also stop the separations of service members who come out as transgender.

Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, issued a reminder on Friday that transgender Americans are still unable to serve openly in the armed forces.

“NCTE rejoices whenever discriminatory laws end and ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ was a discriminatory law and it needed to go,” Keisling said. “However, as repeal is certified, transgender servicemembers continue serving in silence. NCTE looks forward to the day when the U.S. armed forces ends discrimination in all its forms.”

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U.S. Federal Courts

Federal judge blocks White House from ending Title 42

Advocacy groups say policy further endangered LGBTQ asylum seekers

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The Mexico-U.S. border in Mexicali, Mexico, on July 22, 2018. A federal judge in Louisiana has blocked the Biden administration from terminating Title 42, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention policy that closed the Southern border to most asylum seekers and migrants because of the pandemic. The previous White House's policy was to have ended on May 23, 2022. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rule that closed the Southern border to most asylum seekers and migrants because of the pandemic was to have ended Monday, but it remains in place after a federal judge blocked the Biden administration’s plans to end it.

The White House last month announced it would terminate Title 42, a policy the previous administration implemented in March 2020.

U.S. District Judge Robert Summerhays in Louisiana on May 20 issued a ruling that prevented the Biden administration from terminating the Trump-era policy. White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre in a statement announced the Justice Department will appeal the decision, while adding the administration “will continue to enforce the CDC’s 2020 Title 42 public health authority pending the appeal.”

“This means that migrants who attempt to enter the United States unlawfully will be subject to expulsion under Title 42, as well as immigration consequences such as removal under Title 8 (of the U.S. Code),” said Jean-Pierre.

Advocacy groups and members of Congress with whom the Washington Blade has spoken since Title 42 took effect say it continues to place LGBTQ asylum seekers and other vulnerable groups who seek refuge in the U.S. at even more risk.

Oluchi Omeoga, co-director of the Black LGBTQIA+ Migrant Project, last month described Title 42 as a “racist and harmful policy.” ORAM (Organization of Refuge, Asylum and Migration) Executive Director Steve Roth said Title 42 “put asylum seekers in harm’s way in border towns and prevented them from seeking safety in the United States.”

Title 42 was to have ended less than a month after five members of Congress from California visited two LGBTQ shelters for asylum seekers in the Mexican border city of Tijuana.

The Council for Global Equality, which organized the trip, in a tweet after Summerhays issued his ruling described Title 42 as a “catastrophe.”

“The Biden administration cannot breathe a sign of relief until it’s a matter of the past,” said the Council for Global Equality on Saturday. “We remain committed to end Title 42.”

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U.S. Military/Pentagon

U.S. Army considers allowing LGBTQ troops to transfer from hostile states

Proposed guidance remains in draft form

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Top Army G-1 officer & enlisted advisor speaking with Joint Base Lewis-McChord single and dual military parents (Photo Credit: U.S. Army)

A draft policy is circulating among top officials of the U.S. Army that would allow soldiers to be able to request a transfer if they feel state or local laws discriminate against them based on gender, sex, religion, race or pregnancy.

Steve Beynon writing for Military.com reported last week the guidance, which would update a vague service policy to add specific language on discrimination, is far from final and would need approval from Army Secretary Christine Wormuth. But if enacted, it could be one of the most progressive policies for the Army amid a growing wave of local anti-LGBTQ and restrictive contraception laws in conservative-leaning states, where the Army has a majority of its bases and major commands.

“Some states are becoming untenable to live in; there’s a rise in hate crimes and rise in LGBT discrimination,” Lindsay Church, executive director of Minority Veterans of America, an advocacy group, told Military.com. “In order to serve this country, people need to be able to do their job and know their families are safe. All of these states get billions for bases but barely tolerate a lot of the service members.”

This policy tweak to the existing Army regulations pertaining to compassionate reassignment would clarify the current standard rules, which are oft times fairly vague.

A source in the Army told Beynon the new guidance has not yet been fully worked out through the policy planning process or briefed to senior leaders including the Army secretary or the office of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

“The Army does not comment on leaked, draft documents,” Angel Tomko, a service spokesperson, told Military.com in an emailed statement. “AR 600-100 and 600-200 establish the criteria for which soldiers may request for a compassionate reassignment. The chain of command is responsible for ensuring soldiers and families’ needs are supported and maintain a high quality of life.”

