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DOD faces renewed calls to extend benefits to gay troops

Rep. Schiff circulates letter among U.S. House members

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Gay News, Washington Blade, Gay Servicemembers
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is under renewed pressure to extent partner benefits to gay troops (Blade photo by Michael Key)

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is under renewed pressure to extend partner benefits to gay troops (Blade photo by Michael Key)

The Pentagon is under renewed pressure — now most recently from a California U.S. House member — to allow gay service members to have to certain partner benefits already afforded to straight troops, such as military IDs and access to family programs.

On Thursday, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) began circulating a letter among U.S. House members calling on Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to begin instituting the benefits to gay troops in the wake of a New York Times article that profiled several same-sex military couples who faced hardship because of unequal treatment despite “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal.

“[A]s a recent article in the New York Times illustrates, the end of DADT has not meant the end of unequal treatment of same sex spouses of U.S. service members, who are denied a wide range of services and benefits – from health insurance to pre-deployment counseling, to access to base commissaries,” the letter states. “As long as they remain in place, these restrictions have the effect of perpetuating discrimination against same sex spouses and their families.”

The U.S. military is prohibited from offering major partner benefits — such as health and pension benefits — to gay troops because of the Defense of Marriage Act and other provisions of the U.S. code that govern rights for U.S. service members. But the Pentagon is still withholding other benefits to gay troops that could be extended administratively at any time under secretarial directive.

The benefits that the letter calls for are military ID cards and registration in the Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System; access to Morale, Welfare, & Recreation programs; and access to other family programs. Other benefits not identified in the letter that the Pentagon could extend are access to legal services, joint duty assignments and military housing.

“Department of Defense current policy is treating same sex service members, their spouses and families as second class citizens,” the letter concludes. “As President Obama stated during his inaugural speech, ‘Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law, for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal, as well.'”

Eileen Lainez, a Pentagon spokesperson, said Panetta would reply to the letter as appropriate.

“As you are aware, the department is conducting a deliberative and comprehensive review of the possibility of extending eligibility for benefits, when legally permitted, to same-sex domestic partners,” Lainez added. “The benefits are being examined from a policy, fiscal, legal and feasibility perspective. There are benefits currently available to all of our service members, based on their member-designations.”

Others this week who’ve called on Panetta to enact these benefits are the Human Rights Campaign, which issued an action alert calling on Panetta to grant military IDs to the same-sex partners of troops, and the LGBT military group OutServe-SLDN. The calls come in the wake of Panetta’s decision to exercise his authority to lift the ban on women in combat roles.

“After nearly two years of unnecessary and unexplained delay, it’s likewise time for Secretary Panetta to acknowledge and affirm the service and sacrifice of the gay and lesbian military families — who may now serve openly, but are still anything but equal — by immediately extending all benefits within his authority under existing law,” said OutServe-SLDN Executive Director Allyson Robinson.

Defense secretary nominee Chuck Hagel, whom President Obama tapped to replace Panetta upon his departure, is expected to answer questions on issues pertaining LGBT troops during his confirmation hearing set for Jan. 31. In a letter to Sen. Barbara Boxer last week, Hagel already expressed commitment to extending partner benefits to gay troops, saying, “I will do everything possible to the extent permissible under current law to provide equal benefits to the families of all our service members.”

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The full text of the letter that Schiff is circulating among House members follows

Dear Secretary Panetta,

As you prepare to leave the Defense Department, please accept our gratitude for your years of service to the Nation, including your many years as a member of the House of Representatives.

During your tenure, the American military has taken the historic step of stopping discrimination against gay and lesbian service members by ending the policy of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT), which allowed homosexuals to serve in the military, provided they did not reveal their sexual orientation. This change has not only made our military a truer reflection of the country it protects, but it has also occurred without any of the disruption that critics had predicted.  Much of that is due to your leadership and the senior leadership of the Armed Services.

However, as a recent article in the New York Times illustrates, the end of DADT has not meant the end of unequal treatment of same sex spouses of U.S. service members, who are denied a wide range of services and benefits – from health insurance to pre-deployment counseling, to access to base commissaries.  As long as they remain in place, these restrictions have the effect of perpetuating discrimination against same sex spouses and their families.

We understand that most of the benefits available to veterans, service members and their families are granted directly by Congress. Well over a hundred of these statutory benefits are contingent on marital status. These benefits will remain unavailable to legally married same-sex couples unless the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is repealed or declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court this year or individual statutes are modified by Congress. In the meantime, there are several executive actions that you can take to ease the burden and increase the inclusiveness of all of our service members and their families.

We strongly urge you to issue same sex spouses military identification cards and registration in the Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System (DEERS). This is the easiest and simplest step to include same sex partners as part of the Department of Defense family.

