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Hagel nomination controversial in LGBT community

Some seek reassurances during confirmation proceedings

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Leon Panetta, Chuck Hagel, Barack Obama, White House, Secretary of Defense, Washington Blade, gay news

President Obama nominates Chuck Hagel and John Brenner to high-level administration positions (Washington Blade photo by Chris Johnson)

President Obama officially announced on Monday he would nominate former Sen. Chuck Hagel for defense secretary, a move that has stirred controversy in the LGBT community.

Obama appeared with Hagel in the East Room of the White House to name the Nebraska Republican as his choice — calling him “the leader that our troops deserve” and praising him for his service as a U.S. senator and Vietnam veteran — in addition to nominating John Brennan as director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

“Chuck Hagel’s leadership of our military would be historic,” Obama said. “He’d be the first person of enlisted rank to serve as Secretary of Defense, one of the few secretaries who have been wounded in war, and the first Vietnam veteran to lead the department.  As I saw during our visits together to Afghanistan and Iraq, in Chuck Hagel our troops see a decorated combat veteran of character and strength.”

Obama also alluded to outstanding work at the Pentagon on LGBT issues without enumerating any specific initiatives, saying the nation must move toward “continuing to ensure that our men and women in uniform can serve the country they love, no matter who they love.”

Hagel made no reference to LGBT issues during his remarks, but more generally said he was grateful to have another opportunity to serve the country as well as “men and women in uniform and their families.”

“These are people who give so much to this nation every day with such dignity and selflessness,” Hagel said. “This is particularly important at a time as we complete our mission in Afghanistan and support the troops and military families who have sacrificed so much over more than a decade of war.”

The news was met with varied reactions in the LGBT community — ranging from full support to outright opposition — based on Hagel’s anti-gay record and lingering inequities faced by LGBT service members.

First, there are the anti-gay remarks that Hagel made in 1998 about James Hormel, whom the senator referred to as “openly, aggressively gay” in remarks published in the Omaha World-Herald while questioning his ability to serve as a U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg. A U.S. senator representing Nebraska from 1997 and 2009, Hagel also had a poor record on LGBT issues. He voted for the Federal Marriage Amendment in 2004, but didn’t cast a vote in 2006.

Just last month, Hagel delivered an apology to media outlets over his 1998 remarks, saying he backs open service and is “committed to LGBT military families.” Major LGBT groups like OutServe-SLDN and the Human Rights Campaign quickly accepted the apology.

But questions linger on outstanding LGBT issues at the Pentagon. Gay service members still aren’t afforded partner benefits offered to straight troops in the U.S. military  — such as joint duty assignments, issuance of military IDs, use of the commissary and family housing — which could be changed administratively at any time even with the Defense of Marriage Act in place. Pentagon officials have said they’ve been looking into this issue since the time “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was lifted in September 2011, but no action has been taken. Another lingering issue is the prohibition on openly transgender service in the military — another problem that could be changed administratively.

Baldwin seeks answers on Hagel

Lesbian Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), who after being sworn in last week as the first openly gay senator, will be faced with voting on whether to confirm Hagel, told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell on Monday that she plans to “ask some tough questions, to give a thorough review and to be fair.”

“But I do want to speak with him … to see if his apology is sincere and sufficient,” Baldwin said. “I want to hear how he’s evolved on this issue in the last 14 years because the significance to the post to which he’s been nominated is the respect for now openly gay members of the military … We need to see [repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell] implemented successfully especially because the security of this nation is at stake.”

Another group seeking additional information from Hagel is the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, which issued a statement on Monday expressing concerns about the nomination.

Rea Carey, the Task Force’s executive director, called on Hagel to address how he’d advance LGBT issues at the Pentagon — as well as abortion rights for female service members — during his upcoming confirmation hearings before the Senate.

“We continue to express our concerns about the nomination of former Sen. Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense due to his poor track record on LGBT equality and reproductive rights,” Carey said. “Though Chuck Hagel has recently apologized for past anti-gay remarks, we expect him to fully explain his views during the confirmation process and what steps he intends to take as defense secretary to demonstrate his support for LGBT members of the military and their families.”

Another group that’s seeking a specific action from Hagel — after initially accepting the senator’s apology — is OutServe-SLDN, which issued a statement calling for a plan on partner benefits and non-discrimination policies.

