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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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Pennsylvania

Pa. House passes bill to repeal state’s same-sex marriage ban

Measure now goes to Republican-controlled state Senate

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Pennsylvania Capitol Building (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

The Democratic-controlled Pennsylvania House of Representatives on July 2 passed a bill that would repeal the state’s same-sex marriage ban.

The marriage bill passed by a 133-68 vote margin, with all but one Democrat voting for it. Thirty-two Republicans backed the measure.

The bill’s next hurdle is to pass in the Republican-controlled Pennsylvania Senate.

State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta (D-Philadelphia), a gay man who is running for state auditor, noted to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review the bill would eliminate a clause in Pennsylvania’s marriage law that defines marriage as “between one man and one woman.” The measure would also change the legal definition of marriage in the state to “a civil contract between two individuals.”

Kenyatta did not return the Washington Blade’s requests for comment.

The U.S. Supreme Court in 2015 in Obergefell v. Hodges extended marriage rights to same-sex couples across the country. 

Justice Clarence Thomas in the 2022 decision that struck down Roe v. Wade said the Supreme Court should reconsider the Obergefell decision and the Lawrence v. Texas ruling that said laws that criminalize consensual same-sex sexual relations are unconstitutional. President Joe Biden at the end of that year signed the Respect for Marriage Act, which requires the federal government and all U.S. states and territories to recognize same-sex and interracial marriages.

Republican Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin earlier this year signed a bill that codified marriage rights for same-sex couples in state law. Pennsylvania lawmakers say the marriage codification bill is necessary in case the Supreme Court overturns marriage rights for same-sex couples in their state and across the country.

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Pennsylvania

Western Pa. transgender girl killed, dismembered

Pauly Likens, 14, brutally murdered last month

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(Photo courtesy of the LGBTQIA+ Alliance Shenango Valley)

Editor’s note: The Philadelphia Gay News originally published this story.

BY TIM CWIEK | Prosecutors are pledging justice for Pauly Likens, a 14-year-old transgender girl from Sharon, Pa., who was brutally killed last month. Her remains were scattered in and around a park lake in western Pennsylvania.

“The bottom line is that we have a 14-year-old, brutally murdered and dismembered,” said Mercer County District Attorney Peter C. Acker in an email. “Pauly Likens deserves justice, her family deserves justice, and we seek to deliver that justice.”

On June 23, DaShawn Watkins allegedly met Likens in the vicinity of Budd Street Public Park and Canoe Launch in Sharon, Pa., and killed her. Watkins subsequently dismembered Likens’s corpse with a saw and scattered her remains in and around Shenango River Lake in Clark Borough.

On July 2, Watkins was arrested and charged with first-degree murder, aggravated assault, abuse of a corpse and tampering with evidence. He’s being held without bail in the Mercer County jail.

The coroner’s office said the cause of death was sharp force trauma to the head and ruled the manner of death as homicide.

Cell phone records, social media and surveillance video link Watkins to the crime. Additionally, traces of Likens’s blood were found in and around Watkins’s apartment in Sharon, Pa., authorities say.

A candlelight vigil is being held Saturday, July 13, in remembrance of Likens. It’s being hosted by LGBTQIA+ Alliance Shenango Valley. The vigil begins at 7 p.m. at 87 Stambaugh Ave. in Sharon, Pa.

Pamela Ladner, president of the Alliance, mourned Likens’s death. 

“Pauly’s aunt described her as a sweet soul, inside and out,” Ladner said in an email. “She was a selfless child who loved nature and wanted to be a park ranger like her aunt.”

Acker, the prosecutor, said Likens’s death is one of the worst crimes he’s seen in 46 years as an attorney. But he cautioned against calling it a hate crime. “PSP [Pennsylvania State Police] does not believe it in fact is one [hate crime] because the defendant admitted to being a homosexual and the victim was reportedly a trans girl,” Acker asserted.

Acker praised the criminal justice agencies who worked on the case, including the Pennsylvania State Police, the Hermitage Police Department, the Sharon Police Department, park rangers from the Shenango Reservoir, Mercer County Coroner John Libonati, and cadaver dog search units.

“The amount of hours dedicated to the identification of the victim and the filing of charges against the defendant is a huge number,” Acker added. “We take the murder of any individual very seriously, expressly when they are young and brutally killed and dismembered.”

Acker also noted that all criminal defendants are presumed to be innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.

This is a developing story.

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National

TransTech Social removing barriers to trans success

‘Technology was the key to my freedom’

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From left, TransTech members B Hawk Snipes, E.C. Pizarro III, Ang R Bennett, and Adrian Elim. (Photo by Lexi Webster Photography)

It is common knowledge that women earn 84% of the average worker. Less common knowledge? Trans women earn 60% of the average worker. Trans men and non-binary people come in at around 70%, while 16% of all trans people make less than $10,000 annually. 

