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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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Pennsylvania

Gay journalist murdered inside Philadelphia home

Josh Kruger’s death has left city ‘shocked and saddened’

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Josh Kruger with his cat Mason (Photo courtesy of Josh Kruger's Facebook page)

An openly gay journalist was shot to death in his Point Breeze neighborhood home in the 2300 block of Watkins Street in South Philadelphia early Monday morning.

According to Officer Shawn Ritchie, a spokesperson for the Philadelphia Police Department, 39-year-old Josh Kruger was shot at about 1:30 a.m. and collapsed in the street after seeking help. Kruger was transported to Penn Presbyterian Hospital where he was pronounced dead at 2:13 a.m.

Police said that Kruger was shot seven times throughout the chest and abdomen and that no weapons were recovered nor have any arrests been made. Homicides investigators noted that there was no sign of forced entry and the motive remains unclear.

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner said in a statement:

“Josh Kruger lifted up the most vulnerable and stigmatized people in our communities — particularly unhoused people living with addiction. As an openly queer writer who wrote about his own journey surviving substance use disorder and homelessness, it was encouraging to see Josh join the Kenney administration as a spokesperson for the Office of Homeless Services.

Josh deserved to write the ending of his personal story. As with all homicides, we will be in close contact with the Philadelphia police as they work to identify the person or persons responsible so that they can be held to account in a court of law. I extend my deepest condolences to Josh’s loved ones and to all those mourning this loss.”

WHYY reported Kruger had written extensively with bylines in multiple publications, including the Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia Magazine, the Philadelphia Citizen, WHYY, and Billy Penn.

CBS News reported that Kruger overcame homelessness and addiction to work for five years in city government, handling Mayor Jim Kenney’s social media and serving as the communications director for the city’s Office of Homeless Services.

He left city government in 2021 to return to journalism, according to his website.

“He was more than just a journalist,” Kendall Stephens, who was a friend and neighbor of Kruger’s, told CBS News. “He was more than just a community member. He was somebody that fought that great fight so many of us are not able to fight that fight because we’re too busy sheltered in our own homes wondering if someone is going to knock down our doors and kill us the same way they killed him. The same way they tried to kill me. And we’re tired of it.”   

Kenney said in a statement that he is “shocked and saddened” by Kruger’s death.

“He cared deeply about our city and its residents, which was evident in his public service and writing. Our administration was fortunate to call him a colleague, and our prayers are with everyone who knew him.”

The District Attorney’s LGBTQ+ Advisory Committee issued the following statement:

“Many of us knew Josh Kruger as a comrade who never stopped advocating for queer Philadelphians living on the margins of society. His struggles mirrored so many of ours — from community rejection, to homelessness, to addiction, to living with HIV, to poverty — and his recovery, survival, and successes showed what’s possible when politicians and elected leaders reject bigotry and work affirmatively to uplift all people. Even while Josh worked for the mayor, he never stopped speaking out against police violence, politicized attacks on trans and queer people, or the societal discarding of homeless and addicted Philadelphians.

We are devastated that Josh’s life was ended so violently. We urge anyone who has information that could lead to an arrest and prosecution for Josh’s murder to contact the Philadelphia Police or the DA’s Office directly. LGBTQ+ Philadelphians experience violence of all kinds every day; few people used their platforms to remind powerful people in government of that reality as effectively as Josh Kruger did. Josh and the communities he advocated for every day of his life deserve nothing less than justice and accountability for this outrageous crime.”

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U.S. Federal Courts

Lesbian mother from El Salvador released from ICE custody

Jessica Barahona-Martinez arrested on June 26, 2017

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(Bigstock photo)

A federal judge last week ordered the release of a lesbian mother from El Salvador who had been in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody since June 2017.

Jessica Patricia Barahona-Martinez and her three children entered the U.S. on May 31, 2016. A court filing notes she fled “persecution she faced in El Salvador as a lesbian, and because the government had falsely identified her as a gang member.”

Barahona-Martinez lived with her sister and other relatives in Woodbridge, Va., until ICE arrested and detained her on June 26, 2017. She was housed at two ICE detention centers in Virginia until her transfer to the South Louisiana ICE Processing Center, a privately-run facility the GEO Group, a Florida-based company, operates in Basile, La., in October 2020. 

