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A personal victory for gay Pentagon official

‘Don’t Ask’ repeal allows gay service members to become ‘whole’

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Douglas Wilson, the Defense Department's assistant secretary for public affairs. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

For the first openly gay assistant secretary at the Pentagon, helping to advance “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal implementation has been a personally rewarding experience.

In an exclusive interview with the Washington Blade, Douglas Wilson, the Defense Department’s assistant secretary for public affairs, said Tuesday his role in bringing about the change has had particular significance for him because of his admiration for the nation’s armed forces.

“It’s meant a lot to me personally because it’s been an opportunity to help realize change in an institution that I respect tremendously,” Wilson said.

The process leading to gays serving openly in the U.S. military, Wilson said, has been important to him because he knows there are people in uniform who feel they “couldn’t be whole” as they served under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

“I know what it’s like to feel like you’re not a whole person,” he said. “This is why as the process of repeal took place, and then the process of certification took place, that was something that personally I kept upper-most in my mind. An institution that has done so much for people, that has produced so many outstanding people, that has done so much for the country itself could understand and recognize how important it is to be a whole person.”

Wilson, whom the Senate confirmed in February 2010 to a senior position at the Pentagon, serves as assistant secretary of defense for public affairs. His duties include being a principal adviser to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on public information and community relations.

It’s not the Tuczon, Ariz., native’s first job at the Defense Department. Under former defense chief William Cohen during the Clinton administration, Wilson, 60, was a deputy assistant secretary for public affairs, and later principal deputy assistant under public affairs.

Wilson has had numerous other roles in government service and in work for non-profit organizations. Previously, he served as executive vice president of the Howard Gilman Foundation, where he oversaw the development and implementation of the organization’s domestic and international policy programs at its White Oak conservation center.

But in addition to his current duties at the Pentagon, Wilson had a direct role in bringing about “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal because he served on the executive committee for the Repeal Implementation Team.

“I’ve never seen myself as either a gay community leader or poster boy,” Wilson said. “I’ve always seen myself as a person with a whole lot of different components to me as an individual, and being gay is one of them.”

The culmination of that work took place when President Obama, Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen certified that the U.S. military is ready for open service. Under the repeal law signed in December, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” will be off the books 60 days after certification — so the law will officially come to an end on Sept. 20.

In the Blade interview, Wilson discussed a variety of topics including what the lifting of the military’s gay ban means to him as well as implications for service members in the future. His partner of 16 years is an educator.

His piece of advice for gay service members after “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is the off the books? Feel confident and believe you can be whoever you want to be.

“The military cliche, slogan is ‘be all that you can be,'” Wilson said. “Never has this been so true as it’ll be on Sept. 20 for thousands of people.”

Wilson had few words about potential partner benefits that could be offered to gay service members upon repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” because he’s “not a specialist on benefits.” Pentagon officials have said they intend to examine the possibility of extending certain benefits to gay service members — although the Defense of Marriage Act prohibits major benefits like housing and health insurance from going to service members.

“I wouldn’t want to speculate because I think all of these are on the table and I think there is a true determination here to do the right thing and to follow the law,” Wilson said.

Additionally, Wilson addressed the possibility of an executive order barring discrimination against troops based on sexual orientation and gender identity. LGBT advocates have called for the order because no non-discrimination rule will be put in place for the military even after “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is lifted, but the Pentagon officials have said they don’t believe such an order is necessary.

Wilson said channels are already in place for gay service members to make complaints about discrimination while enabling the Pentagon to keep its policies sexual orientation-neutral. Still, Wilson left the door open for further discussion on a non-discrimination order.

“People here are aware that there are different views on this issue,” Wilson said. “I expect that discussion on this issue is going to continue but that is the rationale.”

The transcript of the interview between the Washington Blade and Wilson follows:

Washington Blade: You were involved in the Repeal Implementation Team as the Pentagon made its way toward certification. As an openly gay man, what did that role mean for you personally?

Doug Wilson: I was a member of the executive committee of the RIT, and I’ve also have been here as the assistant secretary of defense for public affairs since February of 2010, and I think I’m the first openly gay assistant secretary in the Pentagon’s history. It’s meant a lot to me personally because it’s been an opportunity to help realize change in an institution that I respect tremendously.

I served here in the late ’90s under [former Defense Secretary] Bill Cohen, and I had never in a million years thought that I would be working at the Pentagon. It was a transformational experience for me. I met the most outstanding people in uniform, and civilians as well. But the people I met in uniform were absolutely remarkable people. The things they were required to do and did, the sacrifices that they made — it made a huge impression on me.