We urge you to allow same sex partners access to Morale, Welfare, and Recreation (MWR) programs. Current regulations leave open to Installation Commanders the possibility of opening up limited access to certain MWR programs to guests and the general public. These exceptions would be applied regardless of sexual orientation or individual situations; in other words, a same-sex spouse could receive guest privileges, just as the girlfriend or boyfriend of a straight service member receives at present, and would likely be treated as any non-dependent member of the public.

We also urge you to allow same sex partners access to family programs. DoD uses a flexible definition of “family” for the purpose of implementing Family Centers and programming, but leaves it up to the individual Service Secretaries to determine eligibility. Thus, each branch of the service (and each installation commander) determines the extent to which same-sex spouses and partners have access to these programs, which include deployment support, marriage and family counseling, relocation assistance and financial management.

Department of Defense current policy is treating same sex service members, their spouses and families as second class citizens. As President Obama stated during his inaugural speech, “Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law, for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal, as well.”

We strongly urge you take immediate action to rectify the inequality of benefits available to families of gay or lesbian service members.

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6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. Brian Ferri

    January 24, 2013 at 6:25 pm

    Hopefully I can then get my husband a military ID card since I am retired Army.

  2. Lauren Ann Avancena

    January 24, 2013 at 7:22 pm

    Second class treatment is S.O.P. for suspected gays, bisexuals or transgender soldiers and in the Infantry and it's accepted as being just fine. Even if you have a Army Achievement Medal and been selected as the Soldier of the Month and Soldier of Quarter. Even after they spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to train you.

  3. Marco Luxe

    January 24, 2013 at 8:12 pm

    Using the military argument of unit cohesion and retention, the current half-a$$ed policy fails that test.

  4. Michael Bedwell

    January 24, 2013 at 7:21 pm

    BRAVO for Rep. Schiff but it’s just more BLAH BLAH BLAH from HRC and SLDN who have done NOTHING over the last two years to put pressure on the President or Panetta [and Gates before him] for failing to EVEN RESPOND to their EARLIER “calls” for action going back to January 2011. HOW MANY TIMES have they called on Panetta IN PERSON or BY TELEPHONE? They are paper tigers still begging for the Community to send them money while they continue to do nothing but issue press releases while this President—despite all his pretty words—has demonstrated again and again that his feet have to be dragged to the proverbial fire. Why hasn’t SLDN and HRC called a major press conference with our allies in Congress and gay and lesbian vets and denounced Pentagon paid shill Eileen Lainez for the FRAUD in her continuously regurgitated claims—read LIES—that they STILL need to “study” benefits issues, and DEMANDED that the President ORDER the extension of all couple benefits NOW not EXPLICITLY banned by DOMA as well as the inclusion of individual LGB service members in the protections against harassment and discrimination in such things as duty assignments and promotions of the Military Equal Opportunity Program? No one needs wait to see if Harvey Milk really did appear to Chuck Hagel in a burning bush. TODAY, HRC and SLDN!! Your gay brothers and sisters defending Freedom around the world denied to them don’t have the luxury of just sitting in DC offices taking bows for doing nothing more than churning out press releases that accomplish NOTHING. Have you no shame?

  5. brian

    January 25, 2013 at 7:13 am

    The White House continues to shoot itself in the foot by failing to remedy federally financed, anti-gay discrimination– to which it is tacitly complicit– and which can easily be ended with the president’s Executive Orders.

    The soaring rhetoric of the inauguration has been, repeatedly– within just a few days– rendered as little more than cheap, hypocritical PR by the intentional backpedaling of the WH and more stalling by its DoD.

    Even as a purely cynical, political matter– what amateurs at the WH think it is wise to see Panetta’s stature– and by extension, his commander-in-chief’s– besmirched at retirement by this increasingly sour note of indefensible, blatant discrimination?

    The president needs to end this hypocrisy now– with EO’s to fully end discrimination against LGB service members and their families. And, likewise, the president needs to end anti-LGBT discrimination by federal contractors aided and abetted with federal contracting dollars.

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National

Jim Obergefell announces bid for seat in Ohio state legislature

Marriage plaintiff moves on to new endeavor

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Jim Obergefell has announced he'd seek a seat in the Ohio state legislature.

Jim Obergefell, the lead plaintiff in the litigation that ensured same-sex couples have the right to marry nationwide, announced on Tuesday he’d pursue a new endeavor and run for a seat in the state legislature in his home state of Ohio.

“You deserve a representative who does the right thing, no matter what. You deserve a representative who fights to make things better for everyone,” Obergefell said. “I’ve been part of a national civil rights case that made life better for millions of Americans. Simply put, I fight for what’s right and just.”

