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Lesbian veteran seeks spousal benefits in lawsuit

Plaintiff served 12 years in Iraq, Afghanistan

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Tracey (left) & Maggie Cooper-Harris (Blade photo by Michael Key)

An organization dedicated to fighting hate and bigotry on Wednesday filed a lawsuit in federal court aimed at winning benefits for a disabled Army veteran and her same-sex spouse.

The lawsuit, known as Cooper Harris v. United States, was filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center against the U.S. government and is pending before the U.S. District Court of Central District of California. Wilmer, Cutler, Pickering, Hale, & Dorr is assisting with the case on a pro-bono basis.

Tracey Cooper-Harris, the named plaintiff in the lawsuit, criticized the current law, which prevents her and her spouse Maggie from receiving spousal benefits that flow to veterans in opposite-sex marriages.

“We’re only asking for the same benefits as other married couples,” Tracey said. “We simply want the same peace of mind that these benefits bring to the families of other disabled veterans. And that is why we filed a federal lawsuit challenging this policy. No family should have to go through what we’ve had to experience, and our nation shouldn’t allow the Defense of Marriage Act to deny the last wishes of our veterans, but it is happening.”

Tracey served for 12 years in support of military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq and received more than two dozen medals and commendations before being honorably discharged in 2003. In 2008, she married Maggie in California before Proposition 8 took away marriage rights for gay couples in that state.

After being diagnosed in 2010 with multiple sclerosis, which the Department of Veterans Affairs has determined is connected to her military service, Tracey began receiving disability benefits as a veteran. However, she’s unable to receive spousal benefits that she would otherwise be entitled to if she were in an opposite-sex marriage.

Among the veterans benefits that are denied to the couple are disability benefits the Department of Veterans Affairs extends to veterans in opposite-sex marriages meant to ensure the financial stability of spouses. The couple also won’t be permitted to be buried together in a national veterans cemetery.

The lawsuit seeks to strike down Title 38, which denies partner benefits to veterans if they’re married to someone of the same-sex, and the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits federal recognition of same-sex marriage. SPLC contends the laws are unconstitutional on the basis that they violate the equal protection clause of the Fifth Amendment.

Joseph Levin, SPLC’s co-founder, said during the news conference that the lawsuit has parallels to another lawsuit his organization fought and won in the 1970s on behalf of Air Force Lt. Sharron Frontiero.

As a result of the lawsuit, known as Frontiero v. Richardson, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that female veterans should have the same access to benefits as their male counterparts. Levin said the discrimination faced at that time is similar to that faced by the plaintiffs now.

“These men and women made the same and endured the same sacrifices as other members of the military, yet this policy devalues their service, commitment and sacrifice,” Levin said.

Frontiero, who was also present at the news conference, said the lawsuit on behalf of Cooper-Harris is “a logical extension of the case” filed 40 years ago.

“Tracey is fighting the same battle I fought, which is not to have our work deemed second rate or second best,” Frontiero said. “We serve like everybody else, and we deserve what everybody else is getting.”

Levin said after SPLC won the Frontiero case in 1970s, Congress changed the statutes related to military benefits to define spouse as a person of the opposite-sex to ensure female veterans would have access to spousal benefits.

“I never dreamed that statutes we helped change would be used to discriminate against the LGBT community,” Levin said.

Christine Sun, SPLC’s deputy legal director, emphasized the unfairness that Tracey and Maggie face under current law.

“Refusing to grant these benefits to Tracey and Maggie solely because of their sexual orientation is unpatriotic and un-American,” Sun said. “The unfortunate fact is that our nation is not serving our gay and lesbian service members as well as they served us.”

In a response to a question from the Washington Blade, Sun said she couldn’t predict when the district court would make a decision in the case; the soonest the case would come to the U.S. Supreme Court is three or four years.

Neither the Justice Department nor the Department of Veterans Affairs responded on short notice to the Washington Blade’s request for comment on the litigation. In February, the White House announced the Obama administration would no longer defend the Defense of Marriage Act in court.

The litigation is similar to a case that the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network filed at the start of the year known as McLaughlin v. United States, which also seeks to overturn DOMA on the basis that it bars federal benefits from flowing to LGBT military families.

