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Veterans benefits for gay married couples still denied

Shinseki endorses passage of legislation to address issue

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Tracey (left) & Maggie Cooper-Harris have sued to received veterans benefits that were denied under Title 38 (Blade file photo by Michael Key).

Tracey (left) & Maggie Cooper-Harris have sued to received veterans benefits that were denied under Title 38 (Blade file photo by Michael Key).

Gay married couples are still barred from receiving veterans spousal benefits at this time despite the court ruling against the Defense of Marriage Act, according to a letter from the Department of Veterans Affairs that was obtained Tuesday by the Washington Blade.

In a letter dated Aug. 14, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki says gay veterans are currently unable to receive the federal benefits of marriage because of Title 38, a portion of the U.S. code governing veterans benefits that defines spouse in opposite-sex terms independent of DOMA.

“Certain provisions in title 38, United States Code, define ‘spouse’ and ‘surviving spouse’ to refer only to a person of the opposite-sex,” the letter states. “Under these provisions, a same-sex marriage recognized by a State would not confer spousal status for purposes of eligibility of VA benefits. Although the title 38 definition of ‘spouse’ and ‘surviving spouse’ are similar to the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) provision at issue in United States v. Windsor, no court has yet held the title 38 definitions to be unconstitutional.”

Shinseki’s letter continues to say that the Department of Veterans Affairs is still working with the Department of Justice “to assess the impact of the Windsor decision on the continued constitutional viability” of Title 38’s and VA’s obligations with respect to those statutes.

An earlier version of this article said the Obama administration had made a determination in the wake of the DOMA decision that gay couples are ineligible for these benefits. Josh Taylor, a VA spokesperson, said the review is ongoing.

“No decisions on benefits have been made at this point,” Taylor said. “We’re working with DOJ to assess Title 38 after the ruling and no conclusions have been drawn from that yet.”

However, the letter does indicate that a gay couple that marries in one state, travels to another that doesn’t recognize the union won’t be able to receive veterans benefits if they apply for them there.

“You also inquired about VA’s ability to recognize a marriage based on its validity in the state of celebration, without regard to the laws of state of residence,” Shinseki says. “A same-sex spouse whose marriage to a Veteran was valid in the state where the parties resided at the time they entered the marriage would not meet the definition under [Title 38] for purposes of VA benefits.”

Michael Cole-Schwartz, a spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign, said an update to the law is needed to ensure full equality even in the aftermath of the DOMA ruling.

“The end of section 3 of DOMA unfortunately does not mean all married same-sex couples are fully equal in the eyes of the federal government no matter where they live,” Cole-Schwartz said. “We believe there is more work the administration can do to faithfully interpret the Windsor ruling in an expansive manner but as we have said before, Congressional action is needed to ensure all married couples are treated equally in all ways.”

Some of the spousal benefits allocated under Title 38 are disability benefits, survivor benefits and joint burial at a veteran’s cemetery. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced last year that Title 38’s restriction of benefits to opposite-sex couples is unconstitutional and the Obama administration won’t defend the law in court against challenges seeking benefits for same-sex couples.

As noted in the letter, lawsuits seeking to overturn Title 38’s prohibition on veterans benefits for same-sex spouses are Cooper-Harris v. United States, filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center, McLaughlin v. Panetta, filed by the group now known as OutServe-SLDN, and Cardona v. Shinseki.

Shinseki’s letter was in response to an inquiry from Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), who made the Obama administration’s letter public on Tuesday. She’s the co-sponsor of the Charlie Morgan Act, a bill that would change U.S. code to ensure gay veterans in legal same-sex marriages can receive spousal benefits.

In a statement, Shaheen explains why the situation with Title 38 demonstrates the need for Congress to pass her legislation.

“We need to pass the Charlie Morgan Act to bring Department of Veteran Affairs benefits policy in line with the Supreme Court’s ruling striking down DOMA,” Shaheen said. “I’m committed to making this happen. Every individual who serves in uniform deserves access to the benefits that they’ve earned and rightfully deserve. We can’t tolerate this type of discrimination, especially in the aftermath of a historic Supreme Court ruling that declared the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional.”

