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New bill seeks to aid discharged gay troops

Measure would enable service members to upgrade discharge to honorable

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Charlie Rangel, Mark Pocan, United States House of Representatives, Democratic Party, New York, Wisconsin, gay news, Washington Blade
Charlie Rangel, Mark Pocan, United States House of Representatives, Democratic Party, New York, Wisconsin, gay news, Washington Blade

Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) (left) and Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) are proposing legislation to ensure gay veterans have honorable discharge papers. (Photo of Rangel public domain, Washington Blade photo of Pocan by Michael Key)

Two House Democrats are working to build support for legislation that would streamline the process for veterans to remove the blemish on their discharge papers if they were expelled for being gay and their service wasn’t characterized as honorable.

Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), one of the six openly LGB members of the U.S. House, and Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) are proposing legislation known as the “Restore Honor to Service Members Act,” which would ensure veterans who were discharged for being gay would be designated with an honorable discharge.

In an interview the Washington Blade, Pocan said the bill — which has never before been introduced in Congress — would build off earlier legislative efforts to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and help gay veterans who are unable to receive certain benefits — and rights — with their current discharge papers.

“There are still so many people out there who have served their country honorably, they still don’t have access to the GI bill or receiving veteran’s benefits,” Pocan said. “They still can’t even have a military burial ceremony. They, in some states, can’t vote or get unemployment benefits, so we just need to set up a fair process for these people. There are just too many who’ve served our country so ably and risked their lives, and we owe this to them.”

While “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was instituted in 1993, the military had a policy prior to that time in which it expelled people for being gay. From World War II to the repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” in 2011, an estimated 114,000 service members were discharged for being gay — more frequently with dishonorable and other than honorable discharges in the period before “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

In a statement, Rangel said he wanted to take part in the effort to enact a change in the policy because of his own military service.

“As an American, a congressman, and a Korean War veteran, I was proud to join my colleagues in ending the discriminatory law that previously barred open gay and lesbian soldiers from serving their country,” Rangel said. “Now is the time to finish the job and ensure that all those who served honorably are recognized for their honorable service regardless of their sexual orientation.”

Although a policy currently exists to change the designation on discharges, Pocan said he’s spoken to veterans who find the process cumbersome and are seeking a streamlined process.

“Sometimes they’ll put in, and then a couple months later, they’ll find out they need to submit something else, and a couple months later, submit something else, so they’ve had to get lawyers,” Pocan said. “We’re trying to put all of that up front so that the process will be much easier and more expedited than it currently is.”

Other aspects of the bill, according to Pocan’s office, will require the Pentagon to review the discharge review process and report on its consistency; provide for the collection of oral histories on the discrimination against gay troops; and repeal the still-standing section of the Uniform Code of Military Justice that prohibits sodomy for both straight and gay service members.

Pocan said the bill will be introduced “likely next week” and, in the meantime, he and Rangel are looking to build  co-sponsors. The Wisconsin lawmaker said they’re making an “extra effort” to build support among members of the House Armed Services Committee because that panel will likely have jurisdiction over the bill.

Pocan said about 30 House members are interested in being original co-sponsors of the legislation.

Asked about his plan for passing the legislation with Republicans in charge of the House, Pocan was vague about the way forward, but emphasized they’ll be talking with “partners on the outside” and the bill would be a follow-up to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal.

“I’m hoping that since we already have it repealed, that this can gain enough support that Congress can try to lead and get it done so we can put a fair process in place for people to get rid of that old discharge recognition,” Pocan said.

Allison Herwitt, legislative director for the Human Rights Campaign, shared the sentiment that the legislation would build off the successful 2010 effort to repeal the military’s gay ban.

“The repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ was a tremendous first step in achieving equality in our nation’s armed forces,” Herwitt said. “It is important that we continue to address the discrimination that LGBT veterans face by updating their service records to reflect the reality of their service.”

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Politics

Laphonza Butler appointed as California’s first openly LGBTQ U.S. senator

Dianne Feinstein died in D.C. on Sept. 28

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EMILY’s List President Laphonza Butler speaking at EMILYs List's annual We Are EMILY National Gala, May 16, 2023. (Photo Credit: EMILY’s List/Facebook)

On Sunday evening, California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced he is appointing Black openly lesbian EMILY’s List President, Laphonza Butler, to the vacant seat of the late U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein who died Friday at age 90.