A base member wears rainbow socks during Pride Month Five Kilometer Pride Run at Joint Base Andrews, Md., June 28, 2017.
(U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Valentina Lopez)

The Crystal City-based RAND Corporation had published a study on sexual orientation, gender identity and health among active duty servicemembers in 2015 that listed approximate six percent of LGBTQ troops are gay or bisexual and one percent are trans or nonbinary.

A senior analyst for RAND told the Washington Blade on background those numbers are likely much lower than in actuality as 2015 was less than four years after the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ and prior to when the Trump administration enacted the trans servicemember ban in 2017, which has had a chilling effect on open service.

The Biden administration repealed the Trump ban.

Another factor is that the current 18-24 year old troops colloquially referred to as “Gen Z” are much more inclined to embrace an LGBTQ identity and that would cause the numbers to be higher than reported.

Also factored in is uncertainty in the tweaking of policy in light of the recent leak of the draft U.S. Supreme Court decision that would effectively repeal Roe v. Wade.

According to Military.com it’s unclear whether the Army’s inclusion of pregnancy on the list would protect reproductive care for soldiers if Roe v. Wade is overturned. That language could be intended to protect pregnant service members or their families from employment or other discrimination, but could also be a means for some to argue for transfers based on broader reproductive rights.

One advocacy group pointed out that the current wave of anti-LGBTQ legislation will negatively impact the moral of service members:

“What we’re seeing across the board is a small group of elected officials who are trying to politicize and weaponize LGBTQ identities in despicable ways. They’re not only doing that to our youth, but the collateral damage is hurting our service members,” Jacob Thomas, communications director for Common Defense, a progressive advocacy organization, told Military.com. “[Troops] can’t be forced to live in places where they aren’t seen as fully human.”

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National

How a pro-transgender memo sneaked through the Trump administration

2020 memo an outlier amid otherwise hostile policy

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By the time the Trump administration ended, it had solidified a reputation for being hostile to transgender people — barring them from military service and reversing regulations aimed at ensuring non-discrimination protections regardless of gender identity — but one minor policy decision managed to sneak through affirming the acceptance of employees going through gender transition.

Top officials at the Defense Intelligence Agency, a company support agency for the U.S. government, outlined in a memo dated June 15, 2020 the process for employees and supervisors to “navigate transitioning while employed at the DIA.” The document, which was not previously made available to the public, was obtained earlier this month by the Washington Blade through an appeal of a request under the Freedom of Information Act.

“Transitioning in the workplace is a personal decision,” the memo says. “DIA encourages transitioning employees to openly communicate during the transitioning process; discuss plans for workplace transition with their supervisor or manager; and, as appropriate, include any steps that will prompt workplace changes (e.g., transitioning employees may begin using a different name or pronoun).”

Because the fundamental nature of a memo outlining steps to help employees in the workplace transition is contrary to the overwhelming anti-transgender outlook of the Trump administration, the DIA memo appears to have been an internal effort shielded from the White House at the time as opposed to a government-wide initiative.

The DIA guidance for transgender employees runs contrary to other sweeping Trump administration policies that sought to enable discrimination against transgender people, including the military policy former President Trump issued via Twitter in 2017 outright banning them from service “in any capacity.”

Other anti-trans actions include the Department of Health & Human Services rescinding an Obama-era regulation that barred health care providers and insurers from discriminating against transgender patients, including the denial of transition-related care, which was orchestrated by then-director of Office of Civil Rights Roger Severino and came just days before the DIA memo.

Both the military ban and the health care rollback have since been reversed under the Biden administration.

Another Trump-era policy at a comparable scope to the DIA memo to employees, however, was the U.S. Office of Personal Management deleting on a page on its website outlining the guidance for accommodating federal workers going through the transition process. The DIA memo, which facilitates those transitions within that one agency, contradicts the message sent by the deletion of the OPM resource.

Although two sources familiar with the document told the Washington Blade it was timed for Pride month (which would be consistent with the June publication date), it would also be consistent with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Bostock v. Clayton County, which determined anti-LGBTQ discrimination is a form of illegal sex discrimination. After all, the Bostock decision came out on the same day as the date on the DIA memo.