Allyson Robinson, OutServe-SLDN’s executive director, said she wants Hagel to expand on what he means by being “committed to LGBT military families” by articulating policy plans on these issues.

“A commitment to support LGBT service members and their families must be a commitment to action,” Robinson said. “It’s past time to extend all benefits available to married same-sex military couples and families while the so-called Defense of Marriage Act is still on the books. It’s past time to put in place military equal opportunity and nondiscrimination protections so that all qualified Americans who wish to serve this nation in uniform may do so without fear of harassment or discrimination.”

The Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBT group, has been relatively silent on the Hagel nomination after accepting Hagel’s apology a couple weeks ago and issued no public news statement on the day of the announcement.

Fred Sainz, HRC’s vice president of communications, said in response to an inquiry from the Washington Blade that his organization is looking to hear more from Hagel during the confirmation hearings without offering an explicit position on the nomination.

“The next secretary of defense will be critical to the implementation of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ repeal,” Sainz said. “We look forward to Senator Hagel’s testimony on how he intends to end the discriminatory behavior against gay and lesbian service members’ families.”

White House says Hagel values inclusion

The White House has responded to LGBT concerns about Hagel’s record through its chief advocate handling LGBT issues — Senior Adviser to the President Valerie Jarrett — who addressed the issue on Monday in a blog posting on the White House website.

“The President is fully committed to ensuring that all of our service members and military families are treated equally,” Jarrett writes. “He is confident that, as Secretary of Defense, Senator Hagel will ensure that all who serve the country we love are treated equally — no matter who they love.”

Noting that Hagel issued an apology for the remarks and expressed a commitment to LGBT military families, Jarrett said “one of the great successes of the LGBT civil rights movement” is providing people the opportunity to evolve on those issues.

“The President would not have chosen him unless he had every confidence that, working together, they will continue to ensure that our military and DOD civilian workforce are as welcoming, inclusive, and respectful as possible,” Jarrett concluded.

A White House spokesperson didn’t respond to a request for comment on whether Hagel would lay out more specific plans during his confirmation process to address outstanding issues regarding benefits or non-discrimination policies.

Former gay Rep. Barney Frank appeared to have a change of heart on Hagel. In an interview with the Boston Globe on Monday, Frank reversed his earlier stated opposition to the former senator’s confirmation as defense secretary, saying he was initially hoping Obama wouldn’t nominate him.

“As much as I regret what Hagel said, and resent what he said, the question now is going to be Afghanistan and scaling back the military,” Frank was quoted as saying. “In terms of the policy stuff, if he would be rejected [by the Senate], it would be a setback for those things.”

Frank, who’s now vying for an appointment as interim U.S. senator of Massachusetts, also reportedly said, “With the attack coming out of the right, I hope he gets confirmed.” If appointed to the Senate seat, Frank would be in a position to vote on the confirmation.

Perhaps the strongest support in the LGBT community in favor of the nomination came from Rick Jacobs, chair of the California-based progressive grassroots organization known as the Courage Campaign, who declared his support for Hagel in a column for The Huffington Post.

“Chuck, like most Americans, has evolved has changed his views on homosexuality,” Jacobs said. “He gave his word that as DoD chief he supports the law, that openly gay and lesbian soldiers will be treated equally to ‘straight’ ones. Remember when the Commandant of the Marine Corps opposed repeal of [‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’] and then when it passed said the Marines would implement it better than any other branch?”

Speaking with the Blade, Jacobs also said he’d like to see Hagel address outstanding LGBT issues at the Pentagon during his upcoming confirmation hearings.

“It would be great to have that addressed as we move forward,” Jacobs said. “It’s a good idea; we should do that. The more we can discuss openly the policies and implementation of policies to make equal LGBT people in service, the better off we are.”

Jacobs told the Washington Blade he hadn’t spoken to any groups prior to writing his column urging him to come out in support of the Hagel nomination.

On the other end of the spectrum is the Log Cabin Republicans. For the second time, the organization on Monday published a full-page ad in a major newspaper opposing the Hagel nomination. The ad, which follows a similar one published in the New York Times last month, is titled “Chuck Hagel’s Record on Gay Rights” and offers a timeline of remarks on LGBT issues made by Hagel.