There’s already been some movement on the bill. On July 24, the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs reported out the Charlie Morgan Act by voice vote to the Senate floor.

Jeremy Johnson, co-chair of the newly formed LGBT military group SPART*A, said the onus is on the Obama administration to work to change the law if that’s what’s necessary.

“The need for change has been identified,” Johnson said. “If Mr. Shinseki’s staff has determined it is not within his department’s legal authority to change policy in a way that reflects the spirit and intent of the Windsor decision, it is incumbent upon him, as the leader charged with ensuring all veterans receive equal opportunity for the care and benefits provided by the VA, to work with the President and call upon Congress to make the necessary change to the law without delay.”

Shinseki concludes the letter by saying the Obama administration supports passage of the Charlie Morgan Act and is prepared to enact changes to the law if required.

“VA supports enactment of your bill, S. 373, the Charlie Morgan Spouses Equal Treatment Act of 2013, to remove the requirement that a Veteran’s “spouse” or “surviving spouse” be a person of the opposite sex,” the letter states. “Should the title 38 spousal definitions be revised or determined to be unconstitutional, VA will be prepared to update its policies and systems in a timely manner and ensure that the delivery and quality of Veteran’s benefits remain at the highest standards.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article stated the VA had already made a determination that gay married veterans wouldn’t be able spousal benefits under Title 38. The Blade regrets the error.

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Smithsonian staff concerned about future of LGBTQ programming amid GOP scrutiny

Secretary Lonnie Bunch says ‘LGBTQ+ content is welcome’

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Lonnie G. Bunch III, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, appears before a Dec. 2023 hearing of the U.S. Committee on House Administration (Screen capture: Forbes/YouTube)

Staff at the Smithsonian Institution are concerned about the future of LGBTQ programming as several events featuring a drag performer were cancelled or postponed following scrutiny by House Republicans, according to emails reviewed by the Washington Post.

In December, Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III appeared before a hearing led by GOP members of the Committee on House Administration, who flagged concerns about the Smithsonian’s involvement in “the Left’s indoctrination of our children.”

Under questioning from U.S. Rep. Stephanie Bice (R-Okla.), Bunch said he was “surprised” to learn the Smithsonian had hosted six drag events over the past three years, telling the lawmakers “It’s not appropriate to expose children” to these performances.

Collaborations with drag artist Pattie Gonia in December, January, and March were subsequently postponed or cancelled, the Post reported on Saturday, adding that a Smithsonian spokesperson blamed “budgetary constraints and other resource issues” and the museums are still developing programming for Pride month in June.

“I, along with all senior leaders, take seriously the concerns expressed by staff and will continue to do so,” Bunch said in a statement to the paper. “As we have reiterated, LGBTQ+ content is welcome at the Smithsonian.”

The secretary sent an email on Friday expressing plans to meet with leaders of the Smithsonian Pride Alliance, one of the two groups that detailed their concerns to him following December’s hearing.

Bunch told the Pride Alliance in January that with his response to Bice’s question, his intention was to “immediately stress that the Smithsonian does not expose children to inappropriate content.”

“A hearing setting does not give you ample time to expand,” he said, adding that with more time he would have spoken “more broadly about the merits and goals of our programming and content development and how we equip parents to make choices about what content their children experience.”

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Survey finds support for Biden among LGBTQ adults persists despite misgivings

Data for Progress previewed the results exclusively with the Blade

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Former President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

A new survey by Data for Progress found LGBTQ adults overwhelmingly favor President Joe Biden and Democrats over his 2024 rival former President Donald Trump and Republicans, but responses to other questions may signal potential headwinds for Biden’s reelection campaign.

The organization shared the findings of its poll, which included 873 respondents from across the country including an oversample of transgender adults, exclusively with the Washington Blade on Thursday.

Despite the clear margin of support for the president, with only 22 percent of respondents reporting that they have a very favorable or somewhat favorable opinion of Trump, answers were more mixed when it came to assessments of Biden’s performance over the past four years and his party’s record of protecting queer and trans Americans.