A defense insider familiar with the DIA memo, who spoke on condition of anonymity, was among those who said the memo went out in recognition of Pride month and said it was intended to ensure there was guidance for transition at the agency.

“We had a number of different individuals who were going through the transition process and management needed to understand what the policy as they dealt with the individuals who were going through transition,” the insider said.

The insider said production of the memo “wasn’t part of any government wide effort” and completely within DIA. The memo, the insider said, wasn’t creating any new policy for the agency, but “looking at existing policy, and then providing our manager and our workforce clear guidance.”

Asked whether there was any backlash to the memo, the insider said, “No, I would say absolutely not.” Once the guidance went out, the insider said, he “didn’t hear anything from outside the organization” about it.

In response to a follow-up question on whether the White House or Pentagon under Trump expressed any objections to the guidance, the insider denied that was the case: “No one said anything to me about it.”

Other highlights of the memo include options for diversity training to better understand transition-related issues; instructions to refer to employees by the name and pronoun of their choice; a reminder the Defense Intelligence Agency has no dress code, therefore employees are allowed to wear attire in the manner they choose; and a guarantee employees shall have access to restrooms consistent with their gender identity. Employees may transition without prior coordination, the memo says, or may do so while creating a transition plan that includes the date the transition will begin, whether time off is needed and how to discuss the situation with colleagues.

“Employees can use the restroom and other facilities that best align with their gender identity and are not restricted to use of a single-user restroom,” the memo says. “Employees are not required to undergo or provide proof of any medical procedures to use restroom facilities designed for use by a specific gender.”

Additionally, the document outlines the process for administrative record updates, including making a request for a gender marker changer through human resources, updating personnel files, and changing DIA and intelligence community badges and identification cards.

A DIA spokesperson, in response to email inquiries from the Washington Blade on the document, confirmed the memo was issued to coincide with Pride month and remains in effect to this day.

“Released jointly to the DIA civilian workforce by the DIA Chief of Staff, Equal Opportunity and Diversity Office, and Office of Human Resources, the memo titled ‘Gender Transition in the Workplace for Civilian Employees’ serves to notify DIA civilian employees of the Agency’s position on supporting Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer (LGBTQ) employees, including those taking steps to align themselves more fully with their gender identities,” the DIA spokesperson said. “The memo was released in June 2020 to coincide with Pride Month and serves as active guidance.”

In many cases, regulations and guidance would have to go through the White House Office of Management & Budget or Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, but not necessarily, especially an internal memo to supervisors and employees to reinforce policy that purportedly was already in place.

A Trump White House official said he was unaware of the document until the Blade brought it to his attention and said it would not have come to the White House because it was never published in the Federal Register. The Office of Management & Budget didn’t respond to the Blade’s request to comment on whether it ever was brought to the attention of the White House at the time of its publication in 2020.

While regulations within U.S. agencies go to the White House for review and consultations, government agencies as well as businesses often consult transgender groups for assistance in developing guidance for transitioning in the workforce, such as the National Center for Transgender Equality.

Mara Keisling, a transgender advocate who served as executive director of the advocacy group during the Trump administration, said she was completely unaware of the memo until the Blade brought it to her attention, although DIA would have been “required by law” to have such a policy for transgender workers after the Supreme Court’s decision in Bostock.

“We would have been happy to see it, but this was not the Trump administration doing something good,” Keisling said. “This was HR bureaucrats, I don’t mean bureaucrat in a bad way at all. This is HR bureaucrats following the law, and it clearly didn’t rise to the level of the White House.”

Keisling said she was unaware of any similar guidance for gender transition coming from a U.S. agency during the Trump administration. However, she disclosed her organization was able to work with federal workers to get “a couple of sneaky things done the White House didn’t know about” consistent with the DIA memo, although she didn’t elaborate.

“And super importantly, it’s the intelligence community and defense and intelligence, which Defense Intelligence Agency obviously is both,” Keisling said. “They have a little more autonomy than others anyway, so … if you told me there was something surprising from somewhere on a personnel issue, I would have guessed that it was somewhere in the intelligence report or Foreign Service community.”

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