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Discharged gay troops ready to re-enlist

‘That’s the life I was destined to lead’

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Thomas Cook

For Thomas Cook, deciding whether or not to re-enlist in the U.S. military after “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is off the books is a no-brainer.

Cook, a Houston resident who was discharged in 2004 under the anti-gay law, said he “absolutely” plans to rejoin the armed forces on the day that the military’s gay ban is lifted.

“That’s the life I was destined to lead,” Cook said. “I think military service is in my blood and my past experience in the military — I absolutely loved it. I wouldn’t have changed anything about it. I come from a family of military people, and I’m looking forward to going back into the military as soon as I can — Sept. 20.”

Cook, now 29, said he doesn’t intend to enter the same field in the military that he held upon his discharge, nor will he enter the same branch of service. He served in military intelligence in the Army prior to his separation, but Cook said he plans to join the Air Force nursing field to make use of the education he has since received in that area.

On July 22, President Obama, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen certified that the U.S. military is ready for open service in accordance with the repeal law signed in December, starting the 60-day period for when “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” will be a thing of the past on Sept. 20.

Gay service members discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” will be able to re-enter the armed forces from that point forward. Some service members whose separations received media attention said their affinity for military service leaves no doubt in their mind that they’ll re-enter the military as soon as possible.

Cook, who first joined the Army in 2001, said he feels compelled to continue military service even though he was kicked out after he declared his sexual orientation. In 2003, the team leader in Cook’s company said during a training exercise he’d kill anyone in his crew whom he found out was gay. Cook reported the team leader’s remarks to his battalion commander and said the threat alarmed him because he is gay. The confession started Cook’s discharge proceedings, and he was ultimately separated from the Army under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” on Jan. 20, 2004.

Seeking to rejoin the military, Cook was lead plaintiff in Cook v. Gates, a lawsuit challenging “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” that was filed by Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. However, the U.S. District Court in Massachusetts and the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the constitutionality of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in response to the challenge, forcing Cook to wait for legislative repeal before he could re-enter the military.

Cook said he bears no ill-will toward the military even though he was expelled from his position simply for stating his sexual orientation and was unable to reclaim his role through the litigation in which he was lead plaintiff.

“The organization itself has the policy in place, but the people I worked with didn’t necessarily believe in the policy,” Cook said. “I worked with people and the other soldiers that believe the same things I believed, which is anyone and everyone that is eligible to serve and is capable of serving should be allowed.”

Other service members whose discharges received prominent attention also said they intend to rejoin the armed forces after the gay ban is lifted — but aren’t feeling the same need to re-enlist on Sept. 20 as soon as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is off the books.

Alex Nicholson (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Alex Nicholson, executive director of Servicemembers United, is planning to re-enter the military as a member of the Reserves and, after obtaining a law degree, pursue a career as a military lawyer in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps.

“It’s still a lifestyle and a set of people that I am comfortable around and I’ve always had an affinity for,” Nicholson said. “It’s hard to explain the phenomenon and the fraternity that it is.”

Like Cook, Nicholson plans to take a different position than his previous role. Nicholson was an Army intelligence officer prior to his separation at the age of 20 under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in 2002. A fellow service member outed him to his unit after she read a letter he had written in Portuguese to a man he dated before he joined the Army.

After forming Servicemembers United in 2005, Nicholson became active in the discussion with the White House and Congress that led to legislative repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Nicholson was also the sole named plaintiff in the lawsuit Log Cabin Republicans v. United States, which led the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to institute an injunction this year barring further discharges under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

Despite his plan to rejoin the military, Nicholson, now 30, said he plans to hold off on re-enlisting for about two or three years as he continues his advocacy work because he doesn’t believe being in the military while acting as a watchdog for gay troops is appropriate.

“I just don’t feel like I would be able to continue to do the job that I do by doing that,” Nicholson said. “That’s going to add a whole additional layer of complexity to the political work, or the watchdog work that we do, if I were to do something like that.”

Also planning to re-enlist is Mike Almy, a former Air Force communications officer who was discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in 2006. He said he wants back in the armed forces because he has an affinity for it.

“It’s what I’ve done for 13 years,” Almy said. “I miss it, the people, the camaraderie, the mission and want to finish my career.”

After a fellow service member read a private e-mail revealing his sexual orientation and reported the information to his commander, Almy was discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” He never made a public statement that he was gay, but was nonetheless separated.