In addition to the 1998 anti-gay remarks against Hormel, the ad also notes Hagel has expressed support for DOMA and says in 2005, when a federal judge in Nebraska determined the state’s ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional, Hagel opposed the decision, saying, “I am hopeful the federal appeals court will recognize the rights of Nebraskans to determine their own laws governing marriage and reverse this decision.”

Gregory Angelo, Log Cabin’s interim executive director, said his organization continues to oppose Hagel after examining the “‘totality’ of his public record on gay rights.”

“Until his name surfaced as a potential nominee for Secretary of Defense, he has stood firmly and aggressively against not only gay marriage, but also against gay people in general,” Angelo said. “Log Cabin Republicans helped lead the charge to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and is extremely invested in seeing that we don’t lose any ground due to a lack of sincere commitment to gay people and their families on the part of the incoming Defense Secretary.”

The move by Log Cabin raised questions about how a small organization can afford to buy full-page ads in major newspapers amid speculation that neo-conservative opponents of Hagel are influencing the group. Additionally, Log Cabin applied a different standard to 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney by endorsing the candidate even though he backed a Federal Marriage Amendment.

Speaking to the Blade, Angelo said “there’s some potential” for more ads, but declined to comment on the costs of the ads, saying they’re “part of a larger communications effort” that has come from the board of directors. Angelo also denied that other groups had asked Log Cabin to run the ads, saying they came “exclusively from within Log Cabin Republicans.”

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Virginia

Two anti-LGBTQ bills die in Va. Senate

Democrats maintain 21-19 majority in chamber

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The Virginia Capitol (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Two anti-LGBTQ bills died in the Virginia Senate on Thursday.

A Senate Education subcommittee voted against state Sen. Travis Hackworth (R-Tazewell County)’s Senate Bill 20, which would have eliminated the requirement that school districts must implement the Virginia Department of Education’s transgender and non-binary student guidelines.

The Senate General Laws and Technology Committee in an 8-7 vote tabled state Sen. Mark Peake (R-Lynchburg)’s Senate Bill 177, a religious freedom measure that critics contend would have allowed anti-LGBTQ discrimination in housing.

Virginia’s statewide nondiscrimination law includes sexual orientation and gender identity. Peake’s bill would have removed “the provision of the exemption for religious organizations under the Virginia Fair Housing Law that denies such exemption where the membership in such religion is restricted on account of race, color, national origin, sex, elderliness, familial status, sexual orientation, gender identity, military status, or disability.”

The General Assembly’s 2022 legislative session began on Jan. 12 with Republicans in control of the House of Delegates. Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin took office three days later.

Democrats, who maintain a 21-19 majority in the state Senate, have vowed to block any anti-LGBTQ bill.

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Department of Education investigating BYU LGBTQ+ discipline policy

“They’ve wronged marginalized communities at BYU and they need to be held accountable for it” ~ former gay student at BYU

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Bradley Talbot, a former gay student at BYU (Photo courtesy of Bradley Talbot)

PROVO, Ut. – The U.S. Department of Education has opened an investigation into policies at Brigham Young University (BYU) that discipline LGBTQ students, aiming to determine whether or not the private religious school, owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), is violating their civil rights. 

The Education Department is investigating a complaint that came after BYU removed rules banning “homosexual activity” from its honor code in 2020, only to clarify weeks later that same-sex partnerships were still prohibited.

The probe, which opened in October of last year, will focus on Title IX, a law prohibiting universities from discriminating against students and others based on gender. 

Last year, President Joe Biden signed an executive order mandating every federal agency, including the Education Department, clarify that civil rights laws protect LGBTQ people from discrimination. However, religious schools have Title IX exemptions, making federal scrutiny rare.  

“It’s really significant that investigators are stepping in now,” Michael Austin, a BYU alumnus and vice president at the University of Evansville, told the Salt Lake Tribune. “It means there’s some reason to think the university has gone beyond the religious exemptions it has and is discriminating even beyond those.”

The investigation, headed by the Office of Civil Rights within the department, seems to be about whether faith-based exemptions apply even if the behavior is not directly related to education or expressly written in the honor code. BYU also bans alcohol, beards and piercings, among other things. 

BYU did not respond to the Blade’s request for comment. But a spokesperson told the Associated Press that the school does not anticipate any further action because “BYU is exempt from application of Title IX rules that conflict with the religious tenets” of the LDS.

Though the LDS has softened some of its rules around LGBTQ issues, the church remains opposed to same-sex marriage and sex outside of marriage. 