It also made an impression on me that there were men and women in uniform who couldn’t be whole. And I know what it’s like to feel like you’re not a whole person. This is why as the process of repeal took place, and then the process of certification took place, that was something that personally I kept upper-most in my mind. An institution that has done so much for people, that has produced so many outstanding people, that has done so much for the country itself — could understand and recognize how important it is to be a whole person.

It has demonstrated that when it came to the integration of the armed forces. It has demonstrated that when it came to the role of women in combat. And I knew that it could demonstrate that when it came to allowing gay and lesbian men and women to be whole and equal.

Blade: But have you ever found it challenging or felt out of place working for a department that — had you been working on the uniform side — until recently would have forced you out of your job because of your sexual orientation?

Wilson: Yes. I have been well aware that as a political appointee and as a civilian that I was able to do things that my counterparts in uniform were not able to do.

I’ve never seen myself as either a gay community leader or poster boy. I’ve always seen myself as a person with a whole lot of different components to me as an individual, and being gay is one of them. The thing that mattered the most to me was the folks in uniform would be able to be that. To be recognized as that — that being gay or lesbian is a component of who they are. It was always uncomfortable that there was that gap.

Blade: Do you feel like you’ve experienced any sort of anti-gay bias or discrimination while working at the Pentagon?

Wilson: No. Even when I was here in the late ’90s and I was quite close to secretary and Mrs. Cohen. They knew my sexual orientation, they extended their hands and welcomed me and at social events welcomed me and my partner. That meant a tremendous amount to me.

I felt the same way being here as an assistant secretary for public affairs, particularly within the office that I had, which consists of a large number of military as well as civilian, political appointees — all of whom know that I’m openly gay, all of whom have been nothing but supportive. It’s not been a factor … it’s a part of who I am, and that’s how I’ve been treated.

Blade: Are there any openly gay figures in government who’ve inspired you to be out?

Wilson: I don’t know that there’s been anybody who’s inspired me to be openly gay. I think that there are figures in government who are friends, who I’m proud to call colleagues — people like John Berry, people like Eric Fanning, who used to work for me at [Business Executives for National Security], is now here with the Navy. … I work with a large number of men and women in this government who are openly gay and lesbian. Certainly on the Hill, there’s an even larger number who are.

I think the thing that — we’re all extremely different people. But I think the approach is similar, that this is a component of who we are. I don’t think John Berry looks at himself as the gay director of [the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.] I think he looks at himself as the director of OPM, and he’s a gay man. That’s how I approach what I’m doing here.

As I say, everybody has their own path in life that they follow, and whether you’re gay or straight how you come to be who you are is your own path. For me, it’s wanting to be accepted for everything that I am in terms of the whole person that I am.

It took a long time to get here because I grew up in the ’50s and ’60s when it was a very, very different time, and it’s been a long time coming, and I’m really proud of who I am. I’m proud of this institution. I’m proud of this administration, and mostly I’m proud of the literally thousands of people who are going to be able to take advantage of the opportunities that I’ve been able to advantage of earlier.

Blade: Did you know Pete Williams, the openly gay former Defense Department spokesperson?

Wilson: Yes I did. He was not openly gay. He was not open when he was here.

Blade: But he has since come out.

Wilson: I believe he has. You’ll have to ask him. I mean, I can’t speak for him. It’s very well known, but you’ll have to ask him how he wants to be characterized, but I feel very confident in saying I’m the first openly gay assistant secretary in any capacity here.

Blade: What was going through your head when certification was happening last week? Were you reflecting on anything personally?

Wilson: Yes. I was reflecting on the process that it took to get to this place in terms of repeal. In December of last year, it was kind of a crucible. And there were points during that month when people thought this ultimately was not going to happen, including very senior people here. And I never did believe that it wasn’t going to happen.

I thought that we really had reached a tipping point in December when [Sen.] Susan Collins stood on the floor after that vote on the [fiscal year 2011 defense] authorization [bill], and, within a couple of hours, she and [Sen. Joseph] Lieberman were back down there talking to [Senate Majority Leader Harry] Reid, and they were going to offer this bill.

At that point, I thought this is not dead. I didn’t see how it could die. I thought there were so many chances to kill it, and it wouldn’t die. And I really thought that this was going to happen in December because I thought too many people could not look themselves in the face, look themselves in the mirror and say — with a report that showed what it showed, that attitudes in the United States being what they were — that they were the ones to be the anachronism. I won some money as a result of that.