Almy, 40, received significant attention as a service member discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” after testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee last year against the military’s gay ban and taking on tough questioning from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

The best path that Almy said he sees for re-entering the armed forces is the resolution of the lawsuit in which he is lead plaintiff, Almy v. United States. The case, filed by SLDN and pending before the U.S. District Court of Northern California, seeks to reinstate him and other plaintiffs in the armed forces.

The case, Almy said, represents his best chance to return to the Air Force as an officer because of difficulties in the path ahead if he were to re-enlist at a recruiting station.

“It’s very difficult as an officer to go back on active duty, and that has absolutely nothing to do with ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ but just the fact that being separated and out for a couple years — coupled with the fact that there’s a drawdown — so that’s why we got the lawsuit in the works,” Almy said.

Mike Almy (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Almy added he’s expecting a resolution to the lawsuit in a couple of months and not the exact same position he held upon discharge, but a position that is comparable and the same rank.

Upon his discharge under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Almy lost all the benefits he would have had if he had been allowed to retire on his own accord. His reinstatement in the armed forces would enable him to reclaim those benefits.

“I have none whatsoever,” Almy said. “That’s what we’re trying to get as well. Assuming we’re successful in the lawsuit and win, and get reinstatement, then we’ll pick up where we left off basically, so I’ll get those benefits, go on to finish my career and ultimately retire.”

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Biden names civil rights veteran to U.S. Education Dept.

Catherine Lhamon’s portfolio will include LGBTQ rights, sexual misconduct, racial discrimination

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Nominee for Assistant Secretary of the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education Catherine Lhamon. (Photo public domain))

The White House announced Thursday that President Joe Biden has nominated Catherine Lhamon to serve as the Assistant Secretary of the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education.

Lhamon currently serves as a Deputy Assistant to the President and Deputy Director of the Domestic Policy Council for Racial Justice and Equity at the White House, where she manages the President’s equity policy portfolio. She is a former attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, (ACLU) and served as chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights from 2017 to 2021.

She has also served as Legal Affairs Secretary to California Governor Gavin Newsom.

Her portfolio at Education, where she previously served in the same position under former President Barack Obama, will include LGBTQ rights, sexual misconduct and racial discrimination in the nation’s K-12 schools, universities and colleges. Lhamon was Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the Department of Education, to which President Obama nominated her and the Senate confirmed her in 2013.

“I am thrilled that President Biden is nominating Catherine Lhamon to serve as Assistant Secretary of the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education. Catherine has devoted her career to ensuring equity is at the core of all her work,” U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said in a statement released by his office Thursday.

“She has a strong record of fighting for communities of color and underserved communities, whether as the current Deputy Director of the Domestic Policy Council, the former chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, or as a civil rights educator at Georgetown University. We are thrilled to have Catherine serving as Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights and know she will continue to fight for fairness, equity, and justice for all of America’s students.”

Lhamon has also litigated civil rights cases at National Center for Youth Law, Public Counsel Law Center, and the ACLU Foundation of Southern California.  Lhamon taught federal civil rights appeals at Georgetown University Law Center in the Appellate Litigation Program and clerked for the Honorable William A. Norris on the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

“Catherine Lhamon is the right choice to lead the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights at such a critical time for the country and the agency. There is much work to do in order to roll back the harmful policies and legacies of Betsy DeVos, from her attacks on transgender students to her unconscionable revocation of discriminatory discipline guidance and rewrite of Title IX rules,” Adele Kimmel, Director of the Students’ Civil Rights Project at Public Justice told the Blade in an email.

“During her previous tenure in the same job, Catherine embraced equality, enforced Title IX and ensured students had an ally inside the federal government. She will do so again, and the Senate should move to quickly confirm her so she can begin the work of restoring the Department’s commitment to protecting the civil rights and dignity of students and implementing the Biden Administration’s pledge to undo the damage that DeVos has done,” Kimmel added.

Born in Virginia and raised in California, Lhamon graduated from Amherst College and Yale Law School. Lhamon and her husband and two daughters are transitioning between California and Maryland.

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Family of transgender woman who died in ICE custody sues federal government

Roxsana Hernández passed away in N.M. in 2018

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A picture of Roxsana Hernández, a transgender Honduran woman with HIV who died in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement 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 family of a transgender woman with HIV who died in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody in 2018 has sued the federal government.

The Transgender Law Center and two immigration lawyers — Daniel Yohalem and R. Andrew Free — in 2020 filed a lawsuit in U.S. District for the District of New Mexico against five private companies who were responsible for Roxsana Hernández’s care.

