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DOJ calls on Supreme Court to strike down DOMA

Obama administration cites ‘severe harms’ for gay couples

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Supreme Court, gay news, Washington Blade
Supreme Court, gay news, Washington Blade

DOJ filed a brief before the Supreme Court arguing DOMA is unconstitutional. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

The Obama administration on Friday argued that the Defense of Marriage Act  should be struck down by the Supreme Court because it “inflicts a vast array of…severe harms” on married same-sex couples.

In a 54-page legal brief, the U.S. Justice Department lays out its case for why it believes Section 3 of DOMA is unconstitutional — noting the harm the law causes married same-sex couples and the history of discrimination against gay and lesbian people — while arguing that DOMA should be subjected to heightened scrutiny, or a greater assumption it’s unconstitutional.

“The law denies to tens of thousands of same-sex couples who are legally married under state law an array of important federal benefits that are available to legally married opposite-sex couples,” the brief states. “Because this discrimination cannot be justified as substantially furthering any important governmental interest, Section 3 is unconstitutional.”

The brief is signed by Solicitor General Donald Verrilli as well as Stuart Delery, the gay principal deputy attorney general who’s litigated against DOMA in oral arguments in lower courts. The lawsuit before the Supreme Court is known as Windsor v. United States, which was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union.

The brief enumerates several benefits that are withheld from married same-sex couples under DOMA, such as the denial of certain housing benefits for service members, the lack of Social Security survivor benefits and the inability of gay Americans to sponsor their foreign-born same-sex spouses for residency in the United States. It also notes plaintiff and New York widower Edith Windsor was forced to pay $363,000 in estate taxes upon the death of her spouse, Thea Spyer.

But the Justice Department also makes the case that laws related to sexual orientation should be subjected to heightened scrutiny because gay people have been subjected to a history of discrimination, citing bias in employment and immigration as well as vulnerability to hate crimes and police harassment.

Additionally, the brief contends DOMA merits heightened scrutiny because sexual orientation bears no relation on an individual’s ability to contribute to society and gays are a minority with limited political power.

“Historically, discrimination against gay and lesbian people had nothing to do with ability or performance, but rested instead on the view that they are, for example, sexual deviants, mentally ill, or immoral,” the brief states. “Like gender, race,or religion, sexual orientation bears no inherent relation to a person’s ability to participate in or contribute to society.”

While asserting DOMA fails the test of heightened scrutiny, the Justice Department says it doesn’t challenge the law if a lower standard of rational basis review were applied. However, even under this standard, the brief maintains the law would fail under a more searching form of that review.

“To the extent sexual orientation may be considered to fall short in some dimension, the history of discrimination and the absence of relation to one’s capabilities associated with this particular classification would uniquely qualify it for scrutiny under an approach that calls for a measure of added focus to guard against giving effect to a desire to harm an ‘unpopular group,'” the brief states. “Section 3 would fail to satisfy any such analysis, largely for the reasons it fails heightened scrutiny.”

In addition to the merits brief, the Justice Department filed on the same day another brief addressing jurisdictional questions in the case. That brief responds to questions over whether the executive branch agrees DOMA is unconstitutional and whether the House Republican-led Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group has standing to participate. BLAG, following a party-line vote of 3-2, has taken up defense of DOMA in the administration’s stead.

In that 38-page brief, the Justice Department contends the Supreme Court has jurisdiction, but BLAG lacks standing to seek review of lower court decisions striking down DOMA.

“BLAG is an entity located within the Legislative Branch,” the brief states. “The Constitution assigns to that Branch only specifically enumerated ‘legislative powers.’ … Although Congress (and the individual Houses) may create offices to assist with legislative tasks, the authority of such an office may not include the ‘discretionary power to seek judicial relief’ on behalf of the United States.”

Also on Friday, other briefs were filed by the ACLU and BLAG in response to the jurisdictional questions in the case. In its brief, BLAG argues it can participate in the lawsuit, but the Justice Department doesn’t have standing to take part.

LGBT advocates have been calling on the Obama administration to file a similar brief in the lawsuit pending before the Supreme Court challenging California’s Proposition 8. As of Thursday, the White House hasn’t said whether the administration will file a brief, although President Obama said the solicitor general is “looking” at such action. The deadline for the Obama administration to file a brief in the case is Thursday.

In the DOMA case, the next step is for the ACLU to file its brief on the merits, which is expected on Tuesday. Oral arguments in the case are set for March 27 and justices are expected to render a decision before their term ends in June.