Butler’s wife is Neneki Lee, the D.C.-based director for labor union SEIU’s Public Services Division.

News of Butler’s selection by Newsom was first reported by Politico’s California Bureau Chief Christopher Cadelago. A source knowledgeable on the governor’s team told Politico there were no preconditions about whether she could run in 2024.

Newsom’s office confirmed that he has picked Butler, a Democratic strategist who rose to prominence in the labor movement, to fill Feinstein’s seat.

In an emailed statement, Newsom said:

“An advocate for women and girls, a second-generation fighter for working people, and a trusted adviser to Vice President Harris, Laphonza Butler represents the best of California, and she’ll represent us proudly in the U.S. Senate. As we mourn the enormous loss of Senator Feinstein, the very freedoms she fought for — reproductive freedom, equal protection, and safety from gun violence — have never been under greater assault. Laphonza will carry the baton left by Senator Feinstein, continue to break glass ceilings, and fight for all Californians in Washington D.C.” 

Equality California tweeted a statement praising Newsom’s action:

Democrat Alex Padilla, now serving as California’s senior U.S. senator, released the following statement after Newsom appointed Butler to fill the vacancy created by the late Senator Feinstein: 

“Throughout her career, Laphonza Butler has been a strong voice for working families, LGBTQ rights, and a champion for increasing women’s representation in politics. I’m honored to welcome her to the United States Senate.

“Governor Newsom’s swift action ensures that Californians maintain full representation in the Senate as we navigate a narrow Democratic majority. I look forward to working together to deliver for the people of California.” 

Butler is a longtime leader in Democratic politics in California and beyond. She has been involved in campaign strategy, and the labor movement for two decades, and according to her official biography she has dedicated her life to empowering women and supporting them in finding their voice, and using it to make meaningful change.

Newsom’s office noted in its statement:

“Butler, a longtime senior adviser to Vice President Kamala Harris, labor leader and advocate for women and working people, will be the first openly LGBTQ person to represent California in the Senate. She will also be the first Black lesbian to openly serve in Congress in American history and the second Black woman to represent California in the Senate following Vice President Kamala Harris.”

Prior to joining EMILYs List, Butler served as Director of Public Policy and Campaigns in North America for Airbnb. She also was a partner at SCRB Strategies, a political consulting firm where she was a strategist for candidates running up and down the ballot and a senior advisor to Vice President Kamala Harris’ presidential campaign.

With nearly 20 years in the labor movement, Butler has served as the president of the biggest union in California, and the nation’s largest home care workers union, SEIU Local 2015. She was elected to this position at just 30 years old, one of the youngest to take on this role. As president, Butler was the leading voice, strategist, and architect of efforts to address pay inequity for women in California and a top advocate for raising the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour — the first state in the nation to do so, benefiting millions of working women in low wage jobs. That effort also gave hundreds of thousands of home workers access to paid time off. She also served as an SEIU International Vice President and President of the SEIU California State Council.

Throughout her career, Butler has been highly regarded as a strategist working to elect Democratic women candidates in political offices across California and nationally. A long-time supporter of Kamala Harris in her California runs, Butler was a key leader in Vice President Harris’ presidential campaign. She served as a senior advisor to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in California during the primary and general elections. Most recently, Butler was a campaign operative behind the campaign to make the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors all-women for the first time in its history with the election of Supervisor Holly Mitchell.

She has been a member of the University of California Board of Regents and a member of the board of directors for the Children’s Defense Fund and BLACK PAC.

Laphonza grew up in Magnolia, Miss., and attended one of the country’s premier HBCUs, Jackson State University. She lives in Maryland with her wife, Neneki, and together they have a daughter, Nylah.

EMILY’s List is an American political action committee that aims to help elect Democratic female candidates in favor of abortion rights to office. It was founded by Ellen Malcolm in 1985. The group’s name is an acronym for “Early Money Is Like Yeast.” Malcolm commented that “it makes the dough rise.”

Newsom appoints Laphonza Butler to the U.S. Senate:

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Congress

Shutdown averted with bipartisan bill over objections of far-right House caucus

45-day continuing resolution passed 335-91.

