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Gay troops challenge DOMA in federal lawsuit

Service members seeks partner benefits from U.S. military

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Gay troops and veterans joined the fight against the Defense of Marriage Act in court on Thursday by filing new litigation challenging the law on the basis that it precludes service members with same-sex partners from receiving crucial benefits.

Servicemembers Legal Defense Network filed the lawsuit, called McLaughlin v. Panetta, behalf of eight plaintiff couples in the District Court of Massachusetts. In addition to challenging DOMA, the litigation also challenges Title 10, Title 32 and Title 38 of U.S. Code, which prevents the military from providing benefits to the partners of gay troops.

Aubrey Sarvis, SLDN’s executive director, said during a news conference at the National Press Club that troops involved in the lawsuit are “seeking equal recognition, benefits and family support for their same-sex spouses that the services and the Department of Veterans Affairs provides to their straight married peers.”

“The case we are bringing is about one thing, plain and simple,” Sarvis said. “It’s about justice for gay and lesbian service members and their families in our armed forces rendering the same military service, making the same sacrifices and taking the same risks to keep our nation secure at home and abroad.”

Federal law prohibits the U.S. government from providing numerous benefits to gay troops. According to SLDN, among them are health insurance benefits, surviving spouse benefits and the issuance of military identification cards.

The lead plaintiff is Army Maj. Shannon McLaughlin, a judge advocate general who serves in the Massachusetts National Guard as chief of legal assistance and is a judge advocate general. She has served for 13 years and is married to her partner of more than three years, Casey McLaughlin. The two are raising ten-month old twins: Grace and Grant McLaughlin.

“For us, this inequity means that Casey is not eligible for health insurance and is unable to come onto post to make use of facilities services and family support that otherwise would be available if we were of the opposite sex,” Shannon McLaughlin said. “It boils down to this: we’ve been serving our country too long, working too hard and sacrificing too much to see our families denied the same recognition, support and benefits as our straight, married counterparts.”

Another plaintiff is Capt. Stephen Hill, an Army reservist of 18 years who gained notoriety after FOX News played his video question on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” during a Republican presidential debate last month. Hill was booed by the audience, which sparked controversy over why none of the candidates condemned the booing while on stage.

Joshua Snyder, Hill’s spouse, said during the news conference FOX News didn’t play all of Hill’s question and the service member went on to ask about whether the GOP candidates would institute partner benefits for gay troops.

“Those questions went unanswered that night, and they will not be answered by the political process for quite some time,” Snyder said. “So, today, Steve and I have elected to take another route, the judicial route. We believe strongly that DOMA and laws like it ignore our families and treat us less than our [straight] married counterparts. They are an injustice and that’s why we’re here today.”

High-ranking members of the Obama administration are named in the lawsuit: U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki.

Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, deferred comment on the specifics of the litigation to the Justice Department as he reiterated President Obama’s support for legislation to address the issue.

“I would note that the President has long called for a legislative repeal of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act,'” Inouye said. “He is proud to support the Respect for Marriage Act, which would take DOMA off the books once and for all. This legislation would uphold the principle that the federal government should not deny gay and lesbian couples the same rights and legal protections as straight couples.”

The Obama administration has stopped defending DOMA in court, so it’s likely the Justice Department will side with the plaintiffs in this case. Spokespersons for the departments involved in the litigation said the lawsuit remains under review.

Eileen Lainez, a Pentagon spokesperson said, “We will carefully evaluate the complaint and we will consult [the Justice Department.] In the meantime, we will continue to follow the law.”

Tracy Schmaler, a Justice Department spokesperson, said her department is “reviewing the complaint.”

Randy Noller, a VA spokesperson, said, “Once an appeal is filed, VA lawyers will analyze the legal arguments made by the appellant and respond appropriately in its briefs.”

Serving as SLDN’s pro-bono counsel in the case are Abbe Lowell and Christopher Man, attorneys at Chadbourne & Parke.

During the news conference, Man said previous rulings against DOMA in Massachusetts in will help in moving the litigation forward. A district court in the state ruled against the anti-gay law in two separate cases last year.

“A lot of the work that was necessary for us to move forward has already been done in that court,” Man said. “That court has already briefed the issues; they’re familiar with it. So, it made sense to go ahead and file it rather than reinvent the wheel before another court.”

