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‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ is gone

After 18 years, military’s gay ban sent to history books

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The anti-gay law that for 18 years has prevented openly gay people from serving in the U.S. military is today finally lifted from the books and cast in the dustbin of history.

Under the law, which came to be known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” an estimated 14,346 service members were discharged from the armed forces because of their sexual orientation. The gay ban was officially removed from the books at 12:01 am.

“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” has been lifted thanks to repeal legislation President Obama signed in December. But before repeal could take effect, the law required Obama and Pentagon leaders send certification to Congress.

On July 22, Obama, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen certified the U.S. military was ready for repeal, starting the 60-day period leading to today when the ban has finally come to an end.

The Washington Blade obtained statements that reflect on the end to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” from Obama, LGBT advocates and lawmakers who were involved in the repeal process:

PRESIDENT OBAMA

“Today, the discriminatory law known as ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ is finally and formally repealed. As of today, patriotic Americans in uniform will no longer have to lie about who they are in order to serve the country they love. As of today, our armed forces will no longer lose the extraordinary skills and combat experience of so many gay and lesbian service members. And today, as Commander in Chief, I want those who were discharged under this law to know that your country deeply values your service.”

“I was proud to sign the Repeal Act into law last December because I knew that it would enhance our national security, increase our military readiness, and bring us closer to the principles of equality and fairness that define us as Americans. Today’s achievement is a tribute to all the patriots who fought and marched for change; to Members of Congress, from both parties, who voted for repeal; to our civilian and military leaders who ensured a smooth transition; and to the professionalism of our men and women in uniform who showed that they were ready to move forward together, as one team, to meet the missions we ask of them.”

“For more than two centuries, we have worked to extend America’s promise to all our citizens. Our armed forces have been both a mirror and a catalyst of that progress, and our troops, including gays and lesbians, have given their lives to defend the freedoms and liberties that we cherish as Americans. Today, every American can be proud that we have taken another great step toward keeping our military the finest in the world and toward fulfilling our nation’s founding ideals.”

LGBT ADVOCATES

Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign:

“[Today] is a historic day for gay and lesbian service members and our nation as a whole. ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ was a stain on our nation — not only did it damage our military readiness and national security, but it sent a message that discrimination based upon sexual orientation was acceptable. We know that not to be the case — discrimination accomplishes nothing and tears at the fabric of our country’s strength.”

“Beginning [today], gay and lesbian service members previously discharged under [‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’] will have the opportunity to re-enlist. Gay and lesbian Americans eager to serve the country but not willing to compromise who they are as individuals will, for the first time ever, be able to openly join. And brave men and women currently serving will have the freedom to come out and be honest with their comrades about who they are and who they love.”

“Despite this progress, much work remains to ensure full equality in the military. The so-called Defense of Marriage Act will prohibit gay and lesbian service members and their spouses from receiving many of the benefits their straight counterparts receive. Limiting regulations also impact areas like military family housing, access to legal services, and spousal relocation support. We also are continuing to deal with an infrastructure ill-prepared to handle incidents of discrimination and harassment against gay and lesbian service members. It is incumbent upon fair-minded legislators to continue pushing equality forward by standing up to discriminatory legislative tactics, pushing for repeal of DOMA, examining barriers to service for qualified and dedicated transgender Americans, and ensuring gay and lesbian military families get the same access to benefits as everyone else.”

“This was a hard-fought victory, and supporters of equality should feel proud. But we cannot lose sight of the challenges that remain — from passing the Employment Non-Discrimination Act to bar employment discrimination in every workplace, to bringing an end to DOMA through the Respect for Marriage Act, and to combatting anti-gay activities and rhetoric from political leaders and hate groups. This is indeed a historic moment, but we remain focused on the work ahead.”

Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network:

“Today marks the official end of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ and is an historic milestone along the journey to achieving full LGBT equality in America’s military. Thanks to you — the veterans, active duty, leaders, allies and supporters who have fought so long and hard — this is a monumental day for our service members and our nation. Indeed, we have taken a tremendous leap forward for LGBT equality in the military.

“Our work is far from done, but today we pay tribute to the service and sacrifice of our patriots as we look forward to a new era of military service — one that honors the contributions of all qualified Americans who have served and wish to serve.”

