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Hagel pledges to move ‘expeditiously’ on benefits for gay troops

Defense secretary nominee addresses ongoing Pentagon review

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Chuck Hagel, gay news, Washington Blade
Chuck Hagel, Secretary of Defense, gay news, Washington Blade

Defense secretary nominee Chuck Hagel faced his confirmation hearing before the Senate on Thursday. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Former Sen. Chuck Hagel has pledged to “move forward expeditiously” on the issue of extending partner benefits to gay service members if confirmed as defense secretary.

During his confirmation hearing on Thursday before the Senate Armed Services Committee, the Nebraska Republican reiterated his support for open service and said he would do “everything possible” to extend equal benefits to all military families.

“As I’ve discussed with many of you in our meetings, I am fully committed to implementing the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ and doing everything possible under current law to provide equal benefits to the families of all, all our service members,” Hagel said in his opening statement.

In written responses to committee questions made public on the same day as the hearing, Hagel promised to move “expeditiously” in response to an inquiry on whether he would ensure that the report from the Pentagon benefits review group is expedited and sent to Congress.

“If confirmed, I will work closely with the Department of Defense civilian and military leadership to move forward expeditiously on this issue and will inform the appropriate Congressional committees of decisions as they are made,” Hagel writes.

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 laws, but other benefits — like military ID cards, joint duty assignments, access to family programs, legal services and housing — could be extended administratively at any time under secretarial directive.

Since the time “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was lifted in September 2011, Pentagon officials have consistently said they’ve been reviewing the benefits that could be extended to gay service members. However, no action has been taken.

Hagel addressed this ongoing review at the Pentagon in response to a question on the status of this report and when the group is expected to produce it.

“I understand that this review is not taking the form of a report, per se, but has involved assembling detailed information on individual benefits (including whether each such benefit might be made available under current law, and options for how to do so) to support decision making by the senior civilian and military leadership of the Department, and also that those decisions are currently under active consideration,” Hagel wrote. “If confirmed, I will review the work that has been undertaken during the course of the benefits review and will work closely with the Department of Defense civilian and military leadership to move forward expeditiously on this issue.”

Allyson Robinson, executive director of the LGBT military group OutServe-SLDN, praised Hagel for promising leadership on issues important to gay service members.

“After two years of equivocation and delay by Pentagon leadership, it is gratifying to see Sen. Hagel show the kind of clear, unambiguous support for our service members and their families we saw today,” Robinson said. “It is an historic day when issues critical to gay and lesbian service members and their families take center stage in a confirmation hearing for Secretary of Defense.”

But LGBT issues related to the military received scant attention during the question-and-answer portion of the hearing, which lasted about eights hours. Republican committee members, such as Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas), instead focused on past comments Hagel made suggesting that he’s anti-Israel and is lenient on Iran. Democratic senators like Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) drew attention to the fact that Hagel would be the first secretary of defense who once served as an enlisted soldier in the Army.

Other members asked him about military programs important to their states, such as Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), who asked Hagel about his commitment to naval programs and cyber warfare.

But in some portions, LGBT issues were referenced. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) said she needs a “strong commitment” from Hagel that he’ll work to extend partner benefits for gay service members —in addition to confronting sexual assault against women, referencing reports that there are 19,000 such incidents in the military each year — and said the status quo won’t be acceptable.

“Well, you have my complete commitment on that,” Hagel said. “I’ve made that commitment to members of the committee that I’ve spoken to. I mentioned that point in my opening statement, if you recall.”

Gillibrand said she had already spoken to Hagel privately about these issues and was submitting a question to him for the record.

Another point of discussion relevant to LGBT service members took place when Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) asked about the “conscience” provision that was signed into law as part of the Fiscal Year 2013 Defense Authorization Act and whether Hagel would ensure that language won’t lead to discrimination against gay troops.

“Absolutely,” Hagel replied. “I will faithfully and diligently enforce our laws. All men and women deserve the same rights, and I can assure you that would be a high priority.”

But that response seemed to trouble Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss), who followed up at the start of his questioning by asking Hagel whether he believes a military chaplain can opt out of officiating over same-sex weddings. Hagel at first noted that same-sex marriage is legal in nine states, but Wicker sought additional clarification over whether a chaplain could bow out of those ceremonies.

