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Gay troops tell personal stories at Pentagon Pride

Event marks first such celebration since ‘Don’t Ask’ repeal

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The personal story of a gay service member warmed the hearts of attendees during a panel discussion at the first ever Pentagon event celebrating June as Pride month.

Marine Corps Capt. M. Matthew Phelps, who serves as a commanding officer at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego was among the three panelists who talked about the difficulties of serving in the closet before “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was lifted.

Phelps said the situation was particularly difficult for him in 2007 when he was deployed to Iraq and fellow Marines would meet on Saturday to smoke cigars, watch movies and talk about their families at home.

“I sat there in the back of the room not talking to anybody because not only was it so hard to have left somebody at home — just like it was hard for everybody else — but when everyone was getting together and growing closer as a unit, by virtue of the fact that I wasn’t allowed to say anything, I was actually growing more distant from my unit,” Phelps said.

After graduating from the University of Rochester in November 2001 with a degree in applied music, Phelps said he enlisted in the Marine Corps after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, because he felt the need to serve his country. But Phelps said “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was a strain on him until the ban was lifted on Sept. 20.

“I went into work on the 20th of September thinking that my life was going to change, and I went in and I sat down at my desk and I braced myself on the desk waiting for everyone to come and ask me if I was gay,” Phelps said. “Believe it or not, nobody did. I didn’t get any email. I didn’t get any phone call. In fact, the phone didn’t even ring. I was waiting — saying, ‘Please somebody talk to me today’ — because I felt like I was going to work for the very first time. For almost 10 years, Matthew was going to work as a Marine in uniform doing my job, doing the job that I thought I had been doing for 10 years, but I had only been half doing.”

Phelps was among the attendees at the White House Pride reception earlier this month where for the first time openly gay service members could participate while wearing their uniforms thanks to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal.

Others on the Pentagon panel, which was moderated by Pentagon Director of Press Operations Navy Capt. Jane Campbell were Gordon Tanner, the Air Force’s principal deputy general counsel, and Brenda “Sue” Fulton, a member of the board of visitors at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and communications director for OutServe. All three panelists — Phelps an active duty troop, Tanner a civilian and Fulton a veteran — were gay and selected by word of mouth recommendations.

Tanner said he was supposed to distribute a list of benefits available to gay troops, but opted instead to encourage gay service members to serve as openly as possible because only that can help straight allies bridge their understanding of LGBT people.

“What I really want to talk about today is what each of us can do in our own day-to-day lives to make a difference,” Tanner said. “First of all, and most importantly, we need to be as visible as we can be. Everybody has a different comfort level. Everyone is in a different place. Let me encourage you to be as open and honest as you can possibly be.”

Fulton talked about the commitment she saw from straight allies in the military who wanted to make sure the transition to open service went smoothly and gay troops weren’t harmed. She described a commitment ceremony that took place over the weekend involving gay couples who served in the military.

“In the back of the church … was another chaplain, a senior chaplain Air Force O-6, Southern Baptist,” Fulton said. “I asked him why he was there and he said, ‘I just want to make sure everything goes smoothly for my airmen. I just want to make sure there aren’t any problems.'”

The one-hour event marks the first time that a Pride celebration has taken place for Defense Department personnel within the Pentagon. This is the first Pride month to have taken place since “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was lifted from the books last year.

More than 350 attendees filled the Pentagon auditorium to capacity. The event was broadcast on the Pentagon channel and Tanner said during his remarks that troops as far away as Afghanistan were interested in watching a video of the event.

Attendees were made up of civilian Defense Department workers, service members who came in their uniforms and LGBT advocates who helped lead the way for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal. The program began after service members “presented the colors” and video messages were shown from President Obama and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.

Defense Department General Counsel Jeh Johnson (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Delivering the keynote address at the event was Jeh Johnson, the Pentagon’s general counsel and co-chair of the Pentagon working group that wrote the report leading the way for legislative repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in 2010. He spoke mostly of the process by which he and fellow co-chair Army Gen. Carter Ham, then commanding general of U.S. Army Europe, evaluated the risk of lifting the military’s gay ban.

While they pursued the task at hand without any predetermination on whether the ban should be repealed, Johnson said the group heard stories from gay service members who were eagerly awaiting an end to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

“In communications with gay and lesbian current and former service members, we repeatedly heard a patriotic desire to serve and defend the nation subject to the same rules as everyone else,” Johnson said. “In the words of one gay service member, ‘Repeal would simply take a knife out of my back. You have no idea what it is like to serve in silence.'”

As a result of the process, Johnson said the institution of open service in the military has brought some isolated incidents, but “almost no issues or negative effects associated with repeal on unit cohesion, including within warfighting units.”

Even during his remarks, Johnson wouldn’t reveal his personal views on LGBT rights — saying he thinks as Pride is celebrated participants should remember the military is about Americans from a variety of backgrounds coming together to serve the country.

“Within the military, events such as this must occupy a different and qualified place because in the military, individual personal characteristics are subordinate to the good of the unit and the mission — service above self,” Johnson said. “From all that we learned in 2010 about the struggles and the sacrifice to remain in the military, I believe gay men and women in uniform readily agree with this.”

Johnson also said the Pentagon is examining ways to extend additional benefits to gay troops now that open service is in place. Pentagon officials have said they’ve been looking at these possible benefits since “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was lifted last year.

Servicemembers Legal Defense Network and other LGBT groups have been pushing for benefits such as joint duty assignments, military family housing as well as access to certain family programs and free legal services. All are deemed by advocates to be within the authority of the Pentagon even with the Defense of Marriage Act in place.

“Going forward, the personnel and readiness community is now in the midst of reviewing which military family benefits can be extended to the partners and other family members of gay and lesbian service members,” Johnson said. “The repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ exposes certain inequalities between similarly situated couples in the military community. This concerns many of our leaders. On the other hand, we must comply with current law, including the Defense of Marriage Act.”

Aubrey Sarvis, SLDN’s executive director, was among the attendees at the celebration and said he wished Johnson had “been more specific” in his remarks with regard to benefits.

“It’s just taking an inordinate amount of time to bring closure on this,” Sarvis said. “So, the day for a decision and an announcement by Secretary Panetta is here. In fact, it’s overdue.”

Sarvis added the decision to extend these benefits to gay troops should be resolved “within a matter of days,” but predicted more time will pass before an announcement is made.

Despite qualms about the lingering issue of benefits, Sarvis noted the historic nature of the Pride event.

“I think for all of these things to have happened in the past year — having finality on repeal, being here to celebrate — is something that many, many people could not have anticipated, so, yes, this is very much a historic occasion,” Sarvis said. “I think a number of people here are still pinching themselves.”

A number of gay service members who attended said they were elated being able to participate in the first Pride event at the Pentagon after the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

Army Sgt. Bryan LaMadrid, 22, who’s gay, said coming to the event was particularly emotional for him.

“I’m stationed up at Ft. Meade right now, but I’m driving here and I’m kind of tearing up and have shivers going down my back and my neck because two years ago, you would have never imagined this, and now it’s happening this year,” LaMadrid said.

Navy Lt. Kevin Naughton, 32, who’s gay, was among those who helped plan the event and said “it was a big deal” to obtain approval from Panetta’s office to plan the Pride celebration.

“It was just an amazing process that we’ve gone through from going from repeal all the way to being able to have an event where we’re treated equally at work,” Naughton said.

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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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