In a November 2021 letter to the Education Department, Kevin Worthen, president of BYU, argued that religious exemptions do apply to the school. The letter adds that all BYU students, faculty, administrators and staff “‘voluntarily commit to conduct their lives in accordance with the principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ.’”

The Department of Education responded to the letter, affirming that the university has some religious exemptions, but the department had to investigate if the complaint falls under those exemptions. 

An Education Department spokesperson confirmed the investigation to the Blade but declined further comment. 

Queer students at BYU celebrated the school’s removal of the anti-LGBTQ language in the honor code. Yet, the university announced weeks later that there was “some miscommunication” as to what the changes meant, clarifying that “the principles of the Honor Code remain the same.”

Bradley Talbot, a former gay student at BYU, was on campus during the apparent reversal, saying it “instilled a lot of fear and a lot of students.” 

“There are still a lot of feelings of betrayal and apprehension around it,” he told the Blade.

At BYU, students who hold hands or kiss someone of the same sex can face punishment, including expulsion. LGBTQ+ students face harsher discipline than heterosexual couples at the school. 

Talbot said he knew of “quite a few people” who lost their degrees and were kicked out during his time at BYU because of the gay dating ban. “People were turned in by roommates. Some people were turned in by their own parents,” he added. 

Courtesy of Bradley Talbot

The university’s clarification frustrated LGBTQ students, according to Talbot. In response, he organized a demonstration in March of 2021, lighting the “Y” that sits above BYU’s campus – one of the school’s oldest traditions – in rainbow Pride colors on the one year anniversary of the university’s letter sent to students that clarified the LGBTQ dating policy. 

“We did it to reclaim that traumatic day and spin in a positive light of support, love and unity to create more visibility and awareness,” said Talbot. “And also to take a stand that we weren’t going to put up with just being tossed around by BYU. We deserve to be a part of the BYU community and a part of the LGBTQ community.”

The school has since updated its policies, banning protests and other demonstrations on Y Mountain, where Talbot staged his demonstration, in December of last year. 

“Demonstrations should be consistent with BYU’s faith-based mission, intellectual environment and requirements described in the policy,” a statement added. 

Still, Talbot, who is now graduated, has hope that the Education Department’s investigation will “finally change” things at BYU. “This has been something that’s been going on for decades,” he said. “They’ve wronged marginalized communities at BYU and they need to be held accountable for it.”

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LGBTQ advocates fight on for trans athletes, but they may be losing the battle

Transgender women competing in women’s sports remains unpopular in polls

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From left, Lia Thomas, Caitlyn Jenner and Michael Phelps. (Screen capture of Thomas via YouTube, Washington Blade photo of Jenner by Michael Key, photo of Phelps by kathclick via Bigstock)

In the wake of the NCAA changing its policies regarding transgender athletes and state legislatures advancing new legislation against trans inclusion in school sports, LGBTQ advocates continue the fight to ensure athletes can compete consistent with their gender identity, although they may be losing the battle.

As public polling has demonstrated, transgender athletes competing in sports — especially trans women in women’s sports — remains unpopular even among pro-transgender people. Key figures have emerged in recent days opposing transgender inclusion amid the focus on Lia Thomas, a recently transitioned swimmer at the University of Pennsylvania who has been smashing records in women’s aquatics.

Nonetheless, LGBTQ advocates charged with fighting for transgender rights are continuing the efforts. After a coalition of LGBTQ advocates sent a letter to the NCAA urging the organization to include a non-discrimination provision in its updated constitution, the Human Rights Campaign condemned the organization for refusing to keep the language, which appears to have the effect of allowing the sports division to decline to allow transgender athletes to compete consistent with their gender identity, and sent an action alert to supporters.

Joni Madison, interim president of the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement the NCAA “needs to show us their playbook for protecting LGBTQ+ and specifically transgender athletes from discrimination” as state legislatures advance legislation against transgender kids in sports.

“The NCAA has so far proven to be an unreliable ally to LGBTQ+ athletes across the country who depend upon the organization to protect them from discrimination and now they owe these athletes answers,” Madison said.

Instead of reaffirming non-discrimination protections, the NCAA announced a change in policy that goes in different directions but appears aimed at limiting participation of transgender women without taking full responsibility for it. On one hand, the NCAA delegates to the bodies governing individual sports the policies for transgender participation, but on the other hand requires transgender women to document having limited testosterone levels over a certain period of time.