“Certainly,” Hagel replied. “But what we don’t want, though — Sen. Udall’s point is — someone being denied to be married in a chapel or a facility.”

protester, GetEqual, gay news, Washington Blade

Protester at the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Prior to the start of the hearing, a female protester apparently affiliated with GetEQUAL held a sign, reading, “We Serve Equally; We Deserve Equality,” and shouted at Hagel to make good on his promise to extend partner benefits to gay troops. She was escorted out by Capitol Police.

The issue of outstanding benefits for gay troops has received significant attention recently in the wake of a spousal club at the Fort Bragg Army base in North Carolina refusing to admit Ashley Broadway, the spouse of lesbian soldier Lt. Col. Heather Mack. The club, which initially said Broadway was unable to join because she lacked a military ID, ultimately granted Broadway full membership.

Still, groups such as OutServe-SLDN and the Human Rights Campaign have called on outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to take action on the benefits issue before his retirement.

Earlier this week, Sens. Gillibrand and Jeanne Shaheen, who are both members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, wrote a letter to Panetta asking him to “extend as many benefits as possible to LGBT members’ families.”

“Repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ was a critical step to ensuring our military retains all the best and brightest and does not discriminate against any Americans,” the senators write. “But, the lack of equal benefits undermines those service members whose families are denied the programs offered for military families.”

Hagel’s questionnaire responses build off a commitment he expressed earlier in a Jan. 14 letter to Sen. Barbara Boxer in which he said he supports “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal and would “do everything possible to the extent permissible under current law to provide equal benefits to the families of all our service members.”

After the hearing, OutServe-SLDN’s Robinson expressed disappointment in a statement that the issue of non-discrimination for LGBT service members wasn’t addressed. Gay service members currently have no recourse outside of their chain of command for claims of discrimination or harassment based on sexual orientation.

“It’s time for our nation’s military leaders to send a clear message that relegating LGBT service members to second-class status is no longer acceptable,” Robinson said. “If Sen. Hagel is confirmed, he must use his authority to ban discrimination and guarantee equal opportunity for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender members of the military.”

The Hagel nomination has been controversial within the LGBT community because of his poor voting record on LGBT issues while a U.S. senator from Nebraska and because he called then-ambassadorial nominee James Hormel in 1998 “openly aggressively gay.” Hagel has since apologized for the anti-gay remarks and the former ambassador supports his confirmation.

UPDATE: This posting has been edited for clarity and updated with additional comments from Hagel and senators.

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  1. Michael Bedwell

    January 31, 2013 at 6:08 pm

    HOW MANY TIMES must we read nothing but blind repetition of the Pentagon's LIES about how they supposedly need MORE time to study issues ANSWERED by their pre-repeal working group OVER TWO YEARS AGO? And HOW MANY TIMES must we hear SLDN's Robinson refusing to explicitly call them on their lies and here her coo again and again about how wonderful Hagel is, and how we should all be clapping our hands for nothing more than promises of pie in the sky rather than DEMANDING that STILL SITTING Secretary of Defense Panetta make these changes NOW—and if refuses DEMAND the President order him to. Fail, SLDN. FAIL!

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N.C. lieutenant governor compares gays to cow feces, maggots

“If homosexuality is of God, what purpose does it serve? What does it make? What does it create? It creates nothing,” Robinson said

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North Carolina Lt. Governor Mark Robinson (Blade file photo)

WINSTON-SALEM – Speaking to parishioners at the Berean Baptist Church in Winston-Salem last Sunday, November 14, North Carolina Lt. Governor Mark Robinson attacked the LGBTQ+ community in remarks caught on the church’s livestreaming video on YouTube.

Robinson said in his sermon that he questioned the “purpose” of being gay; said heterosexual couples are “superior” to gay couples; and that he didn’t want to explain to his grandchildren why two men are kissing if they see that on television the Charlotte Observer reported.

The state’s Republican Lt. Governor then went on to compare being gay to “what the cows leave behind” as well as maggots and flies, who he said all serve a purpose in God’s creation. “If homosexuality is of God, what purpose does it serve? What does it make? What does it create? It creates nothing,” Robinson said.

Democratic lawmakers expressed their outrage on Twitter:

According to the Observer, “The video was distributed Friday by a pastor at St. John’s Metropolitan Community Church in Raleigh, the day before the Transgender Day of Remembrance. A protest rally was held Friday in front of Robinson’s office, but organizers also read the names of transgender people who have been killed.

This man’s theology and religious practices are not only flawed and a perversion of the Christian tenets; he places countless people at risk of violent attacks and even murder every time he opens his mouth,” said Vance Haywood, senior pastor at St. John’s, in a statement.