Blade: You won some money? How is that?

Wilson: I bet it would happen.

Blade: How much did you win?

Wilson: Let’s put it this way. I won enough for a round of drinks for a few people at JR.’s if I had gone.

Blade: Some conservatives have criticized the decision to certify repeal at this time. Chairman Buck McKeon of the House Armed Services Committee called certification the culmination a “flawed repeal assessment and adoption process” and said he’s disappointed Obama didn’t address “concerns expressed by military service chiefs.” What’s your response to that?

Wilson: Everybody has their own opinion with regards to the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal and it would inappropriate for me wearing the hat that I wear to make any particular comments on any particular person’s point of view.

I would just say that I thought that the Comprehensive Working Group Report truly reinforced the fact that in the military — as well as outside the military — views have changed considerably and that this is not something that is being forced, that this is something that is evolving.

I personally knew that we had reached this point when I saw some of the outreach sessions that were conducted during the report. I can tell you an anecdote. You’ll never be able to fit this into the story, but I will if you don’t mind.

Blade: Go ahead.

Wilson: When I was at Ft. Hood, and after the outreach sessions, we went to see a tank at a tank crew. The purpose of it was to show how close quarters were in a tank and how difficult it would be for gay and straight troops to serve together.

So, we saw the tank, and at the end, the tank crew lined up in front of the tank, and people said to us, “Do you have any questions?” And I said, “You all have served together several years.” And they said, “Yes, we’ve been together a long time.” I said, “What happens if ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ is repealed and one of you told the other four that he was gay? What would you do?”

And person by person — the first person said, “Well, my brother’s gay, so it doesn’t matter.” The second person said, “Well, you know, I have so many friends who are gay from high school. It doesn’t matter.” To each person, it didn’t matter. And the final person said, “What matters to me is if this thing is burning, I want someone to be able to pull me out, and I don’t care what their [sexual] orientation is.”

That’s when I knew. That’s when I knew. Everybody is entitled to their opinion. That’s my opinion.

Blade: Do you have any advice for gay service members in this period after certification but before “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is off the books?

Wilson: I would say this has been a lengthy process. The length of it has been frustrating for some people. I understand both the frustration and the need for the process because this a very large institution and cultural change does not turn on a dime, but the evolution of the cultural change that has brought us to this point means that we don’t need to spike the football, what we need to do is understand that a lot of people have spent a lot of effort who are not gay to help us to get to this point.

I would say there are 60 days left because that is part of the legislation and we’ve come this far. Let us reach the end.

Blade: What about after that time? When “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is off the books, what advice would you have for them?

Wilson: Feel confident in yourself, believe in yourself that you can be whoever you want to be. This is the statement that you are a whole person, that your sexual orientation is a part of who you are and it is not a limiting factor to who you can be. Take pride in that.

The military cliche, slogan is “be all that you can be.” Never has this been so true as it’ll be on Sept. 20 for thousands of people.

Blade: Now that recruiters are soon going to be able to take on openly gay people, do you foresee some kind of special outreach or advertising to the LGBT community to search for talent in the armed forces?

Wilson: Here’s what’s very interesting right now about the recruiting process, and that is, for a variety of reasons, all of the services are more than meeting their goals. It’s harder, rather than easier, to get into the services because of that. So, I guess I would say it’s important to make clear that everybody’s welcome, and it’s important to make clear to everybody that their talents are needed. It’s also important to understand that the openings are going to be limited, so you want the best, and the best include both gay and straight individuals.

Blade: But could you see, for example, an ad in the Washington Blade asking for people to enlist?

Wilson: Sure. Let’s put it this way. When the circumstances warrant that we need more people, then I can see an ad in the Washington Post, in the Washington Blade, in the Washington Times, and in the Washington Examiner.

Blade: Pentagon officials have said the issue of benefits for gay service members is going to be examined in the 60-day period before “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is off the books. Which benefits do you think we’ll most likely see?

Wilson: I don’t know the answer to that. And I wouldn’t want to speculate because I think all of these are on the table and I think there is a true determination here to do the right thing and to follow the law.

The Pentagon has been put in a very interesting position by the courts over the past six months, and each step along the way, they have followed the law whatever the law is at that time. With regard to benefits, I think they want to look at each and every issue, they want to be able to determine it based on the law, whatever the law is now, whatever the law will be in 2012 or 2013 or 2014 — that will apply as well. So, I guess I would just say that nothing is off the table, but I wouldn’t want to advance guess the process.