Obergefell, who claims residency in Sandusky, Ohio, is seeking a seat to represent 89th Ohio District, which comprises Erie and Ottawa Counties. A key portion of his announcement was devoted to vowing to protect the Great Lakes adjacent to Ohio.

“We need to invest in our Great Lake, protect our Great Lake, and make the nation envious that Ohio has smartly invested in one of the greatest freshwater assets in the world,” Obergefell said.

Obergefell was the named plaintiff in the consolidated litigation of plaintiffs seeking marriage rights that led the U.S. Supreme Court to rule in 2015 for same-sex marriage nationwide. Obergefell was widower to John Arthur, who died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and was seeking the right to be recognized as his spouse on his death certificate. The ruling in the consolidated cases ensured same-sex couples would enjoy the full benefits and responsibilities of marriage.

“We should all be able to participate fully in society and the economy, living in strong communities with great public schools, access to quality healthcare, and with well-paying jobs that allow us to stay in the community we love, with the family we care about,” Obergefell said in a statement on his candidacy.

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National

FDA-funded blood donation study recruiting gay, bi men

D.C.’s Whitman-Walker, L.A. LGBT Center working on study to ease restrictions

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A new study could make it easier for gay and bi men to donate blood.

D.C.’s Whitman-Walker Institute and the Los Angeles LGBT Center are among LGBTQ supportive organizations in eight U.S. cities working with the nation’s three largest blood donation centers on a study to find a way to significantly ease blood donation eligibility for men who have sex with men or MSM.

The study, which is funded by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, calls for recruiting a total of 2,000 gay and bisexual men in eight U.S. cities selected for the study to test the reliability of a detailed donor history questionnaire aimed at assessing the individual risk of a gay or bisexual man transmitting HIV if they donate blood.

A statement released by the study organizers says the questionnaire, which could be given to a gay or bisexual person showing up at a blood donation site, could be a replacement for the FDA’s current policy of banning men who have had sex with another man within the previous three months from donating blood.

In the early years of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, the FDA put in place a permanent ban on blood donations by men who have sex with men. In 2015, with advanced HIV testing and screening techniques readily available, the FDA lifted its permanent ban on MSM blood donations and replaced it with a 12-month restriction for sexual activity between MSM.

The FDA further reduced the time of sexual abstinence for MSM to three months in 2020.

LGBTQ rights organizations and others advocating for a change in the current FDA restriction point out that at a time when the nation is facing a severe shortage of blood donations due to the COVID pandemic, the three-month donation deferral requirement for MSM is preventing a large number of blood donations from men whose risk of HIV infection is low to nonexistent.

Under the FDA-funded and initiated study, the American Red Cross, Vitalant, and OneBlood — the nation’s three largest blood donation centers — have been conducting the questionnaire testing since the study was launched in March 2021.

“To gather the necessary data, the blood centers will partner with LGBTQ+ Centers in Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Orlando, New Orleans/Baton Rouge, Miami, Memphis, Los Angeles, and Atlanta,” the study organizers say in a statement on a website launched to help recruit volunteers for the study.

“The study will enroll a total of 2,000 gay and bisexual men (250 – 300 from each area) who meet the study eligibility criteria,” the statement says.

Among the criteria for being eligible, the statement says, is the person must be between 18 and 39 years old, have expressed an interest in donating blood, must have had sex with at least one other man in the three months before joining the study, and must agree to an HIV test. A negative test result is also required for acceptance into the study.

The study is officially named ADVANCE, which stands for Assessing Donor Variability And New Concepts in Eligibility.

“The ADVANCE study is a first step in providing data that will help the FDA determine if a donor history questionnaire based on individual risk would be as effective as time-based deferral, in reducing the risk of HIV in the blood supply,” the study organizers statement says.

“If the scientific evidence supports the use of the different questions, it could mean men who have sex with men who present to donate would be assessed based upon their own individual risk for HIV infection and not according to when their last sexual contact with another man occurred,” the statement continues. “The ADVANCE study is groundbreaking because it’s the first time a study is being conducted that could result in individual risk assessment for men who have sex with men to donate blood,” the statement says.

The Whitman-Walker Institute, which is among the community-based organizations involved in helping organize and conduct the study, is an arm of Whitman-Walker Health, the LGBTQ supportive D.C. health center.

Christopher Cannon, director of Research Operations for Whitman-Walker Institute, said that since the D.C.-based part of the study was launched early last year prior to the official announcement of the study on March 20, D.C. has surpassed the original city goal of recruiting 250 participants for the study.

“We are currently at 276 as of last Friday’s report,” Cannon told the Blade in a Jan. 13 interview. “And the current goal is now 300,” he said. “So, we’re hoping to push this over that goal line in the coming days and weeks.