Asked about the timeline for the lawsuit, Man said he plans to file a motion for summary judgment soon and hopes the district court will rule within “a few months.”

“The court has already ruled on the constitutionality of DOMA, it wouldn’t be very hard for it to apply that same analysis to our case,” Man said. “And because the president and the attorney general have indicated they will no longer be defending DOMA, it shouldn’t be must of a contest.”

The litigation is one among several lawsuits challenging DOMA that are making their way through the judicial system. In two cases, Gill v. U.S. Office of Personnel Management and Commonwealth of Massachusetts v. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, plaintiffs were set to file a reply with the U.S. First Circuit of Appeals on the same day that the SLDN litigation was initiated. Another case, Pedersen v. OPM, has been filed in the U.S. District Court in Connecticut.

Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders filed the Gill and Pedersen cases. Mary Bonauto, GLAD’s lead attorney for cases, responded to the lawsuit by saying her organization empathizes with the troops in the McLaughlin case.

“We have enormous respect and empathy for the service men and women being hurtby DOMA, and for all families hurt by DOMA,” Bonauto said. “Those couples are more great examples of how DOMA’s double standards make no sense. DOMA violates the Constitution that our menand women in the military are risking their lives to uphold.”

Bonauto added, “We believe the best way to end the harm is through getting a positive appellate ruling as soon as possible, and we are working hard to strike the blow that will end DOMA in our Gill case.”

At the news conference, Sarvis said he’s held conversation with other groups involved in DOMA litigation, but added they’ve been “very brief.”

“I wish we had more time to consult with them, but we were on a track, and, frankly, I was not aware that today was an important day for them with the respect to their briefing before the Court of Appeals,” Sarvis said. “But at the end of the day, we share the same objective here. I think we want to be in the best venue for all the plaintiffs, whether it’s the plaintiffs in Massachusetts in the Gill case or here in the McLaughlin case.”

The SLDN lawsuit also isn’t the only pending case that involved gay service members seeking partner benefits. Carmen Cordova, a Navy veteran who married her spouse in Connecticut last year, filed her own lawsuit earlier this month in the Court of Veterans Claims. Cordova reportedly applied for an increase in her monthly disability compensation after she was newly married, but was denied on the basis of federal law.

SLDN has filed the lawsuit as it and other organizations are pushing the Pentagon to make changes administratively to offer other benefits to gay troops. Among the benefits in this category are making same-sex married couples eligible for joint duty assignments, family center programs and military family housing.

As this effort is underway, Sarvis said litigation is necessary because federal law prohibits “big ticket” benefits from going to gay troops.

“That’s why we’ve brought this constitutional legal challenge to DOMA and to those three titles [of federal law],” Sarvis said. “The big ticket items are the ones that we are outlining in the suit.”

The Pentagon’s Lainez said the issue of providing certain benefits to service members with same-sex partners remains under review.

“In connection with ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ repeal, the Defense Department is engaged in a careful and deliberate review of the possibility of extending eligibility for benefits, when legally permitted, to other individuals including same-sex partners,” Lainez said.

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Bill to ban conversion therapy dies in Puerto Rico Senate committee

Advocacy group describes lawmakers as cowards

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Puerto Rico Pulse nightclub victims, gay news, Washington Blade

 

A Puerto Rico Senate committee on Thursday killed a bill that would have banned so-called conversion therapy on the island.

Members of the Senate Community Initiatives, Mental Health and Addiction Committee voted against Senate Bill 184 by an 8-7 vote margin. Three senators abstained.

Amárilis Pagán Jiménez, a spokesperson for Comité Amplio para la Búsqueda de la Equidad, a coalition of Puerto Rican human rights groups, in a statement sharply criticized the senators who opposed the measure.

“If they publicly recognize that conversion therapies are abuse, if they even voted for a similar bill in the past, if the hearings clearly established that the bill was well-written and was supported by more than 78 professional and civil entities and that it did not interfere with freedom of religion or with the right of fathers and mothers to raise their children, voting against it is therefore one of two things: You are either a hopeless coward or you have the same homophobic and abusive mentality of the hate groups that oppose the bill,” said Pagán in a statement.

Thursday’s vote comes against the backdrop of continued anti-LGBTQ discrimination and violence in Puerto Rico.

Six of the 44 transgender and gender non-conforming people who were reported murdered in the U.S. in 2020 were from Puerto Rico.