The lawsuit named Management and Training Corporation, LaSalle Corrections, Global Precision Systems, TransCor America and CoreCivic as defendants. The Transgender Law Center, Yohalem and Grant and Eisenhofer Law on Wednesday petitioned the court to add the federal government to the lawsuit.

“This amended complaint adds the United States, including U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), and the United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to the list of entities who had a direct role in Roxsana’s death,” said the Transgender Law Center in a press release.

Hernández, who was from Honduras, entered CBP custody on May 9, 2018, when she asked for asylum at the San Ysidro Port of Entry in San Diego. She arrived at the Cibola County Correctional Center, a facility in Milan N.M., that CoreCivic operates, a week later.

Hernández was admitted to Cibola General Hospital in Grants, N.M., shortly after she arrived at the privately-run detention center. Hernández died at Lovelace Medical Center in Albuquerque, N.M., on May 25, 2018.

The lawsuit, among other things, alleges Management and Training Corporation personnel “denied Roxsana and her fellow detainees food, water and restroom access throughout their transfer” from California to a facility in San Luis, Ariz., that LaSalle Corporations operates. The lawsuit also states Hernández did not receive necessary medical care from LaSalle Corporations, Global Precision Systems and TransCor personnel as they transported her to the Cibola County Correctional Center.

CoreCivic officers, according to the lawsuit, delayed Hernández’s medical care once she was hospitalized.

An autopsy the New Mexico Office of the Medical Investigator performed concluded Hernández died from Castleman disease associated with AIDS.

A second autopsy that former Georgia Chief Medical Examiner Kris Sperry performed at the Transgender Law Center’s request concluded the cause of death was “most probably severe complications of dehydration superimposed upon HIV infection, with the probable presence of one or more opportunistic infections.” The second autopsy also found “evidence of physical abuse” that included bruising on Hernández’s rib cage and contusions on her body.

“Defendants’ discriminatory, negligent, and reckless acts and omissions: (a) caused Roxsana to suffer severe emotional and physical distress; (b) created an unreasonable risk that Roxsana’s condition would deteriorate, especially in light of her known HIV-positive status; (c) caused Roxsana’s condition to deteriorate; (d) diminished the opportunity for Roxsana’s condition to improve; (e) caused her to lose her chance to survive and participate in the federal immigration process; and (f) ultimately, caused her death,” reads the motion the Transgender Law Center filed on Wednesday.

“My sister came to the U.S. in search of safety and protection from the horrific violence she experienced as a trans woman in Honduras, and what she found instead was abuse, discrimination and neglect,” said Hernández’s sister, Jenny Hernández Rodríquez, in the Transgender Law Center press release. “The tragic fact that she is no longer with us is a direct result of that discrimination and neglect.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security — which oversees ICE and CBP — with whom the Washington Blade spoke on Thursday declined to comment.

The Cibola County Correctional Center in Milan, N.M. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement)

Hernández’s death sparked widespread outrage among immigration advocates. Her case also intensified calls for ICE to release all trans women in their custody.

The Transgender Law Center, the Rapid Defense Network and the Ballard Spahr law firm in April 2020 filed a class action lawsuit that demanded the release of all trans people in ICE custody.

More than 40 Democratic members of the U.S. House of Representatives in January 2020 called for ICE to release all trans people in their custody. Illinois Congressman Mike Quigley on Thursday during a House Appropriations Committee hearing asked Acting ICE Director Tae Johnson about the treatment of trans people in his agency’s custody.

“We have made some efforts on sort of improving our training and identifying specific facilities which would focus on housing these individuals in a less restrictive environment but there’s always more work we can do,” said Johnson. “We’re looking at all aspects of our vulnerable population to include transgender, and this is going to continue to be a priority for us as we move forward in assessing our detention framework.”

A unit for trans women in ICE custody opened at the Cibola County Correctional Center in 2017. It closed in 2020.

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Biden administration to ban discrimination against LGBTQ patients

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The Biden administration announced on Monday it would enforce civil rights protections under Obamacare to prohibit discrimination in health care against patients for being LGBTQ, reversing policy during the Trump years excluding transgender status as a protected characteristic under the law.

The Department of Health & Human Services declared it would enforce Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act, which prohibits discrimination in health care on the basis of sex, and begin to take up cases of discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra said in a statement the Supreme Court has “made clear that people have a right not to be discriminated against on the basis of sex and receive equal treatment under the law, no matter their gender identity or sexual orientation.”

“Fear of discrimination can lead individuals to forgo care, which can have serious negative health consequences,” Becerra said. “It is the position of the Department of Health and Human Services that everyone — including LGBTQ people — should be able to access health care, free from discrimination or interference, period.”

