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Gay service members to receive full severance pay

ACLU filed suit on behalf of discharged Air Force staff sergeant

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Gay News, Washington Blade, Gay Servicemembers
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta (Blade photo by Michael Key)

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta (Blade photo by Michael Key)

A federal court on Monday approved a settlement that will allow gay service members discharged because of their homosexuality to receive full severance pay.

The American Civil Liberties Union said that it reached the roughly $2.4 million agreement on behalf of more than 180 service members who signed onto a class action lawsuit who received only 50 percent of their separation pay when the military discharged them. This policy took effect in 1991, two years before “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” took effect.

The settlement the ACLU reached with the Pentagon only applies to those discharged before Nov. 10, 2004, because of the statute of limitations.

“It makes no sense to continue to penalize service members who were discharged under a discriminatory statute that has already been repealed,” Joshua Block, staff attorney for the ACLU Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Project, said. “The amount of the pay owed to these veterans is small by military standards, but is hugely significant in acknowledging their service to their country.”

The ACLU in 2010 challenged the policy on behalf of former Air Force Staff Sgt. Richard Collins who was discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in 2006 after a co-worker at Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico saw him kiss his boyfriend in their car while they were off-base.

“This means so much to those of us who dedicated ourselves to the military, only to be forced out against our will for being who we are,” Collins said. “We gave all we had to our country, and just wanted the same dignity and respect for our service as any other veterans.”

“There was absolutely no need to subject these service members to a double dose of discrimination by removing them from the armed forces in the first place, and then denying them this small benefit to ease the transition to civilian life,” Laura Schauer Ives, managing attorney for the ACLU of New Mexico, added. “This decision represents a long-delayed justice to these veterans.”

The ACLU announced the settlement hours after President Obama nominated former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel to succeed Defense Secretary Leon Panetta — his selection sparked controversy among some advocates who have criticized him for his anti-LGBT voting record on Capitol Hill and for describing James Hormel as “openly, aggressively gay” during a 1998 newspaper interview about his nomination to become the U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg.

Hagel apologized for his comments.

Former chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen and U.S. Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos are among the military commanders who have said the integration of openly gay men and lesbians into the armed forces has gone smoothly since the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” became official in September 2011.

Problems, however, remain.

Transgender servicemembers remain unable to openly serve, while the Defense of Marriage Act prohibits the military from providing on-base housing, survivor and other spousal benefits to same-sex partners of gay soldiers.

Servicemembers Legal Defense Network in October 2011 filed a federal lawsuit against DOMA on behalf of Chief Warrant Officer Charlie Morgan, a lesbian guardsman with terminal breast cancer who led the Pledge of Allegiance at New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan’s inauguration on Jan. 3, and other gay service members and veterans. The Southern Poverty Law Center last February filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs on behalf of a disabled veteran from California whose application for spousal benefits for her wife whom she legally married outside Los Angeles before voters in 2008 approved Proposition 8 that banned nuptials for gays and lesbians.

The U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments in cases challenging both Prop 8 and DOMA at the end of March.

The Obama administration announced in February 2011 it would no longer defend DOMA, but House Republicans continue to back it.

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Federal Government

Nonbinary Energy Department official charged with second luggage theft

Sam Brinton placed on administrative leave after first allegation

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Samuel Brinton, gay news, Washington Blade
Sam Brinton (Photo courtesy of Sam Brinton)

Sam Brinton, the first openly genderfluid person appointed to a senior government post, was served with a felony arrest warrant Friday following a second incident in which they were accused of stealing luggage from an airport.

New charges accuse Brinton of grand larceny of property valued between $1,200 and $5,000, for stealing luggage at Harry Reid International Airport in Las Vegas. They were previously charged with a felony for lifting a suitcase from baggage claim at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport on Sept. 16.

Brinton joined the U.S. Department of Energy this year as deputy assistant secretary for spent fuel and waste disposition. The New York Post reported they were put on leave following the first incident.