E.C. Pizarro was lucky, and he knew it. He had a BFA in graphic design and had taught himself how to code. As a stealth trans man in a corporate job, he had access to a stable wage and good benefits. “People that do not have experiences in corporate America or with equitable employment don’t realize [these things] are privileges that a lot of people don’t have access to.” 

He wanted to give back and was gearing up to bring more volunteer work into his life by participating in a fraternity for trans men. When he went to a TransTech event and learned about the educational and career resources for trans people who face barriers to entering the workforce, he knew he had found his place. 

At the event he met, Angelica Ross. Yes, that Angelica Ross, of “Pose” and “American Horror Story.”

Before she was Candy, Ross was a self-taught coder. She went from posing for an adult website to doing its back-end coding to teaching her trans siblings how to succeed in tech. 

“Technology was the key to my freedom,” Ross said in an interview with The Plug. “Technology took me from being exploited on someone’s website to building my own websites and to building websites for other people and getting paid to do so.”

Pizarro was impressed and wanted to help. “I went up to Angelica and I was like ‘Hey, I’m a trans man. These are my skills. I’m down to volunteer and do any type of work—the one caveat is that I’m stealth. You can’t tell anybody that I’m trans.’”

For four years, Pizarro helped from mostly behind the scenes, sometimes getting side-eyed since people thought he was a cis man in trans spaces. “I was still stealth as the Director of Social Media and Communications for the National Trans Visibility March in 2019,” Pizarro says, chuckling a little.

But by that point, Ross — who headlined the 2019 march — was overextended trying to balance being a world-famous actress, advocate, and businesswoman. 

She needed someone to step in as executive director of TransTech and looked to the group of dedicated volunteers. Pizarro was elected by his peers to take the reins of the organization. 

This was a turning point for Pizarro. “I’m very passionate about tech and for me a small sacrifice of being open with my trans experience to liberate other trans people,” he said. “I felt like if that’s something I got to do, then I’m gonna do it.”

And he did it. The infrastructure Ross put together worked: with mentorship, education, community, and networking with trans-accepting employers, trans people were gaining financial security and independence. 

So, Pizarro focused on expanding TransTech as widely as possible. “We have grown exponentially over the last three years,” he says. “When I took over in 2021, we had about 800 members based in the United States. Now we support over 6,700 members across 50 countries.”

TransTech is filling a demonstrated need within specifically the trans community. New research from LGBT Tech found that 68% of transgender adults use the internet to find LGBTQ-friendly employment (compared to 38% of cisgender LGBTQ+ adults). More than 70% of all LGBTQ adults use the Internet to access educational content.

Accessibility is central to the TransTech programming. Despite the growth, everything remains free. “There’s no membership fee. All of our programming is free. All of the certifications and educational resources are free,” Pizarro says. 

They know the financial burden the trans community faces — 29% of trans adults live in poverty. “If we’re asking anyone to up-skill [for a cost] and these are the things they are going through, we are asking them to invest in their future versus their meal today.” 

Pizarro believes that accessibility is more than just making the training free. He wants the community to understand that tech work is something they are innately capable of doing. 

“TransTech was built on the foundation of nontraditional tech. It’s not always coding. It’s graphic design. It’s social media. It’s video editing. It’s anything that uses a piece of technology and nowadays almost everything uses a piece of technology,” says Pizarro.

He emphasizes to participants: “You’re in tech and you don’t even know it,” pointing out how many already utilize tech skills like marketing and monetization with their social media accounts.

Some people involved in the programming are nervous about entering the “tech world” because of headlines about tech layoffs. He makes sure to emphasize that unlike in some other jobs, tech companies often pay generous severance packages, which gives employees “breathing room.” Pizzaro explains that “once you have experience with one tech company, you can go someplace else and make a substantial amount of money as well.” 

While TransTech is designed for the gender-diverse community, the programming is open to everyone Pizarro explains. “We just ask that you don’t be transphobic.” (Or any of the other -phobics too, he says, listing them off.) He also emphasizes that this allows trans members who are not out to comfortably participate. 

Pizarro wants everyone to understand that they don’t just belong in tech, but they make tech better. “Tech is most profitable when you have diverse people building the tech and using the tech,” Pizarro says. “There is an intentional funding as well as support to diversity tech because they understand how that impacts the product.”

He also reminds participants that they have developed transferrable skills in every part of their lives. “I like to tell people if you can manage your life as a trans person in the United States or anywhere you can manage a project.”

Angelica Ross was a self-taught coder before she hit it big with ‘Pose.’ (Washington Blade file photo by Linus Berggren)
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