The fight now continues in state legislatures as sports bills are among the latest crop of measures seeking to limit access for transgender people. After South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem made a push for legislation against transgender kids in sports at the start of the year, the state legislature responded by advancing such a measure. On Wednesday, a South Dakota House committee favorably reported out legislation already approved by wide margins in the Senate that would make biological sex the standard for sports in an attempt to limit transgender participation.

Sam Ames, director of advocacy and government affairs at The Trevor Project, said in a statement upon the committee vote the legislation “has nothing to do with fairness — and everything to do with South Dakota politicians using transgender youth as pawns on a political chessboard.

“Proponents of this blanket ban are hard-pressed to find examples of transgender students making South Dakota sports less fair or safe,” Ames said. “Research from The Trevor Project makes clear that many already opt out of sports due to fear of bullying and discrimination.”

Although the issue of transgender women in sports has emerged in recent years as conservative activists found a way to challenge LGBTQ rights in a way that was palatable to the public, the fervor peaked as Thomas made headlines for breaking records in the pool.

After having previously competed in men’s aquatics, Thomas — after she transitioned — began competing in women’s events and was beating her competitors by wide margins. In one event in December, Thomas came in first in the 1,650-yard freestyle and 38 seconds ahead of her closest competitor. The NCAA rules would appear to have the effect of barring Thomas from further competition.

Public polling, which has shown strong support for LGBTQ rights in general, continues to show the sentiment is against transgender women competing in sports, although the outcome of the poll can change considerably depending on the wording of the question. One Gallup poll last year found only 34 percent of those surveyed supported transgender athletes participating on teams consistent with their gender identity, while 62 percent said transgender people should have to compete with other athletes of their gender designated at birth.

One LGBTQ strategist, who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity, said the time may have come for LGBTQ advocates to admit a fait accompli if they want to seek broader civil rights protections in employment, housing and public accommodations with the Equality Act or other federal legislation.

“Advocates should just admit this is a very different issue than a trans person applying for a job or finding an apartment,” the strategist said. “Equality principles differ by situation — that’s why we have separate men’s and women’s sports in the first place. The same public opinion overwhelmingly supportive of the Equality Act is also clearly skeptical of a one size fits all federalization of all sports everywhere.”

Adding fuel to the fire are recent comments from key figures in athletics.

Caitlyn Jenner, who before she transitioned was an Olympic champion in the 1970s, has been among the more prominent voices to speak out against transgender women in sports and said on a recent appearance on Fox News it represents “a woke world gone wild.”

Jenner, who came out against transgender participation in sports during her unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign last year in the California recall election, said the NCAA “just kicked the can down the road” on the transgender sports issue and had choice words for Thomas.

“When you do transition and you do go through this, you have to take responsibility and you have to have integrity,” Jenner said. “I don’t know why she’s doing this.”

Michael Phelps, the decorated Olympic swimmer, also declined to support transgender athletes fully when asked about the issue during an interview on CNN, bringing up doping in sports in comparison.

“I don’t know what it looks like in the future,” Phelps said. “It’s hard. It’s very complicated and this is my sport, this has been my sport my whole entire career, and honestly the one thing I would love is everybody being able to compete on an even playing field.”

To be sure, advocates for allowing transgender people to compete in sports consistent with their gender identity also have their supporters in the sports world, including tennis legend Billie Jean King. On Monday, Dorian Rhea Debussy, who’s non-binary and one of 54 facilitators in the NCAA Division III LGBTQ OneTeam program, resigned in protest over recent NCAA actions.

“I’m deeply troubled by what appears to be a devolving level of active, effective, committed, and equitable support for gender diverse student-athletes within the NCAA’s leadership,” Debussy said. “As a non-binary, trans-feminine person, I can no longer, in good conscience, maintain my affiliation with the NCAA.”

Arguably, schools complying with the new NCAA policy and states enacting anti-transgender laws would be violating Title IX of the Education Amendment of 1972, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in education, especially after the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Bostock v. Clayton County finding anti-transgender discrimination is a form of sex discrimination.

One federal court last year blocked a West Virginia state law against transgender participation in sports on that legal basis. No litigation, however, appears to be in the works at this time challenging colleges or the NCAA policy.

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