Blade: Just to clarify … some of the major spousal benefits — housing and health insurance — those are prohibited from going to gay service members because of the Defense of Marriage Act. Do you see any possible workaround to offering those benefits to gay service members even with DOMA in place?

Wilson: I have to be honest with you, Chris. This is an area where I couldn’t give you the best answer because I’m not the specialist on benefits; I’m just not. All I would say is there is certainly a recognition here by the Repeal Implementation Team — both military and civilian — of the benefits that are extended to those in uniform, of the ones that for the moment, are not or cannot be because of the law, and people are looking at all of those.

Blade: One issue affecting gay service members has led to an ACLU lawsuit — the half separation pay that many service members face if they’ve been discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” It’s my understanding this could be changed administratively. Will the Pentagon make this change after “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is off the books?

Wilson: Again, I don’t know the answer. I’m being very honest with you. I don’t know the answer to the question; I wouldn’t speculate about the answer to the question. The only thing I would say is I’m well aware that that is an issue that is going to be raised.

Blade: I think I’m going to get the same answer here, but I’ll ask anyway. Another issue that is facing discharged service members is recoupment costs. Some who have been discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” are required to pay back bonuses they’ve received or grants they received for ROTC tuition —

Wilson: You would get the same answer. … None of these issues or concerns are secrets or surprises to people. The people here are aware of all of them. The one thing — you asked me about my impressions of this team — one of the things that has most impressed me about this repeal implementation team is the degree to which the people who are leading it, particularly the people like [Marine Corps Maj.] Gen. Steve Hummer and [Virginia] “Vee” Penrod. … These are truly outstanding humans. These are people who want to do the right thing. I do not sense a prejudiced bone in their body.

Blade: The issue of non-discrimination is still a concern. There have been some calls for the president to issue an executive order prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. There’s been some talk in the briefings that we don’t need to have this executive order. Why is that?

Wilson: The position that has been articulated is because there are channels. There are channels for raising these complaints, and the approach has been — on as any many issues as you possibly can do — to not have to change the policy if the policy already is sexual orientation neutral. And that’s the view here that this policy is sexual orientation neutral. People here are aware that are different views on this issue. I expect that discussion on this issue on this issue is going to continue but that is the rationale.

Blade: There’s also been concern that openly transgender people are still unable to serve in the U.S. military. Do you think that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal will open the door to open trans service?

Wilson: I don’t know the answer to that. I honestly don’t know the answer to that. I guess my own personal opinion is I think the issue of benefits is going to be the first issue after the 60 days, the most immediate issue of the set of the issues that are going to be addressed. The continuing issue of benefits, I think those are going to be addressed in the 60-day period and beyond. So, I think if I had to guess what are going to be the most near-term topics of discussion, it’ll be some of the benefits issues that you raised.

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Police describe Wilton Manors Pride incident as ‘fatal traffic crash’

Pickup truck driver identified as 77-year-old man

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A screenshot from a video taken at the scene by Joey Spears. (Image courtesy of @pinto_spears, via Twitter.) Screenshot used with permission from South Florida Gay News.

The Fort Lauderdale Police Department on Sunday released additional information about an incident at a Wilton Manors Pride parade that left one person dead and another injured.

A press release notes a 77-year-old man who was “a participant who had ailments preventing him from walking the duration of the parade and was selected to drive as the lead vehicle” was behind the wheel of a 2011 white Dodge Ram pickup truck that struck the two people near the Stonewall Pride Parade’s staging area shortly before 7 p.m. on Saturday.

“As the vehicle began to move forward in anticipation for the start of the parade, the vehicle accelerated unexpectedly, striking two pedestrians,” reads the press release. “After striking the pedestrians, the driver continued across all lanes of traffic, ultimately crashing into the fence of a business on the west side of the street.”

“The driver remained on scene and has been cooperative with investigators for the duration of the investigation,” further notes the press release. “A DUI investigation of the driver was conducted on scene and showed no signs of impairment.”

The press release confirms the driver and the two people he hit are members of the Fort Lauderdale Gay Men’s Chorus.

Fort Lauderdale Fire Rescue transported both victims to Broward Health Medical Center “with serious injuries.” The press release notes one of the victims died shortly after he arrived at the hospital.

The Fort Lauderdale Police Department, which is leading the investigation, has not publicly identified the victims and the driver, but the press release describes the incident as a “fatal traffic crash.” The press release notes the second victim remains hospitalized at Broward Health Medical Center, but “is expected to survive.”