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14 Comments

14 Comments

  1. Michael Bedwell

    February 23, 2013 at 3:06 am

    Bravo….BUT if they fail to help kill Prop H8TE by filing a brief against it…and, thereby, ALL state laws banning marriage equality….a ruling against DOMA will be a hollow victory except for those married in the few states and DC that allow it.

    • Neil Hawk

      February 23, 2013 at 3:15 pm

      But no matter where they live, the federal benefits will still be maintained, even if they lived in ohio but were married in DC. The federal government trumps the state in that respect and while they won't receive state benefits (which really aren't that much to be honest) they will receive federal.

    • Michael Bedwell

      February 23, 2013 at 6:50 pm

      SOOOOOOOOOO, missing the point, Mr. Hawk—tens of thousands [at least] MORE couples from the FORTY-ONE states that still don’t allow it will continue to have NO federal benefits unless they have the financial resources to travel to and from a state that does.

      • Willie Millard

        February 24, 2013 at 10:44 pm

        States set their own laws on who can get married. For example some have restrictions on age, gender, how closely related you are to your spouse, STD tests. Heterosexual cousins can get married in say Kentucky and then return home in Maryland and have their marriage recognized by the state and Federal government.

        Nine states and DC have opened up on who can marry to same-sex couples. If you don’t like the laws of a state you either who to change the law or you move. Same-sex marriage is now a winning issue at the polls. Stop believing what NOM says.

        I hope this helps.

  2. Willie Millard

    February 23, 2013 at 9:28 am

    The Prop 8 case won’t legalize gay marriage in all 50 states. DOMA is more important since it recognizes married couples Federally. That is all you need. 9 states and DC are not “few”. Gay marriage with full benefits will be available to 40% by the end of this year.

  3. Michael Bedwell

    February 23, 2013 at 2:09 pm

    @ Millard: Balderdash! Overturning Prop 8 would gut any other state bans on marriage equality—after that, it would just be a matter of their rewriting their paperwork. [NB: there’s no such thing as “gay marriage”—it’s MARRIAGE, period]. As for your 40% will have benefits by the end of the year—ignoring the issue of your ability to predict what the Supremes will decide [could you give us all the next Super Lotto winning numbers, too?], those states which currently allow same-sex marriage, make up, along with DC, only 15.7% of the US population.

  4. Kathryn A. Irwin

    February 25, 2013 at 3:16 pm

    But when the hell will this country get it right. Everyone deserves their rights to be enforced.

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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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gay blood ban, gay news, Washington Blade
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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Florida

Prominent LGBTQ+ activist found dead in Florida landfill

Diaz-Johnston was the brother of former Miami mayor and Florida Democratic Party Chair Manny Diaz & he led the fight for marriage equality

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Photo courtesy of Don Diaz Johnston

Police in Florida’s capital city confirmed that the body of Jorge Diaz-Johnston, 54, who had been reported missing was found in a Jackson County landfill Saturday morning.

Diaz-Johnston was last seen alive Jan. 3 in Tallahassee, more than an hour from where his body was found, according to a missing person notice released by police. Detectives are investigating his death as a homicide, a police spokesperson said.

Diaz-Johnston, was the brother of former Miami mayor and Florida Democratic Party Chair Manny Diaz. As an LGBTQ advocate he led the fight for marriage equality, he and his husband were plaintiffs in an historic 2014 lawsuit that led to the legalization of same-sex marriage in Miami-Dade County.

ABC News reported at the time that a South Florida circuit court judge sided with Diaz-Johnston and five couples suing the Miami-Dade County Clerk’s Office for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Florida dropped its ban on same-sex marriage in 2015.

His husband wrote in a poignant Facebook post; “There are just no words for the loss of my beloved husband Jorge Isaias Diaz-Johnston. I can’t stop crying as I try and write this. But he meant so much to all of you as he did to me. So I am fighting through the tears to share with you our loss of him.”

“We are heartbroken to learn of the death of Jorge. He and his husband Don were two of the brave plaintiffs who took on Florida’s anti-gay marriage ban and helped win marriage equality for all Floridians,” Equality Florida said adding, “Our deepest condolences to Don and Jorge’s extended family.”

Detectives urge anyone who may have information to call 850-891-4200, or make an anonymous tip to Big Bend Crime Stoppers at 850-574-TIPS.

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