A state of emergency over gender-based violence that Gov. Pedro Pierluisi declared earlier this year is LGBTQ-inclusive. Then-Gov. Ricardo Rosselló in 2019 signed an executive order that banned conversion therapy for minors in Puerto Rico.

“These therapies lack scientific basis,” he said. “They cause pain and unnecessary suffering.”

Rosselló issued the order less than two weeks after members of the New Progressive Party, a pro-statehood party  he chaired at the time, blocked a vote in the Puerto Rico House of Representatives on a bill that would have banned conversion therapy for minors in the U.S. commonwealth. Seven out of the 11 New Progressive Party members who are on the Senate Community Initiatives, Mental Health and Addiction Committee voted against SB 184.

“It’s appalling. It’s shameful that the senators didn’t have the strength and the courage that our LGBTQ youth have, and it’s to be brave and to defend our dignity and our humanity as people who live on this island,” said Pedro Julio Serrano, founder of Puerto Rico Para [email protected], a Puerto Rican LGBTQ rights group, in a video. “It’s disgraceful that the senators decided to vote down this measure that would prevent child abuse.”

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Undocumented LGBTQ immigrants turn to Fla. group for support

Survivors Pathway is based in Miami

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Survivors Pathway works with undocumented LGBTQ immigrants and other vulnerable groups in South Florida. (Photo courtesy of Francesco Duberli)

 

MIAMI – The CEO of an organization that provides support to undocumented LGBTQ immigrants says the Biden administration has given many of his clients a renewed sense of hope.

“People definitely feel much more relaxed,” Survivors Pathway CEO Francesco Duberli told the Washington Blade on March 5 during an interview at his Miami office. “There’s much hope. You can tell … the conversation’s shifted.”

Duberli — a gay man from Colombia who received asylum in the U.S. because of anti-gay persecution he suffered in his homeland — founded Survivors Pathway in 2011. The Miami-based organization currently has 23 employees.

Survivors Pathway CEO Francesco Duberli at his office in Miami on March 5, 2021. (Washington Blade photo by Yariel Valdés González)

Duberli said upwards of 50 percent of Survivors Pathway’s clients are undocumented. Duberli told the Blade that many of them are survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking and victims of hate crimes based on their sexual orientation and gender identity.

“Part of the work that we have done for years is for us to become the bridge between the communities and law enforcement or the justice system in the United States,” said Duberli. “We have focused on creating a language that helps us to create this communication between the undocumented immigrant community and law enforcement, the state attorney’s office and the court.”

“The fear is not only about immigration,” he added. “There are many other factors that immigrants bring with them that became barriers in terms of wanting to or trying to access the justice system in the United States.”

Duberli spoke with the Blade roughly a week after the Biden administration began to allow into the U.S. asylum seekers who had been forced to pursue their cases in Mexico under the previous White House’s “Remain in Mexico” policy.

The administration this week began to reunite migrant children who the Trump administration separated from their parents. Title 42, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rule that closed the Southern border to most asylum seekers and migrants because of the coronavirus pandemic, remains in place.

Duberli told the Blade that Survivors Pathway advised some of their clients not to apply for asylum or seek visa renewals until after the election. Duberli conceded “the truth of the matter is that the laws haven’t changed that much” since Biden became president.

Survivors Pathway has worked with LGBTQ people in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody in South Florida. American Civil Liberties Union National Political Director Ronald Newman in an April 28 letter it sent to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas called for the closure of the Krome North Service Processing Center in Miami, the Glades County Detention Center near Lake Okeechobee and 37 other ICE detention centers across the country.

The road leading to the Krome North Service Processing Center in Miami on June 7, 2020. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Survivors Pathway responded to trans woman’s murder in 2020

Survivors Pathway has created a project specifically for trans Latina women who Duberli told the Blade don’t know they can access the judicial system.

Duberli said Survivors Pathway works with local judges and police departments to ensure crime victims don’t feel “discriminated, or outed or mistreated or revictimized” because of their gender identity. Survivors Pathway also works with Marytrini, a drag queen from Cuba who is the artistic producer at Azúcar, a gay nightclub near Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood.

Marytrini and Duberli are among those who responded to the case of Yunieski “Yuni” Carey Herrera, a trans woman and well-known activist and performer from Cuba who was murdered inside her downtown Miami apartment last November. Carey’s boyfriend, who had previously been charged with domestic violence, has been charged with murder.