Robinson is expected to run for the governor’s chair in 2024. In another video of the sermon captured the Lt. Governor ranting in transphobic terms his opinion of the Trans community:

North Carolina Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson (Twitter Video)

Video of remarks made by North Carolina Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson courtesy of the Charlotte Observer.

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LGBTQ elder care facilities open nationwide, but discrimination persists

Advocates say seniors face challenges despite groundbreaking advances

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The Ariadne Getty Foundation Senior Housing facility opened this week in Los Angeles. (Blade file photo)

Marsha Wetzel, an out lesbian, shared her life with her partner of 30 years, Judith Kahn, at the couple’s home in Illinois until Kahn died in 2013 of colon cancer.

As is the case with some same-sex couples who never married, Kahn’s family took legal possession of the couple’s home several years later, forcing Wetzel, who suffered from severe arthritis, to move into the Glen St. Andrew Living Community, a retirement and assisted living facility in Niles, Ill.

According to a lawsuit filed on her behalf in 2016 by the LGBTQ litigation group Lambda Legal, when word got out that Wetzel was a lesbian after she disclosed her sexual orientation to a fellow resident, she was called homophobic slurs, spat on, and assaulted on several occasions by other residents of the facility. The lawsuit, which later resulted in a court ruling in Wetzel’s favor, charged that officials at the Glen St. Andrew facility illegally failed to take action to prevent Wetzel from being subjected to abuse and threats by fellow residents and retaliated against her when she complained.

Lambda Legal announced one year ago, on Nov. 20, 2020, that Wetzel passed away at the age of 73 of natural causes after a landmark 2018 appeals court ruling in her favor affirmed that residential facilities such as the one in which she lived are legally responsible for the safety of tenant residents.

“Marsha spent the rest of her days in a senior living community where she was out and affirmed,” said Lambda Legal attorney Karen Loewy, who represented Wetzel in the lawsuit.

Advocates for LGBTQ seniors were hopeful that the 2018 U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruling in the Wetzel case would speed up the gradual but steady advances in the rights of LGBTQ elders in long-term care facilities and in society in general.

A short time later, the New York City-based national LGBTQ elder advocacy group SAGE expanded its programs providing cultural competency training for the nation’s long-term care residential facilities. And in some cities, including New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, LGBTQ specific retirement and long-term care facilities began to open to provide LGBTQ elders with a wide range of “wrap around” services in addition to a safe place to live.

But LGBTQ elder advocates were taken aback in October of this year when news surfaced that transgender U.S. Army veteran Lisa Oakley, 68, was denied placement in more than two-dozen long-term care facilities in Colorado in 2020 and earlier this year.

“When they found out I was transgender, a lot of the facilities didn’t want me,” Oakley told USA Today. “A lot of transgender people, I’m sure, face the same thing,” she said. “We’re humans, just like everybody else.” 

Oakley told other media outlets her ordeal in trying to gain admission to a residential care facility began in October 2020, when she became unable to care for herself due to complications from diabetes. Her first choice was a facility in her hometown in rural Craig, Colo., where she had lived for the previous 25 years. She believes that facility turned her down because of her gender identity.

A social worker who assisted in Oakley’s applications for long-term care facilities said the facility in Craig said Oakley would have to be placed in a private room, which was at the time unavailable, “because she still has her ‘boy parts’ and cannot be placed with a woman” in a shared room. 

Many other Colorado facilities to which Oakley applied for admission, according to social worker Cori Martin-Crawford, cited the COVID pandemic as the reason for not accepting new residents. But as COVID related restrictions began to subside, other facilities continued to deny Oakley admission.

With Martin-Crawford’s help, Oakley finally found a facility that is LGBTQ supportive in Grand Junction, Colo., which is nearly three hours away from her hometown of Craig, where she had hoped to remain.

LGBTQ activists expressed concern that the discrimination that Oakley faced took place in the state of Colorado, which has a state law that bans discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Experts familiar with long-term care facilities for older adults have said many private elder care facilities can get around state LGBTQ nondiscrimination laws by claiming other reasons for turning down an LGBTQ person.

Michael Adams, the CEO of SAGE, told the Blade that the wide range of programs and initiatives put in place by SAGE and other groups advocating for LGBTQ elders in recent years have resulted in significant changes in support of LGBTQ seniors.