Aubrey Sarvis, SLDN’s executive director, said in a statement his organization welcomes to the SPLC lawsuit and looks forward to coordinating efforts going forward.

“We have worked with the plaintiff, Tracey Cooper-Harris, in the past, and we believe that her case is compelling,” Sarvis said. “This filing today advances the cause of equality for gay and lesbian service members and veterans.”

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Florida

Miami hotel liquor license may be revoked over a drag show

State’s Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco targets business

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Hyatt Regency Hotel in downtown Miami. (Photo by dennizn/Bigstock)

Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration is in the process of revoking the Hyatt Regency Miami’s alcohol license after the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation determined that the hotel’s affiliated James L. Knight Center had hosted “A Drag Queen Christmas” performed Dec. 27 with minors present in the audience.

The Knight Center is a major South Florida venue and has previously hosted the Miss Universe and Miss USA pageants. The venue’s main room can seat 4,600 people.

This is the third time the state’s Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco, which operates under the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, has targeted a business that hosted a drag show.

A popular restaurant and pub in Miami’s Wynwood neighborhood is also under threat of losing its liquor license. The R House identifies itself on its Facebook page as “the proud home of South Florida’s most popular weekend drag brunches.”

The July 2022 complaint filed by the Department of Business and Professional Regulation asks for a final order that the R House restaurant is a declared a public nuisance and has its liquor license revoked. 

According to the South Florida Sun Sentinel, the complaint was issued after a video of a recent performance at the bar’s drag brunch went viral. A topless drag queen wearing lingerie stuffed with money can be seen in the video attempting to dance with a young girl, who the DPBR estimates is “between three and five years old.” Twitter account “Libs of Tik Tok” originally found the footage on Tik Tok, posted by a user who wrote, “Children belong at drag shows!!!! Children deserve to see fun and expression & freedom.”

In late December “A Drag Queen Christmas” was hosted by the Orlando non-profit Orlando Philharmonic Plaza Foundation on Dec. 28, filing a complaint alleging that children under age 18 were allowed to attend.

The complaint against the Orlando Philharmonic alleged the foundation violated Florida law in allowing for a person to “commit lewd or lascivious exhibition” in the presence of an individual who is less than 16 years old.

In this latest targeting of the show, which is a holiday-themed drag show that tours in 36 different cities and features stars from the reality show “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” Insider webzine journalist Kimberly Leonard reported that the DeSantis administration officials accused the Knight Center of several violations, including a prohibition of “lascivious exhibition” before people younger than 16, mirroring the December complaint against the Orlando Philharmonic.

The department’s complaint said performers engaged in “acts of simulated sexual activity, and lewd, vulgar, and indecent displays” that included:

  • Performers forcibly penetrating or rubbing exposed prosthetic female breasts against faces of audience members
  • Intentionally exposing performers’ prosthetic female breasts and genitalia to the audience
  • Intentionally exposing performers’ buttocks to the audience
  • Simulating masturbation through performers’ digitally penetrating prosthetic female genital
  • Graphic depictions of childbirth and/or abortion

Hyatt Regency Miami is allowed to keep selling alcohol until the department makes a final decision. The business has 21 days to request a hearing, Beth Pannell, spokeswoman for the department, told Insider.

Regulators had warned the facility to change how it marketed the show before it went live, according to a copy of the letter included in the complaint. The letter accused the marketers of putting on a performance that constitutes “public nuisances, lewd activity, and disorderly conduct” when minors are present.

News of this latest action was first reported by far-right conservative internet based outlet Florida’s Voice.

As more and more Republican states target drag shows, in just the past few weeks, Tennessee became the first to ban adult performances, including drag, from public spaces such as parks and schools. 

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U.S. Military/Pentagon

New VA mission statement recognizes commitment to all veterans

‘To fulfill [Lincoln’s] promise to care for those who have served in our nation’s military & for their families, caregivers, & survivors’

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VA Secretary Denis McDonough. (Screenshot/YouTube)

In a speech delivered Thursday at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial (WIMSA), located at the main entrance to Arlington National Cemetery in suburban Virginia, VA Secretary Denis McDonough announced the Department of Veterans Affairs has issued an updated version of its 1959 mission statement.