The move is consistent with the executive order President Biden signed on his first day in office directing federal agencies to implement the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last year in Bostock v. Clayton County to the furthest extent possible. Federal agencies were directed to comply within 100 days of the executive order, which is about now and a short time after Biden’s first 100 days in office.

The announcement with respect to Section 1557 comes on the same day as the hearing took place this morning in Bagly v. HHS, a case before a federal court in Massachusetts challenging Trump’s undoing of transgender protections under the law. An attorney with the U.S. Justice Department announced a new notice of proposed rule-making is coming with respect to Section 1557.

Sharita Gruberg, vice president for the LGBTQ Research and Communications Project at the Center for American Progress, said in a statement the change “assures LGBTQ people that their rights will be upheld at the doctor’s office, vaccine sites, and everywhere else they seek health care and coverage.”

“The administration’s announcement that it will enforce these protections are a critical step toward addressing vaccine hesitancy among LGBTQ people, a population that has been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic and seriously harmed by the previous administration’s attempts to permit discrimination against LGBTQ patients, Gruberg added.

The past three administrations have instituted policy on LGBTQ protections based on their interpretation of Section 1557. Each move had varying implications and directions for LGBTQ patients.

The Obama administration issued a rule in 2016 interpreting Section 1557 to apply to cases of anti-transgender discrimination and discrimination against women who have had abortions, which was consistent with court rulings at the time. However, that move was enjoined by a nationwide court order in Texas as a result of litigation filed by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.

The Trump administration, shortly after the Supreme Court’s ruling in Bostock, made final a regulation proposed last year rescinding the Obama administration’s transgender protections under Section 1557. Faced with criticism, the Trump administration defended itself by saying its move was consistent with the court order in Texas, although it seemed to ignore the decision from the higher court.

The new rule from HHS goes above and the beyond the Obama administration by instituting protections based on both sexual orientation and gender identity. It wasn’t immediately clear whether the proposed rule would be a new regulation entirely, or seek to modify the changes that were made in the two previous administrations. The Blade has placed a request seeking comment with HHS.

Susan Bailey, president of the American Medical Association, said in a statement the new HHS rule is a welcome change after the Trump administration rescinded protections for transgender patients.

“It’s unfortunate that such an obvious step had to be taken; the AMA welcomes this common-sense understanding of the law,” Bailey said. “This move is a victory for health equity and ends a dismal chapter in which a federal agency sought to remove civil rights protections.”

Discrimination in health care is an experience transgender people commonly report. The U.S. Transgender Survey in 2015 found one-third of responders said they had at least one negative experience in health care related to being transgender. Further, 23 percent of responders said they didn’t seek health care because they feared being mistreated and one-third said they didn’t go to a provider because they couldn’t afford it.

A Center for American Progress survey from 2018 had similar findings with respect to transgender people and patients with being gay, lesbian and bisexual or queer. Eight percent of responders said a doctor refused to see them because of their perceived or actual sexual orientation, while 28 percent of providers said a doctor refused to see them because of their actual or perceived sexual orientation.

Hospitals, especially religiously affiliated providers, refusing to provide transition-related care, including gender assignment surgery, is another frequently reported incident for transgender patients. The American Civil Liberties Union, for example, has filed litigation against hospitals under Section 1557 for refusing to perform the procedure.

Rachel Levine, assistant secretary of health and the first openly transgender presidential appointee to obtain Senate confirmation, hailed the HHS rule change in a statement.

“The mission of our Department is to enhance the health and well-being of all Americans, no matter their gender identity or sexual orientation. All people need access to healthcare services to fix a broken bone, protect their heart health, and screen for cancer risk,” Levine said. “No one should be discriminated against when seeking medical services because of who they are.”

Although the Biden administration’s announcement is a welcome move for LGBTQ advocacy groups, the change is not without critics.

John Banzhaf, a law professor at George Washington University who declares himself a supporter of transgender rights, said the policy could have unintended consequences, which he said has become evident in the British health system.

“[Transgender] individuals with a penis but no vagina are being asked to have medical tests on their non-existent cervices, while [transgender] persons with a vagina and cervix will not be asked, under new guidelines which appear to place lives at risk and encourage a physically impossible medical exam on organs which simply do not exist,” Banzhaf said. “And, carrying this absurdity to its totally illogical conclusion, a patient with a penis and a full beard was offered a cervical test because, despite his clearly masculine appearance and style of dress, he registered himself as being gender neutral.”

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