“It is the case now that in almost all states there are one or more elder care facilities that have been trained through our SAGECare program,” Adams said. “But it’s nowhere near what it needs to be,” he said. “It needs to be that there are welcoming elder care facilities in every single community in this country” for LGBTQ elders.

Adams was referring to the SAGE program started recently called SAGECare that arranges for employees and other officials at elder care facilities throughout the country to receive LGBTQ competency training. The facilities that participate in the program are designated “SAGECare credentialed,” and are included in SAGE database lists available to LGBTQ elders looking for a safe facility in which to reside.

SAGE spokesperson Christina Da Costa provided the Blade with data showing there have been 136,975 professionals trained at a total of 617 SAGECare credentialed organizations nationwide. Out of 617 organizations, 172 are residential communities. Also, out of the total of 617 are 167 Area Agencies on Aging, Aging and Disability Resource Centers, Senior Centers, and senior Ombudsman offices.

Da Costa said 278 of the credentialed entities that have received the SAGECare training throughout the country are “other aging focused nonprofit and for-profit businesses.”

According to SAGE, there are 12 SAGECare credentialed elder care facilities or service providers operating in the D.C. metropolitan area, with two located in D.C. One of the D.C. facilities is Ingleside at Rock Creek, located in Northwest D.C., which is a residential facility. The other is Options for Senior America, a company that provides in-home care services for seniors, including seniors living in D.C.

A SAGE list of the D.C.-area SAGECare credentialed facilities shows that three are in Rockville, Md.; two are in Gaithersburg, Md.; and one each are in Bethesda, Md.; Arlington, Va.; and Alexandria, Va. The list shows that one of them that provides services to elders in the D.C. area is based in North Carolina.

SAGE has a separate list of the 15 elder care residential facilities in the U.S. created specifically to serve LGBTQ residents. 

None are in D.C., Maryland, or Virginia. However, SAGE says it has been working in cooperation with Mary’s House for Older Adults, a D.C.-based LGBTQ organization that advocates for LGBTQ seniors and is in the process of opening LGBTQ elder residential facilities in D.C. and others in the surrounding suburbs.

Mary’s House founder and CEO Dr. Imani Woody couldn’t immediately be reached to determine when the organization expects to open its first residential facility. 

While a residential LGBTQ elder facility has yet to open in the D.C. area, activists note that in addition to Mary’s House, services and amenities for LGBTQ elders in the area are currently being provided by the D.C. Center for the LGBT Community and Whitman-Walker Health, the LGBTQ supportive health center, which also has a legal services branch.

Adams of SAGE said the Los Angeles LGBTQ Center opened the nation’s first LGBTQ elder residential facility over eight years ago called Triangle Square. He said the L.A. Center opened a second LGBTQ elder residential facility a short time later. And this week, the L.A. Center announced it has opened a third LGBTQ elder residential facility in Hollywood that is part of a larger “intergenerational campus” that will bring together LGBTQ seniors and LGBTQ youth. 

SAGE, meanwhile, operates two LGBTQ elder long-term care residential facilities in New York City, one in Brooklyn called the Stonewall House and one in the Bronx called Pride House. 

The other U.S. cities with LGBTQ elder residential facilities include: Philadelphia, Minneapolis, Chicago, Cleveland, San Francisco (which has two such facilities), San Diego, Houston, Fort Lauderdale, and Islip, N.Y.

Adams said the LGBTQ elder residential facilities range in size, with the largest – New York’s Stonewall House – having 143 apartments that can accommodate 200 residents. He said others vary from 40 or 50 residential units to 120.

Advocates for LGBTQ elders point to what they consider another important breakthrough for LGBTQ elders this year in the release of a joint SAGE-Human Rights Campaign Long-Term Care Equality Index report for 2021. Adams said the report is the first of what could become an annual report and rating and scorecard for long-term care elder residential facilities and other elder facilities. 

The 2021 report includes a self-reporting assessment of elder care facilities that the facilities themselves completed through a questionnaire in which many disclosed they have LGBTQ nondiscrimination policies for elders around admission to the facility and for practices by staff for those residing in their facilities.

The report includes a chart showing that 158 elder care facilities in 31 states responded positively to the outreach to them by organizers of the Long-Term Care Equality Index.

“We are thrilled to be working with SAGE and to be working with the Human Rights Campaign who are developing the Long-Term Care Equality Index,” said Nii-Quartelai Quartey, who serves as senior adviser and LGBTQ liaison for the American Association of Retired Persons or AARP.