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U.S. House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) (Screen capture/PBS News)

The U.S. House on Saturday approved a 45-day continuing resolution that, should the Senate approve the stopgap measure, as expected, will avert a government shutdown.

In a stunning turn of events, a coalition of Republicans and Democrats backed the proposal, H.R. 5860 advanced by House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), which was passed with a vote of 335-91.

Ninety Republicans and one Democrat voted against the continuing resolution which, in addition to funding U.S. government agencies through mid-November, will provide billions in disaster relief .

Screenshot/C-SPAN

Democrats agreed to the bill even though it did not contain U.S. aid to Ukraine. Still, the most conservative members of McCarthy’s caucus have warned they would replace their speaker if he cooperated with Democrats on a deal to avoid a shutdown.

In recent weeks, these members advanced far-right anti-LGBTQ amendments to spending packages that stood no chance of becoming law.

The Senate voted 88-9 to pass a “clean” continuing resolution (CR) that funds the government at current levels through Nov. 17 and gives the Biden administration $16 billion it requested to assist victims of natural disasters.

“Bipartisanship, which has been the trademark of the Senate, has prevailed. And the American people can breathe a sigh of relief,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) told reporters.

After the Senate voted late Saturday evening to pass the House stop-gap continuing resolution, the White House released the following statement from President Biden:

“Tonight, bipartisan majorities in the House and Senate voted to keep the government open, preventing an unnecessary crisis that would have inflicted needless pain on millions of hardworking Americans. This bill ensures that active-duty troops will continue to get paid, travelers will be spared airport delays, millions of women and children will continue to have access to vital nutrition assistance, and so much more. This is good news for the American people.

But I want to be clear: we should never have been in this position in the first place. Just a few months ago, Speaker McCarthy and I reached a budget agreement to avoid precisely this type of manufactured crisis. For weeks, extreme House Republicans tried to walk away from that deal by demanding drastic cuts that would have been devastating for millions of Americans. They failed.

While the Speaker and the overwhelming majority of Congress have been steadfast in their support for Ukraine, there is no new funding in this agreement to continue that support. We cannot under any circumstances allow American support for Ukraine to be interrupted. I fully expect the Speaker will keep his commitment to the people of Ukraine and secure passage of the support needed to help Ukraine at this critical moment.”

Biden is expected to sign the measure once it is delivered to the White House before the midnight deadline.

UPDATED:

On Saturday, September 30, 2023, the President signed into law:
 
H.R. 5860, which provides fiscal year appropriations to Federal agencies through November 17, 2023, for continuing projects of the Federal Government and extends several expiring authorities.

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Congress

McCarthy dealt another blow by far-right members seeking to replace him

Rep. Emmer denies he’s interested in becoming next Speaker

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Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

After joining with the Democrats on Friday to sabotage House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s (Calif.) plan to forestall a government shutdown with a last-ditch spending package, a group of far-right members are now focused on replacing him.

The stop-gap funding bill was defeated 232-198 with more than 20 Republicans voting against the measure.

House GOP sources tell the Washington Blade that removing McCarthy from the speaker’s chair is now a top priority, along with resisting pressure from Senate Republicans seeking to broker a deal to avoid allowing funding to lapse.

These sources confirmed reporting in the Washington Post about discussions of tapping U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer (Minn.) to become the chamber’s top Republican, though the congressman told CBS Minnesota/WCCO News, “I fully support Speaker McCarthy. He knows that and I know that. I have zero interest in palace intrigue. End of discussion.”

While Emmer was among the 39 House Republicans who voted with the Democrats in support of the Respect for Marriage Act, which protects the rights of couples in same-sex marriages, in April he was among the more vocal members pushing for a federal ban to prohibit transgender women and girls from competing on sports teams consistent with their gender identity.

In January, McCarthy narrowly secured his bid for the speakership after an unprecedented 15 votes from his caucus. Many of the same members now calling for his replacement demanded concessions, including conditioning their votes on McCarthy’s agreement to allow any member to call for a motion to vacate the chair at any time.

During the votes, which were held over a period of five days, other members like U.S. Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.) were nominated for the position.

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