Alex Nicholson, executive director of Servicemembers United:

“On March 15, 1778 the first American servicemember was drummed out of the military for being gay. Since then, tens of thousands more have had their careers ruined and their lives turned upside down by a succession of anti-gay polices and regulations, culminating in the codification of an anti-gay statute in 1993 with the passage of the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ law. In all, 14,346 men and women were discharged pursuant ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.’ But thanks to the persistent hard work of unwavering advocates, especially those who have been directly impacted by this issue, and some courageous politicians over the past six years, ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ is now history. As a result, those who continue to serve can sleep easier tonight knowing that they can no longer be arbitrarily fired because of their sexual orientation. Justice has prevailed and ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ is dead. God bless America.”

Robin McGehee, director of GetEQUAL, which is organizing a “Day of Discontent” of rallies pushing for further LGBT rights in more than a dozen cities on the day “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is lifted:

“It has taken 17 years of hard work to remove this discriminatory policy, and still our community faces discrimination and intolerance on a daily basis that this one important victory won’t fix. [Today’s] collaborative effort by LGBT organizers across this nation will show lawmakers that we will not be content until we have full federal equality in all matters governed by civil law. We cannot and will not accept anything less — for ourselves, our families and our communities.”

Josh Seefried, an active duty Air Force officer and co-director of OutServe, an organization of actively serving LGBT military personnel (under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Seefried went by J.D. Smith to avoid being outed under the law):

“I feel privileged and honored to serve during this time in our nation’s history. This change in policy has not only made our military stronger, but America stronger. I’m proud to serve in the United States Air Force and proud of the fact gay service members can now do their job with their integrity intact.”

Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force:

“Today marks the end of an ugly era in American history. After nearly two decades, lesbian, gay and bisexual service members will finally be able to serve their country openly and honestly. Those who fight for freedom will now themselves be able to live more freely. We celebrate this historic moment, which could not come fast enough. Thousands of exemplary and courageous service members have lost their careers and livelihoods to this unjust policy, once again proving there are very personal and costly consequences of discrimination.

“While we observe this tremendous, hard-fought victory for lesbian, gay and bisexual service members, we recognize the journey is not over. Transgender service members are still being forced to serve in silence. This is unacceptable. All qualified, patriotic Americans willing to risk their lives for this country should be able to do so free from discrimination. In addition, the military still lacks explicit nondiscrimination protections, equal benefits and an inclusive equal opportunity policy for LGBT people. We will continue to work toward the day when full inclusion is a reality in the military.”

U.S. LAWMAKERS

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.)

“With the long-overdue end of the discriminatory ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy, our nation will finally close the door on a fundamental unfairness for gays and lesbians, and indeed affirm equality for all Americans. When the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate took action last year to end this wrongheaded policy, we reaffirmed the core American principle that anyone who wishes to serve, secure, and defend this country must be judged by their abilities and honored for their dedication and sacrifice.”

“For those gays and lesbians discharged unfairly, including those who seek re-accession, we must correct their paperwork so that it properly reflects their service. We must continue efforts to repeal the discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act, but in the meantime, I urge the Obama Administration to investigate opportunities to extend the same support and benefits to all our troops and their families. We cannot allow there to be two classes of service members in our military — those who receive benefits for their families and those who do not.

“This landmark progress comes after the President, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Secretary of Defense have all certified that repeal will not hurt military readiness or unit cohesion.”

“America is the land of the free and the home of the brave because of our men and women in uniform. And [today], we honor their service by recommitting to the values that they fight for on the battlefield.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.)

“Today marks the end of a shameful and counterproductive policy that needlessly destroyed careers and harmed our military readiness. Thousands of qualified men and women who want to serve our country will now be able to do so without fearing their careers could end due to their sexual orientation. Our armed forces will be stronger because now our military commanders and our nation can be sure we will have the best and brightest service members on the job, regardless of ethnicity, creed or sexual orientation.”