“That was an ongoing situation,” noted Duberli. “It’s not the only case. There are lots of cases like that.”

Duberli noted a gay man in Miami Beach was killed by his partner the same week.

“There are lots of crimes that happen to our community that never gets to the news,” he said. “We got those cases here because of what we do.”

Yunieski “Yuni” Carey Herrera was murdered in her downtown Miami apartment in November 2020. (Photo courtesy of social media)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Patrick O’Connell, acclaimed AIDS activist, dies at 67

Played key role in creating red ribbon for awareness

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Activist Patrick O’Connell was instrumental in creating the red ribbon to promote AIDS awareness. (Photo courtesy of Allen Frame; courtesy Visual AIDS)

Patrick O’Connell, a founding director of the New York City-based AIDS advocacy group Visual AIDS who played a lead role in developing the internationally recognized display of an inverted, V-shaped red ribbon as a symbol of AIDS advocacy, died on March 23 at a Manhattan hospital from AIDS-related causes, according to the New York Times. He was 67.

Visual AIDS said in a statement that O’Connell held the title of founding director of the organization from 1980 to 1995.

During those years, according to the statement and others who knew him, O’Connell was involved in the group’s widely recognized and supported efforts to use art and artist’s works to advocate in support of people with HIV/AIDS and efforts to curtail the epidemic that had a devastating impact on the art world.

Thanks to a grant from the Art Matters foundation, Visual AIDS was able to retain O’Connell as its first paid staff member in 1990, the group said in its statement.

“Armed with a fax machine and an early Macintosh computer, Patrick helped Visual AIDS grow from a volunteer group to a sustainable non-profit organization,” the statement says. “A passionate spokesperson for the organization, he helped projects like Day Without Art, Night Without Light, and the Red Ribbon reach thousands of people and organizations across the world,” the group says in its statement.

“We were living in a war zone,” the statement quoted O’Connell as saying in a 2011 interview with the Long Island newspaper Newsday. “But it was like a war that was some kind of deep secret only we knew about,” O’Connell said in the interview. “Thousands were dying of AIDS. We felt we had to respond with a visible expression,” he told the newspaper.

With O’Connell’s help, Visual AIDS in 1989 organized the first annual Day Without Art in which dozens of galleries and museums in New York and other cities covered art works with black cloths to symbolize the mourning of those who died of AIDS. Among those participating were the Brooklyn Museum, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which replaced a Picasso painting with a “somber informational placard,” according to the New York Times.

In 1990 O’Connell helped Visual AIDS organize the first Night Without Light, which was held at the time of World AIDS Day. New York City’s skyscraper buildings, bridges, monuments, and Broadway theaters turned off their lights for 15 minutes to commemorate people who lost their lives to AIDS, the New York Times reported.

In the kickoff of its Red Ribbon Project in 1991, McConnell helped organize volunteers to join “ribbon bees” in which thousands of the ribbons were cut and folded for distribution around the city, the Times reports. Those who knew McConnell said he also arranged for his team of volunteers to call Broadway theaters and producers of the upcoming Tony Awards television broadcast to have participants and theater goers display the red ribbons on their clothes.

Among those displaying a red ribbon on his label at the Tony Awards broadcast was actor Jeremy Irons, who was one of the hosts. In later years, large numbers of celebrities followed the practice of wearing the red ribbon, and in 1993 the U.S. Postal Service issued a red ribbon stamp.

The Times reports that O’Connell was born and raised in Manhattan, where he attended Fordham Preparatory School and later graduated from Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., in 1973 with a bachelor’s degree in history. According to Visual AIDS, O’Connell served as director of the Hallwalls arts center in Buffalo, N.Y. from 1977 to 1978 before returning to New York City to work for a gallery called Artists Space.

The Times reports that O’Connell learned in the middle 1980s that he had contracted AIDS and began a regimen of early AIDS treatment with a cocktail of over 30 pills a day. His involvement with Visual AIDS, which began in 1989, ended on an active basis in 1995 when his health worsened, the Times reports.

As one of the last remaining survivors of his New York contemporaries who had HIV beginning in the 1980s, O’Connell continued in his strong support for AIDS-related causes through 2000s and beyond, people who knew him said.
Visual AIDS says it is gathering remembrances and photos for a tribute post for O’Connell on its website. It has invited people to share their memories of him by sending written contributions and images via email to: [email protected].

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