The new mission statement is: “To fulfill President Lincoln’s promise to care for those who have served in our nation’s military and for their families, caregivers, and survivors.”

As the VA secretary commenced his remarks, he honored several notable women in the audience including Brenda S. “Sue” Fulton, the assistant secretary of veterans affairs for public and intergovernmental affairs.

Fulton, is a 1980 graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., which was the Academy’s first class to admit women. She is an out lesbian and served as a founding board member of Knights Out, the organization of LGBTQ West Point graduates, and later worked with OutServe, the association of actively-serving LGBTQ military members and SPARTA, an LGBTQ military group advocating for transgender military service.

“Whenever any veteran, family member, caregiver, or survivor walks by a VA facility, we want them to see themselves in the mission statement on the outside of the building,” said Secretary McDonough. “We are here to serve all veterans, their families, caregivers and survivors — and now, our mission statement reflects exactly that.”

In crafting the new mission statement, VA surveyed roughly 30,000 Veterans. Among veterans surveyed, the new version of VA’s mission statement was chosen over the current version by every age group; by men and by women; by LGBTQ+ veterans; and by white, Black/African American, Hispanic/Latino, Asian and American Indian/Alaska Native Veterans.

In addition to two rounds of surveys, VA conducted dozens of small-group engagements with veterans to understand what was most important to them in a VA mission statement, then incorporated that feedback into quantitative research. The new mission statement reflects that VA serves all of the heroes who have served our country, regardless of their race, gender, background, sexual orientation, religion, zip code or identity.

The previous mission statement was: “To fulfill President Lincoln’s promise ‘to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan’ by serving and honoring the men and women who are America’s veterans.” The previous mission statement is posted in roughly 50 percent of VA’s facilities. Over the coming months, VA’s new mission statement will replace the previous version.

VA announces new mission statement, recognizing sacred commitment to serve all who served:

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Michigan

Mich. governor signs statewide LGBTQ rights law

‘Bigotry is bad for business’

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Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on March 16, 2023, signed an LGBTQ rights bill into law. (Photo courtesy of Whitmer's office)

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act on Thursday, which expands basic protections for the LGBTQ community.

The measure, Senate Bill 4, was sponsored by openly gay state Sen. Jeremy Moss who less than a year previously had been shot down by the Republican majority as he attempted to have a non-binding resolution to recognize “Pride Month” adopted by the Senate.

In her signing remarks, Whitmer noted: “In the words of Detroit native Lizzo, it’s about damn time! Bigotry is bad for business. Come to Michigan, you will be respected and protected under the law.”

“As Equality Michigan celebrates this historic step forward, we are standing on the shoulders of giants. Generations of activists have inspired us to fight for justice and equality for all LGBTQ+ Michiganders, and our community has been working to update our state’s civil rights law to explicitly include sexual orientation, gender identity and expression in every single legislative session since Elliott-Larsen was first adopted,” Equality Michigan Executive Director Erin Knott said in a statement. “We applaud Gov. Whitmer for signing this bill into law, and are humbled by this pro-equality legislature that made amending ELCRA a top priority. Senator Jeremy Moss and Rep. Jason Hoskins introduced this legislation and championed it all the way through to the finish line.” 

“The victory we have today in Michigan is a great one, but it’s also one we don’t take lightly at this moment. Let it not be lost on us that this privilege, however hard-earned, is a unique one that exists amid a nationwide political assault on LGBTQ+ people, especially trans and non-binary youth, and their families,” added Knott. “There are over 400 anti-trans bills moving across state legislatures in the US, twice the amount introduced last year.”

“This bill being signed into law is a beacon of hope and sends a powerful message of acceptance to LGBTQ people across the nation. At the Trevor Project, we work every day to protect the lives of LGBTQ youth, and days like today prove that in generations to come, both their legal and lived equality will no longer be fodder for political debate,” said Troy Stevenson, director of state advocacy campaigns for the Trevor Project. “Our research shows that having at least one accepting adult can reduce the risk of a suicide attempt among LGBTQ young people by 40 percent. We applaud the elected leaders, advocates and Gov. Whitmer for making this a reality, and affirming the dignity and rights of LGBTQ Michiganders by codifying these protections into law.”

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