“While no arrests have been made, the Fort Lauderdale Police Department continues to investigate this incident and will not be releasing the names of the involved parties due to the status of the investigation,” says the press release. “The Fort Lauderdale Police Department asks anyone who may have witnessed this incident, who has not already spoken to investigators, to contact Traffic Homicide Investigator Paul Williams at (954) 828-5755.”

The pickup truck narrowly avoided U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), who was in a convertible participating in the parade. Florida Congressman Ted Deutch was also nearby.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with those affected by the tragic accident that occurred when the Stonewall Pride Parade was just getting started,” said Fort Lauderdale Gay Men’s Chorus President Justin Knight in a statement he issued after the incident. “Our fellow chorus members were those injured and the driver was also part of the chorus family.”

“To my knowledge, this was not an attack on the LGBTQ community,” added Knight. “We anticipate more details to follow and ask for the community’s love and support.”

Fort Lauderdale mayor initially described incident as anti-LGBTQ ‘terrorist attack’

Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis initially described the incident as “a terrorist attack against the LGBT community,” without any official confirmation. Detective Ali Adamson of the Fort Lauderdale Police Department on Saturday confirmed to reporters that investigators are “working with” the Federal Bureau of Investigation, but stressed the “investigation is active and we are considering and evaluating all possibilities.”

“Last evening, at the start of what was to be a celebration of pride for the LGBT community and commemoration of our hard-won victories for equality, our community faced the worst of tragedies. The grief of our LGBT community — and greater Fort Lauderdale as a whole — is palpable,” said Trantalis on Sunday in a statement he posted to his Facebook page.

“I was an eyewitness to the horrifying events. It terrorized me and all around me. I reported what I saw to law enforcement and had strong concerns about what transpired — concerns for the safety of my community. I feared it could be intentional based on what I saw from mere feet away,” he added.

Trantalis added “law enforcement took what appeared obvious to me and others nearby and investigated further — as is their job.”

“As the facts continue to be pieced together, a picture is emerging of an accident in which a truck careened out of control,” he said. “As a result, one man died, two others were injured and the lives of two members of Congress were at risk. My heart breaks for all impacted by this tragedy.”

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ACLU and Justice Department to jointly challenge anti-Trans laws

Recently passed anti-transgender laws in West Virginia and Arkansas violate the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

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U.S. Department of Justice, Robert F. Kennedy Building (Photo Credit: GSA U.S. Government)

WASHINGTON – In court documents filed Thursday in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia and in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas, the U.S. Department of Justice, in Statement of Interest filings, joined the American Civil Liberties Union, (ACLU), arguing that recently passed anti-transgender laws in West Virginia and Arkansas violate the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

The suits filed by the ACLU challenges an Arkansas law that bans gender-affirming care for transgender youth and a West Virginia law banning transgender youth from participating in school sports.

Chase Strangio, deputy director for Trans Justice with the American Civil Liberties Union LGBTQ & HIV Project, issued the following statement responding to the Department of Justice submitting a statement of interest in two federal courts supporting transgender youth;

“Today’s filings from the Department of Justice send a powerful message that discrimination against transgender youth is not just wrong, it is also plainly unconstitutional. These filings from the Department of Justice confirm what we have been telling legislatures all year: Banning trans youth from sports and denying trans youth health care violates the Constitution and federal law. We hope that state legislatures finally get the message.” 

Law and Crime reported that in the West Virginia case filing, the Justice Dept. argued that House Bill 3293, which bans transgender athletes at public schools from competing in female sports at the middle school, high school, and collegiate level, violates both the Equal Protection Clause and  Title IX of the Education Amendment of 1972.

The case stemmed from a complaint filed by the parents of transgender girl who said their daughter was unlawfully prohibited from trying out for the school’s cross-country track team because of the measure.

In Arkansas, the Justice Dept. backed an ACLU-filed lawsuit challenging a state law (Act 626) which bans gender-affirming health care for transgender youths. The DOJ also claims that state ban violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, Law & Crime reported.

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Immigrant rights groups demand ICE release transgender, HIV-positive detainees

Letter notes Roxsana Hernández case

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The Adams County Correctional Center in Natchez, Miss., is a privately-run facility that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement uses to house some of its detainees. Eight immigrant rights groups have demanded ICE release all transgender people and people with HIV in their custody. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Eight immigrant advocacy groups this week demanded the release of all transgender and HIV-positive people who are in immigrant detention facilities.

Immigration Equality, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, the Transgender Law Center, the Santa Fe Dreamers Project, the Center for Victims of Torture, Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement, Mijente and the National Immigrant Justice Center made the request in a letter they sent to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and acting U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director Tae Johnson on June 16.