An immigration judge in November 2019 granted Barahona-Martinez asylum for the second time. The government appealed the decision and the Board of Immigration Appeals, which the Justice Department oversees, ruled in their favor.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Louisiana last month filed a writ for habeas corpus petition in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana’s Lafayette Division that asked for Barahona-Martinez’s release. U.S. District Judge Terry A. Doughty on Sept. 27 ruled in her favor.  

“Petitioner (Barahona-Martinez) ultimately argues that her prolonged detention violates due process; she moves that this court issues a temporary restraining order, requests release, a bond hearing, an expedited hearing and costs and attorney fees,” wrote Doughty.

“This court finds that petitioner has plausibly alleged her prolonged detention violates due process,” added Doughty.

An ACLU spokesperson on Monday told the Blade that ICE has released Barahona-Martinez and she is once again in Virginia with her children and sister. 

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State Department

State Department hosts intersex activists from around the world

Group met with policy makers, health officials, NGOs

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The State Department last week hosted a group of intersex activists from around the world. (Courtesy photo)

The State Department last week hosted five intersex activists from around the world.

Kimberly Zieselman, a prominent intersex activist who advises Jessica Stern, the special U.S. envoy for the promotion of LGBTQ and intersex rights abroad, brought the activists to D.C.

• Morgan Carpenter, co-founder and executive director of Intersex Human Rights Australia

• Natasha Jiménez, an intersex activist from Costa Rica who is the general coordinator of Mulabi, the Latin American Space for Sexualities and Rights

• Julius Kaggwa, founder of the Support Initiative for People with Atypical Sex Development Uganda

• Magda Rakita, co-founder and executive director of Fujdacja Interakcja in Poland and co-founder of Interconnected UK

• Esan Regmi, co-founder and executive director of the Campaign for Change in Nepal.

Special U.S. Envoy for Global Youth Issues Abby Finkenauer and Assistant Health Secretary Rachel Levine are among the officials with whom the activists met.

Zieselman told the Washington Blade on Sept. 21 the activists offered State Department officials an “intersex 101” overview during a virtual briefing.

More than 60 Save the Children staffers from around the world participated in another virtual briefing. Zieselman noted the activists also met with Stern, U.N. and Organization of American States officials, funders and NGO representatives while in D.C.

“The people we met were genuinely interested,” Rakita told the Blade.

Stern in an exclusive statement to the Blade said “the visiting intersex activists clearly had an impact here at State, sharing their expertise and lived experience highlighting the urgency to end human rights abuses, including those involving harmful medical practices against intersex persons globally.” Andrew Gleason, senior director for gender equality and social justice at Save the Children US, in a LinkedIn post he wrote after attending his organization’s meeting with the activists echoed Stern.

“There are many learnings to recount from today’s discussion, but one thing is clear, this is unequivocally a child rights issue, and one that demands attention and action at the intersection of LGBTQI+ rights, reproductive rights and justice, disability justice and more,” wrote Gleason. “Gratitude to the panelists for sharing such poignant testimonies and providing insights into what organizations like ours can do to contribute to the broader intersex movement; and thank you to Kimberly for your leadership and bringing this group together.”

The activists’ trip to D.C. coincided with efforts to end so-called sex “normalization” surgeries on intersex children.

Greek lawmakers in July passed a law that bans such procedures on children under 15 unless they offer their consent or a court allows them to happen. Doctors who violate the statute face fines and prison.

Germany Iceland, Malta, Portugal and Spain have also enacted laws that seek to protect intersex youth. 

A law that grants equal rights and legal recognition to intersex people in Kenya took effect in July 2022. Lawmakers in the Australian Capital Territory earlier this year passed the Variation in Sex Characteristics (Restricted Medical Treatment) Bill 2023.

Intersex Human Rights Australia notes the law implements “mechanisms to regulate non-urgent medical care to encourage child participation in medical decisions, establish groundbreaking oversight mechanisms and provide transparency on medical practices and decision making.” It further points out the statute “will criminalize some deferrable procedures that permanently alter the sex characteristics of children” and provides “funding for necessary psychosocial supports for families and children.”

“It’s amazing,” Carpenter told the Blade when discussing the law and resistance to it. “It’s not perfect. There was some big gaps, but physicians are resisting every step of the way.”

The State Department in April 2022 began to issue passports with an “X” gender marker.

Dana Zzyym, an intersex U.S. Navy veteran who identifies as non-binary, in 2015 filed a federal lawsuit against the State Department after it denied their application for a passport with an “X” gender marker. Zzyym in October 2021 received the first gender-neutral American passport.

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