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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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U.S. Supreme Court

U.S. Supreme Court ruling allows Biden administration to end MPP

Trump-era policy placed LGBTQ asylum seekers at increased risk

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(Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday in a 5-4 ruling said the Biden administration can end a policy that forced asylum seekers to pursue their cases in Mexico.

The previous White House’s Migrant Protection Protocols program, which became known as the “Remain in Mexico” policy, took effect in 2019.

The Biden administration suspended MPP enrollment shortly after it took office in January 2021. The program was to have ended six months later, but a federal judge in Texas ordered MPP’s reinstatement after the state and Missouri filed suit against the Biden administration.

Thursday’s ruling sends the Texas and Missouri case back to lower courts.

“As Secretary Mayorkas concluded in October 2021 after a thorough review, the prior administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) has endemic flaws, imposes unjustifiable human costs and pulls resources and personnel away from other priority efforts to secure our border,” said the Department of Homeland Security in a statement. “We welcome the Supreme Court’s decision affirming that the Secretary has the discretionary authority to terminate the program, and we will continue our efforts to terminate the program as soon as legally permissible.” 

U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) also welcomed the ruling.

“Today’s Supreme Court decision correctly acknowledges the Biden administration’s authority to end the unlawful and cruel ‘Remain in Mexico’ program,” he said in a statement. “For more than three years, this horrifying policy has denied asylum seekers their right to due process and subjected them to crimes like rape, kidnapping and torture in northern Mexican border cities while they await their court hearings.”

Advocates sharply criticized MPP, in part, because it made LGBTQ and intersex asylum seekers who were forced to live in Tijuana, Ciudad Juárez, Reynosa, Matamoros and other Mexican border cities even more vulnerable to violence and persecution based on their sexual orientation and gender identity.

[email protected] Coalition President Bamby Salcedo on Thursday told the Washington Blade the Supreme Court ruling “will certainly impact our community in a positive way.”

“We know that people who have to remain in Mexico to wait continue to be victims of violence,” said Salcedo. “This is definitely a step in the right direction and we’re grateful that this happened in this way.”

Emilio Vicente, communications and policy director of Familia: TQLM, an organization that advocates on behalf of transgender and gender non-conforming immigrants, echoed Salcedo.

“We’re glad to finally have some good news from the Supreme Court after horrible rulings on abortions, climate change, Native American rights,” said Vicente. “Ending ‘Remain in Mexico’ will allow LGBTQ+ asylum seekers who face increased discrimination and abuse during the journey to the U.S., to be able to seek asylum here.” 

Abdiel Echevarría-Cabán is a South Texas-based immigration attorney and human rights law and policy expert who the LGBTQ+ Bar in 2021 recognized as one of its 40 best LGBTQ lawyers who are under 40.

He told the Blade on Thursday the Supreme Court ruling is “a victory we must celebrate.” Echevarría-Cabán also said MPP placed LGBTQ and intersex asylum seekers at increased risk. 

“Refugees in general, but especially LGBT refugees, are extremely vulnerable to other type of harms such as kidnappings by cartel members, extortion, physical and psychological abuses from Mexican law enforcement authorities and third parties given the high levels of discrimination for LGBT refugees in Mexico,” said Echevarría-Cabán.

The Supreme Court issued its ruling a day after the Justice Department filed charges against four people in connection with the deaths of 53 migrants who were found in the back of a tractor trailer truck in San Antonio.

The Biden administration in April announced its plans to terminate Title 42, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rule that closed the Southern border to most asylum seekers and migrants because of the pandemic. Title 42 was to have ended on May 23, but a federal judge ruled against the White House.

“This decision isn’t the end of the fight for ensuring that people seeking asylum get asylum but it’s an important step in protecting vulnerable people,” Vicente told the Blade after Thursday’s ruling. “President Biden must follow through on his commitment to end MPP and protect all asylum seekers.”

Salcedo noted to the Blade the “system, as it is, particularly when it comes to trans women, needs to be completely changed so that we can be at a better place as a community.” Padilla in his statement urged the Biden administration “to do everything in its power to swiftly end ‘Remain in Mexico’ once and for all.”

“Misguided and inhumane Trump-era policies like ‘Remain in Mexico’ and Title 42 have only decimated an already broken immigration system,” he said. “We must keep working to restore the lawful processing of asylum seekers at the border, in keeping with America’s most deeply held values as a nation of immigrants.”

The Department of Homeland Security in its statement notes Title 42 remains in place.

“The department also continues to enforce our immigration laws at the border and administer consequences for those who enter unlawfully, and will continue the court-mandated enforcement of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Title 42 public health order,” it reads.

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Politics

Kamala Harris hosts Pride month reception

Upwards of 200 people attended Naval Observatory event

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Vice President Kamala Harris hosted about 200 guests for Pride Month celebration at her official residence on June 28, 2022. She spoke at the Capital Pride festival in D.C. earlier in the month. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Vice President Kamala Harris helped bring Pride Month to a close Tuesday at her residence with a celebration for high-profile members of the LGBTQ community, recognizing successes achieved but also urging continued movement.

“When we celebrate Pride, it’s because we understand not only the strength of what we have accomplished, and the fight for equality, but we [also] understand the fragility of these gains, and so we know what we must do to be vigilant and maintain [those rights],” Harris said.

The Advocate reported in coverage of the event the Pride celebration was the first ever to take place at the vice president’s residence, but that’s incorrect.

President Biden as vice president hosted a Pride event with LGBTQ leaders in 2014. Harris also said during the event her understanding was it was a first for a sitting vice president.

An estimated 200 attendees were present for the event at the Naval Observatory in D.C., which serves as the vice president’s official residence. Guests at the party mingled by the pool and partook of drinks served on a spinning wheel placed just outside.

High-profile officials from the Biden administration who were present included Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland. Neither delivered remarks. Also at the event was “RuPaul’s Drag Race” star Shangela, who addressed the crowd.

Kris Perry and Sandy Stier, who were among in plaintiffs in the litigation against California’s Proposition 8, were also present at the event. Harris married the couple in 2013 as soon as the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling restoring marriage equality to the state.

Perry and Stier spoke before the crowd and urged them to continue to stand strong in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s recent decision overturning Roe v. Wade.

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U.S. Supreme Court

Ketanji Brown Jackson sworn in as first Black woman Supreme Court justice

Roe v. Wade struck down last Friday

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(Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Ketanji Brown Jackson was sworn in Thursday as the newest member of the U.S. Supreme Court, representing a welcome change on the bench for progressives who are still outraged after the decision last week overturning the right to abortion found in Roe v. Wade.

Jackson, who’s now the first Black woman to serve on the high court, has replaced Justice Stephen Breyer, a Clinton appointee who is retiring upon the end of the Supreme Court’s term. Breyer announced his forthcoming departure months ago as progressives urged him to stop to ensure a replacement appointed a Democratic president and confirmed by a Democratic Senate.

The briefing swearing-in was conducted by Chief Justice John Roberts, who administered the oath of office for Brown before a small gathering of Jackson’s family, including her two daughters, according to a report in the New York Times.

GLAAD CEO Sarah Kate Ellis said in a statement the beginning of Jackson’s tenure on the Supreme Court “will bring long-needed representation to the Supreme Court at a critical juncture in our nation’s history, and after the court’s disastrous term dismantling personal liberty.”

“It bears repeating the obvious that women, people of color and LGBTQ people are Americans deserving of equal protection under law,” Ellis said. “Justice Jackson will be a visible and inspiring presence on a court currently dominated by extremists, reminding all that America should always be moving forward to expand freedom.”

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