Cannon said that like the community organizations involved in the study in other cities, Whitman-Walker Institute’s role has been focused on recruiting gay and bisexual men to participate in the study and to send them to the American Red Cross headquarters building at 430 17th St., N.W. near the White House. That site, which serves as a blood donation center, is also serving as the site where study participants are screened, interviewed, and presented with a detailed questionnaire.

“We promote the study within Whitman-Walker,” Cannon said. “We promote it to our networks. We did social media promotions across the city.’

Although Whitman-Walker doesn’t have the final draft of the questionnaire being presented to study participants, Cannon said he has seen “bits and pieces” of it.  

“They ask very direct questions about the person’s sex life, sexual partners, sex acts, numbers of partners,” Cannon said. “There are questions about condom use, PrEP use, drug use. How recently have you had sex? Lots of related questions,” he said.

“It’s really about trying to figure out effectively which are the best questions,” according to Cannon. “The hope is by analyzing the questions and identifying maybe the best 10 to 12 questions that can be universally used…to get the best answers that identify the individuals that may have the highest risk,” he said. Doing that, he points, out can help determine which men who have sex with men should be eligible to safely donate blood.

A statement released by Whitman-Walker last March calls the study a “monumental research effort” that has the potential to lift the stigma imposed on gay and bisexual men whose ability to donate blood is currently based on their sexual orientation.

“The ADVANCE study is designed to understand if, by asking carefully crafted and research-informed research questions, blood collectors can screen potential blood donors for their individual HIV risk factors rather than applying a ban against sexually active gay and bisexual men,” the statement says.

“The goal is to move away from overly broad questions that exclude potential donors and spread stigmatizing messages about MSM and their HIV risks,” it says.

Cannon said that as of last week, study organizers had recruited a total of 879 study participants nationwide out of the goal of 2,000 participants needed to complete the study. He said issues related to the COVID pandemic created delays in the recruitment efforts, but study organizers were hopeful the study could be completed by this summer.

Information about participating in the study or learning more about it can be obtained at advancestudy.org.

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Federal Government

Veterans can now identify as transgender, nonbinary on their VA medical records

About 80 percent of trans veterans have encountered a hurtful or rejecting experience in the military because of their gender identity

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Graphic via U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough announced Wednesday that his department added the options of transgender male, transgender female, nonbinary and other, when veterans select their gender, in medical records and healthcare documentation.

“All veterans, all people, have a basic right to be identified as they define themselves,” VA Secretary Denis McDonough said in a statement. “This is essential for their general well-being and overall health. Knowing the gender identity of transgender and gender-diverse veterans helps us better serve them.”

The statement also noted that the change allows health-care providers to better understand and meet the medical needs of their patients. The information also could help providers identify any stigma or discrimination that a veteran has faced that might be affecting their health.

McDonough speaking at a Pride Month event last June at the Orlando VA Healthcare System, emphasized his support for Trans and LGBQ+ vets.

McDonough said that he pledged to overcome a “dark history” of discrimination and take steps to expand access to care for transgender veterans.

With this commitment McDonough said he seeks to allow “transgender vets to go through the full gender confirmation process with VA by their side,” McDonough said. “We’re making these changes not only because they are the right thing to do, but because they can save lives,” he added.

In a survey of transgender veterans and transgender active-duty service members, transgender veterans reported several mental health diagnoses, including depression (65%), anxiety (41%), PTSD (31%), and substance abuse (16%).  In a study examining VHA patient records from 2000 to 2011 (before the 2011 VHA directive), the rate of suicide-related events among veterans with a gender identity disorder (GID) diagnoses was found to be 20 times higher than that of the general VHA patient population.

McDonough acknowledged the VA research pointing out that in addition to psychological distress, trans veterans also may experience prejudice and stigma. About 80 percent of trans veterans have encountered a hurtful or rejecting experience in the military because of their gender identity.

“LGBTQ+ veterans experience mental illness and suicidal thoughts at far higher rates than those outside their community,” McDonough said. “But they are significantly less likely to seek routine care, largely because they fear discrimination.

“At VA, we’re doing everything in our power to show veterans of all sexual orientations and gender identities that they can talk openly, honestly and comfortably with their health care providers about any issues they may be experiencing,” he added.

All VA facilities have had a local LGBTQ Veteran Care Coordinator responsible for helping those veterans connect to available services since 2016.

“We’re making these changes not only because they are the right thing to do but because they can save lives,” McDonough said. He added that the VA would also change the name of the Veterans Health Administration’s LGBT health program to the LGBTQ+ Health Program to reflect greater inclusiveness.

Much of the push for better access to healthcare and for recognition of the trans community is a result of the polices of President Joe Biden, who reversed the ban on Trans military enacted under former President Trump, expanding protections for transgender students and revived anti-bias safeguards in health care for transgender Americans.

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