“As you know, transgender and HIV-positive people are severely suffering in U.S. immigration detention facilities,” reads the letter. “Those who do not perish from mortally deficient medical negligence are regularly mistreated, isolated and sexually assaulted.”

The letter notes DHS “for years” has “attempted to create conditions of confinement that are safe for these historically disenfranchised minorities.”

“This has been a fool’s errand,” it says. “Under both Democrat and Republican leadership, DHS has wasted millions of taxpayer dollars attempting to overcome a simple and inevitable truth: It is not possible for the U.S. government to house transgender and HIV-positive asylum seekers safely. Every progressive policy, every well-meaning protocol and every specialized facility has utterly failed. This has to stop. It is in your exclusive power to put an end to this ongoing human rights atrocity.”

“What makes this situation even more intolerable, is that the vast majority of the transgender and HIV-positive people suffering in immigration detention fled to the U.S. to escape persecution and torture,” adds the letter. “To these asylum seekers, the U.S. is more than a symbol of liberty. It is one of the few places in the world where they may hope to build a safer future. And yet, by detaining trans and HIV-positive people in such inhumane and unsafe conditions, the U.S. government is subjecting them to some of the same kinds of mistreatment they sought to escape.”

The groups in their letter demand ICE and U.S. Customs and Border Protection “to immediately release all transgender and HIV-positive people in their custody” and “review its system for identifying transgender and HIV-positive individuals, and work with stakeholders to ensure that it is effective and safe.” The groups also seek the creation of a policy “that deems all transgender and HIV-positive individuals non-detainable.”

The letter notes the case of Roxsana Hernández, a trans asylum seeker from Honduras with HIV who died in a New Mexico hospital on May 25, 2018, while she was in ICE custody.

Hernández’s family in a lawsuit it has filed against the federal government and five private companies who were responsible for Hernández’s care allege she did not have adequate access to medical care and other basic needs from the time she asked for asylum at the San Ysidro Port of Entry in San Diego on May 9, 2018, to her arrival at the Cibola County Correctional Center, a privately-run facility in Milan, N.M., a week later.

ICE in 2017 opened a unit for trans women at the Cibola County Correctional Center. It closed last year.

A picture of Roxsana Hernández, a transgender Honduran woman with HIV who died in ICE custody in 2018, hangs on a wall inside the offices of Colectivo Unidad Color Rosa, an LGBTQ advocacy group in San Pedro Sula, Honduras. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

The letter also notes the case of Johana “Joa” Medina León, a trans woman with HIV from El Salvador who asked for asylum in the U.S. in 2019 after she suffered persecution in her home country because of her gender identity.

Medina was in ICE custody at the privately-run Otero County Processing Center in Chaparral, N.M., until her transfer to a hospital in nearby El Paso, Texas, on May 28, 2019. ICE on the same day released Medina from their custody.

Medina died three days later.

“She became worse, worse, worse,” Medina’s mother, Patricia Medina de Barrientos, told the Washington Blade in an exclusive interview in the Salvadoran capital of San Salvador that took place a few weeks after Medina’s death. “She asked for help because she was a nurse, but they refused. She was denied help. There was no medical attention.”

Johana “Joa” Medina León, a transgender woman with HIV from El Salvador, died on June 1, 2019, at a hospital in El Paso, Texas, three days after ICE released her from their custody. (Photo courtesy of Patricia Medina de Barrientos)

The letter also includes testimonials from dozens of other trans and/or HIV-positive people who say they suffered physical abuse and survived sexual assault while in ICE custody. They also allege they did not receive adequate health care — including access to hormones and antiretroviral drugs — while in detention.

“Throwing LGBTQ and HIV-positive asylum seekers into prison is cruel, expensive and dangerous. For transgender and HIV-positive people, it can even be deadly,” said Immigration Equality Policy Director Bridget Crawford in a statement. “In response to years of consistently documented abuses against the community, the government has implemented ineffective half-measures that have utterly failed. That is why we have demanded that DHS release all transgender and HIV-positive people immediately. No one should ever be locked into prison because they fled persecution based on their sexual orientation, gender identity, or HIV status. Doing so during a pandemic is a human rights atrocity.”

Immigration Equality is among the groups that have previously demanded ICE release all trans people who are in their custody. Advocacy organizations have also called for the release of people with HIV in ICE custody, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

DHS, which oversees ICE, has not responded to the Blade’s request for comment on the June 16 letter.

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