“There is a great deal of work that we’re doing in the area of LGBTQ older adults nationwide,” Quartey told the Blade. “And AARP has been engaged with the LGBTQ community nationwide for many years now,” he said.

“In recent years, we’ve turned up the volume in working more closely with organizations like SAGE and Lambda Legal and the Victory Fund Institute, the Center for Black Equity, the National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance, and the Hispanic Federation.”

According to Quartey, a recent AARP study of LGBTQ elders called Maintaining Dignity shows that longstanding concerns of discrimination remain despite the many advances in support for LGBTQ seniors in recent years.

He said a survey that was part of the study found that 67 percent of the LGBTQ elders who responded, “were concerned about neglect in a long-term care setting.” Over 60 percent feared verbal or physical harassment in a long-term care setting and over half “felt forced to hide or deny their identity” as an LGBTQ person, Quartey said.

Another recent survey of LGBTQ elders conducted by SAGE asking them how they feel about the use of the word “queer” in descriptions of LGBTQ people yielded findings that came as a surprise to some, according to Adams. A large majority of those surveyed from across the country said they are “comfortable at this point using that word and reclaiming that word, which is different from what we had heard historically,” Adams said.

He said in response to those findings SAGE will now as an organization gradually shift to using the term LGBTQ instead of its past practice of using LGBT.

Although Congress has yet to pass the Equality Act, last year under the Trump Administration, Congress acted in a rare bipartisan way to approve the required five-year reauthorization of the U.S. Older Americans Act with new language supportive of LGBTQ older adults. President Trump signed the legislation.

The language includes a mandate for outreach to and reporting about services provided to LGBTQ older adults in federally funded programs. It also opens the way for LGBTQ older adults to be designated in a category of “greatest social need.” Under that category, older adults receive a higher priority in the allocation of resources by the federal government.

“We’ve come a long way, but we still have a way to go to get over the finish line,” said the AARP’s Quartey. “And aside from passing legislation federally and on the state and local level, we absolutely need to continue the hard work of changing hearts and minds,” he said.

Longtime gay activist and writer Brian McNaught, whose latest book, “On Being Gay and Gray – Our Stories, Gifts, and the Meaning of Our Lives,” was just released, says his own very informal survey of LGBTQ elders found there is a need for intimacy that may be too controversial for the establishment LGBTQ elder groups.

“I’m a SAGE volunteer and the 81-year-old man with whom I was working after his husband of 47 years died, said after his grieving process, ‘I want to be hugged and kissed. Does that make me a bad person?’”

McNaught told the Blade he assured the man those feelings do not make him a bad person. McNaught said the man’s comment prompted him to conduct further research, in which he found that some gay male elders in the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., area who often need assisted living support would like to patronize gay bathhouses or seek the services of an escort agency. He said he determined that any LGBTQ elder group providing such services would trigger “a huge uproar of protests” and most likely a loss of funding.

“We don’t want to talk about sexuality and aging,” McNaught said.

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Former VOA director nominated to head U.S. Agency for Global Media

Previous CEO’s actions threatened LGBTQ internet freedom

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(Public domain photo)

President Biden on Monday nominated Amanda Bennett, the former head of Voice of America and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, investigative journalist and editor, to lead the U.S. Agency for Global Media.

“I am honored by this nomination,” Bennett told Voice of America. “If confirmed, I will be so proud to work with all the dedicated journalists at USAGM who are doing the critical and difficult work around the world of upholding and demonstrating the value of a free press.”

The agency operates independently from the U.S. government and oversees five different entities that include Voice of America, broadcasting platforms and the Open Technology Fund. The fund is an independent non-profit organization that focuses on advancing global internet freedom by providing internet access, digital privacy tutorials, privacy enhancement and security tools like encryption.

These tools have been integral in preserving internet freedom for LGBTQ people abroad, especially in places where it’s unsafe or illegal to be LGBTQ.

Bennett, 69, was named VOA director in 2016 and resigned from her post in June 2020 after conservative documentary filmmaker Michael Pack was confirmed as the agency’s CEO during the Trump administration.

Under Pack’s tenure, several technology freedom experts said the former CEO thwarted the Open Technology Fund’s efforts abroad by freezing funds. Pack also ignored a House subpoena for an oversight hearing that was meant for him to address mass firings, withholding congressionally approved funds and other questionable activities.

Pack stepped down at Biden’s request in January, and the president named Kelu Chao, a VOA veteran journalist, as Pack’s replacement and interim CEO.

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