“The Department of Energy takes criminal charges against DOE employees and clearance holders very seriously,” a Department of Energy spokesperson told the Washington Blade in a statement. “Sam Brinton, a career civil servant, is on administrative leave. The department is limited by law on what it can disclose on personnel matters, such as an employee’s clearance status. Generally, as the department has previously stated, if a DOE clearance holder is charged with a crime, the case would be immediately considered by DOE personnel security officials, and depending on the circumstances, that review could result in suspension or revocation of the clearance.”

On Dec. 7, a group of 16 Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives, including far-right Congress members Marjorie Taylor Greene (Ga.), Andy Biggs (Ariz.) and Louie Gohmert (Texas), called on Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm to demand Brinton’s resignation.

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Congress

Sen. Sinema changes party affiliation from Democrat to independent

Lawmaker made history in 2018, becoming first bi member to serve in Senate

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Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.) (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona said during an interview with POLITICO on Friday that she will switch her party affiliation from Democrat to independent but pledged not to change the way she has voted over the past four years in the Senate.

Sinema’s announcement comes just two days after Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock of Georgia prevailed in a runoff election against Republican challenger Herschel Walker, widening Democrats’ razor thin majority in the upper chamber.

“I don’t anticipate that anything will change about the Senate structure,” Sinema told POLITICO. “I intend to show up to work, do the same work that I always do. I just intend to show up to work as an independent.”

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre released a statement on her decision:

“Senator Sinema has been a key partner on some of the historic legislation President Biden has championed over the last 20 months, from the American Rescue Plan to the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, from the Inflation Reduction Act to the CHIPS and Science Act, from the PACT Act to the Gun Safety Act to the Respect for Marriage Act, and more.

“We understand that her decision to register as an independent in Arizona does not change the new Democratic majority control of the Senate, and we have every reason to expect that we will continue to work successfully with her.”

Sinema’s reputation as an iconoclast has occasionally frustrated her Democratic colleagues in the chamber as well as progressives more broadly. Critics were puzzled by what they saw as the Arizona Senator’s fealty to multinational pharmaceutical companies, hedge funds, and venture capital firms.

More recently, however, Sinema was credited for her instrumental work earning her GOP colleagues’ support for the Respect for Marriage Act, which earned a filibuster proof majority and is now on its way to be signed into law.

Sinema made history with her election to the Senate in 2018, becoming the first bisexual and second LGBTQ person (behind Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin) to serve in the upper chamber.

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National

Brittney Griner returns to U.S.

WNBA star released in exchange for Russian arms dealer

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Brittney Griner before she left Moscow on Dec. 8, 2022. (Screen capture via Russian State Media)

WNBA star Brittney Griner returned to the U.S. on Friday after Russia released her in exchange for a convicted arms dealer.

Griner landed at Kelly Air Force Base in San Antonio at around 5:30 a.m. ET. 

Media reports indicate Griner then went to the U.S. Army’s Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston. They also said she will undergo a medical examination at the Brooke Army Medical Center.

“So happy to have Brittney back on U.S. soil,” tweeted “Welcome home BG.”

Griner had been serving a nine-year prison sentence in a penal colony after a Russian court convicted her on the importation of illegal drugs after Russian customs officials in February found vape canisters containing cannabis oil in her luggage at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport.

President Biden on Thursday announced Russia had released Griner in exchange for Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer who is serving a 25-year prison sentence in the U.S.

Russian media broadcast a video of the exchange that took place at an airport in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. 

Griner’s wife, Cherelle Griner, was with Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken when they spoke with Griner from the Oval Office before she left for the U.S.

“She is safe,” said Biden. “She is on a plane. She is on her way home.”

Advocacy groups are among those who welcomed Brittney Griner’s release. Cherelle Griner and the Biden administration have said they remain committed to securing the release of Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine who is serving a 16-year prison sentence in Russia for spying.

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