Senate Armed Services Committee Chair Carl Levin (D-Mich.):

“Beginning Tuesday, thousands of brave American service members will be able to serve the country they love without concealing part of their identity. They will no longer have to lie in order to help protect us. The end of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ is an important victory not just for equality, but integrity. And this victory will come without harming our military’s readiness or effectiveness. I applaud the military and civilian leaders throughout the Department of Defense who have helped us to adopt this historic change.”

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), original co-sponsor of the Senate repeal legislation:

“Today represents an historic change for our military and our country. Today, for the first time in our history, we welcome the service of any qualified individual who is willing and capable of serving our country. Today, we will no longer dismiss brave, dedicated, and skilled service men and women simply because they are gay. The repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ is a victory for our national security, and our values, and it strengthens the ranks of our military.”

Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.)

“Today is a great day for our national security. Repealing [‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’] will strengthen our military by allowing it to attract our nation’s best talent, regardless of whom they love. The service members who will come out today are the same soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines they were yesterday — the only thing that has changed is that they can now be honest and open about who they are.”

“Countless young men and women in uniform — gay and straight — have told me that in combat, sexual orientation, race, religion and gender simply don’t matter.  Our military leaders were given the time and flexibility to study and implement repeal — they say they’re ready, our troops are ready, and I’m incredibly proud that we’re finally closing the book on ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ and putting it where it belongs — the dustbin of history.”

Watch Udall’s video commemorating the end to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” here:

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Federal Government

Department of Education to investigate Nex Benedict’s Okla. school district

Nonbinary student died last month after students assaulted them

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Nex Benedict (Family photo)

On Friday the U.S. Department of Education informed Human Rights Campaign President Kelley Robinson that the department will open an investigation in response to HRC’s letter regarding Owasso Public Schools and its failure to respond appropriately to sex-based harassment that may have contributed to the death of Nex Benedict, a 16-year-old nonbinary teenager of Choctaw heritage. 

This investigation was triggered by a formal complaint made last week by Robinson, who wrote to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona and asked his department to use the enforcement mechanisms at its disposal to prevent similar tragedies from taking place in the future and to help hold accountable those responsible for Benedict’s death.

The letter from the Department of Education reads: “the U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights (OCR), is opening for investigation the above-referenced complaint that you filed against the Owasso Public Schools (the District.) Your complaint alleges that the District discriminated against students by failing to respond appropriately to sex-based harassment, of which it had notice, at Owasso High School during the 2023-2024 school year,” said Robinson.

“Nex’s family, community and the broader 2SLGBTQI+ (two-spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex+) community in Oklahoma are still awaiting answers following their tragic loss. We appreciate the Department of Education responding to our complaint and opening an investigation — we need them to act urgently so there can be justice for Nex, and so that all students at Owasso High School and every school in Oklahoma can be safe from bullying, harassment and discrimination,” Robinson added.

According to the letter, OCR is opening the following issues for investigation:

  • Whether the District failed to appropriately respond to alleged harassment of students in a manner consistent with the requirements of Title IX.
  • Whether the District failed to appropriately respond to alleged harassment of students in a manner consistent with the requirements of Section 504 and Title II.

HRC sent a second letter to the Department asking it to promptly begin an investigation into the Oklahoma State Department of Education, as well as the current State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Ryan Walters. In addition:

  • Robinson wrote to Attorney General Merrick Garland asking the Department of Justice to begin an investigation into Nex’s death.
  • Robinson wrote to Dr. Margaret Coates, superintendent of the Owasso School District in Oklahoma, calling for the superintendent to take advantage of HRC’s Welcoming Schools program — the most comprehensive bias-based bullying prevention program in the nation to provide LGBTQ and gender inclusive training and resources — and offering to bring experts to the district immediately.

The full text of the letter from the Department of Education in response to HRC can be found here.

The full text of the initial letter from Robinson to Cardona can be found here.

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District of Columbia

Judy and Dennis Shepard discuss Nex Benedict, anti-LGBTQ laws at DC event

Nonbinary Okla. high school student died last month after fight

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Dennis and Judy Shephard speak at the Raben Group’s D.C. offices on Feb. 29, 2024. (Washington Blade photo by Amber Laenen)

Judy and Dennis Shepard on Thursday reflected on Nex Benedict’s death and the proliferation of anti-LGBTQ laws across the country during a discussion the Raben Group hosted at their D.C. office.

The discussion, which MSNBC host Jonathan Capehart moderated, took place less than a month after Benedict died.

Benedict, who was nonbinary, passed away on Feb. 8 after students at their high school in Owasso, Okla., assaulted them in a bathroom. 

Vice President Kamala Harris, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, House Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Republican Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt are among those who have publicly responded to Benedict’s death, which took place after they endured months of bullying. More than 300 advocacy groups have demanded Oklahoma Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters’ removal and called for a federal investigation into the Oklahoma Department of Education’s “actions and policies” that have facilitated a “culture where rampant harassment of 2SLGBTQI+ students has been allowed to go unchecked.”

“Parents are doing whatever they can to protect and encourage and support kids, and you have these what I call evil, evil people around the country pushing these laws,” said Dennis Shepard.

He noted lawmakers around the country are pushing anti-LGBTQ laws and other efforts that include the elimination of diversity, equity and inclusion programs. Dennis Shepard also highlighted an effort to defund gender studies programs at the University of Wyoming.

“[It is] the old white male, Christian geezers who want to go back to the days of the 50s when they had that superior arrogant attitude,” he said. “They’re losing it and they don’t want to, so they’re passing everything they can.”

“What happened to Nex is a result of that,” added Dennis Shepard. “They feel like Henderson and McKinney felt when they took Matt out on the prairie.”

Matthew Shepard died on Oct. 12, 1998, after Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney brutally beat him and left him tied to a fence in Laramie, Wyo. Then-President Barack Obama in 2009 signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which added sexual orientation and gender identity to the federal hate crimes law.

“If you’re considered different, you’re in fear of your life right now because you don’t fit in and it’s got to stop,” said Dennis Shepard.

Judy Shepard echoed her husband, noting this moment is “the last gasp of the fight against the community.” 

“In my heart, I know this is a moment in time, and it’s going to pass. But also in that time, all these young people, everyone in the community is afraid, but young people are being terrorized,” she said. “It just shouldn’t be happening.”

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U.S. Federal Courts

N.Y. AG joins multi-state brief in Colo. anti-trans discrimination case

Letitia James and 18 other attorneys general support plaintiff

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trans health care, gay news, Washington Blade
New York Attorney General Letitia James (Photo public domain)

New York Attorney General Letitia James on Wednesday joined a brief by 18 other Democratic state attorneys general urging the Colorado Supreme Court to uphold a lower court ruling against Masterpiece Cakeshop for anti-trans discrimination.

A customer, Autumn Scardina, sued the business over claims that it refused to provide her a cake upon learning that it was for a celebration of her transition. The case is not the first in which owner Jack Smith has faced claims of anti-LGBTQ discrimination.

In 2012, Masterpiece Cakeshop refused to fulfill an order for a wedding cake for a same-sex couple, which led to the 2018 U.S. Supreme Court case Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission — and a narrow ruling that did not address core legal questions weighing the constitutionality of First Amendment claims vis-a-vis the government’s enforcement of LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination laws.

“Denying service to someone simply because of who they are is illegal discrimination, plain and simple,” James said in a press release. “Allowing this kind of behavior would undermine our nation’s fundamental values of freedom and equality and set a dangerous precedent.”

She added, “I am proud to stand with my fellow attorneys general against this blatant transphobic discrimination.”

The Colorado Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Scardina, noting that Smith objected to fulfilling her cake order only after learning about her intended use for it “and that Phillips did not believe the cake itself expressed any inherent message.”

The fact pattern in both cases against Masterpiece Cakeshop resembles that of another case that originated in Colorado and was ultimately decided by the Supreme Court last year, 303 Creative LLC v. Elenis.

This time, the justices did not sidestep the question of whether the state’s anti-discrimination law can be enforced against a business owner, Lorie Smith, a website designer who claimed religious protections for her refusal to provide services to a same-sex couple for their nuptials.

The court’s conservative supermajority ruled in favor of Smith, which was widely seen as a blow to LGBTQ rights.

Joining James in her brief are the attorneys general of Connecticut, Delaware, Hawai’i, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington and D.C.

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