Forty-five percent of respondents said the Biden-Harris administration has performed better than they expected, while 47 percent said the administration’s record has been worse than they anticipated. A greater margin of trans adults in the survey — 52 vs. 37 percent — said their expectations were not met.

Seventy precent of all LGBTQ respondents and 81 percent of those who identify as trans said the Democratic Party should be doing more for queer and trans folks, while just 24 percent of all survey participants and 17 percent of trans participants agreed the party is already doing enough.

With respect to the issues respondents care about the most when deciding between the candidates on their ballots, LGBTQ issues were second only to the economy, eclipsing other considerations like abortion and threats to democracy.

These answers may reflect heightened fear and anxiety among LGBTQ adults as a consequence of the dramatic uptick over the past few years in rhetorical, legislative, and violent bias-motivated attacks against the community, especially targeting queer and trans folks.

The survey found that while LGBTQ adults are highly motivated to vote in November, there are signs of ennui. For example, enthusiasm was substantially lower among those aged 18 to 24 and 25 to 39 compared with adults 40 and older. And a plurality of younger LGBTQ respondents said they believe that neither of the country’s two major political parties care about them.

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Court records raise concerns about right-wing TikTok investor’s influence

Jeff Yass is a Pa. billionaire who has funded anti-LGBTQ causes

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Jeff Yass (Screen capture: Susquehanna International Group/YouTube)

The role played by Pennsylvania billionaire Jeff Yass in the creation of TikTok might be far greater than was previously understood, according to new reporting that raises questions about the extent of the right-wing megadonor’s influence over matters at the intersection of social media, federal regulations, and electoral politics.

In 2012, Yass’s firm, Susquehanna International Group, spent $5 million for 15 percent of the short-form video hosting platform’s Chinese-owned parent, ByteDance. In the years since, as TikTok grew from a nascent startup to a tech giant with 1.5 billion active monthly users and an estimated $225 billion valuation, Yass and his firm pocketed tens of billions of dollars.

Beyond the size of Susquehanna’s ownership stake, little was known about its relationship with ByteDance until documents from a lawsuit filed against the firm by its former contractors were accidentally unsealed last month, leading to new reporting by the New York Times on Thursday that shows Susquehanna was hardly a passive investor.

In 2009 the firm used a proprietary, sophisticated search algorithm to build a home-buying site called 99Fang, tapping software engineer and entrepreneur Zhang Yiming to serve as its CEO. The company folded. And then, per the Times’s review of the court records, in 2012 Susquehanna picked Yiming to be the founder of its new startup ByteDance and repurposed the technology from 99Fang for use in the new venture.

Importantly, the documents do not provide insight into Yass’s personal involvement in the formation of ByteDance. And Susquehanna denies that the company’s search algorithm technologies were carried over from the real estate venture — which, if true, would presumably undermine the basis for the lawsuit brought by the firm’s former contractors who are seeking compensation for the tech used by ByteDance.

Questions about Yass’s influence come at a pivotal political moment

In recent weeks, federal lawmakers have moved forward with a proposal that would force ByteDance to divest TikTok or ban the platform’s use in the U.S. altogether, citing the potential threats to U.S. national security interests stemming from the company’s Chinese ownership.

The bill was passed on March 13 with wide bipartisan margins in the House but faced an uncertain future in the Senate. However, on Wednesday, House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) announced plans to fold the proposal into a measure that includes foreign aid to Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan, likely bolstering its chances of passage by both chambers.

Last month, shortly after meeting with Yass at his home in Mar-a-Lago, former President Donald Trump changed his longtime stance and came out against Congress’s effort to break up or ban TikTok. The timing led to speculation about whether the billionaire businessman was behind Trump’s change of heart, perhaps by contributing to the cash-strapped Republican presidential nominee’s electoral campaign or through other means.

Meanwhile, Yass has emerged as the largest donor of the 2024 election cycle. A coalition of public interest and government watchdog groups have called attention to the vast network of right-wing political causes and candidates supported by the billionaire, often via contributions funneled through dark money PACs that are designed to conceal or obscure the identities of their donors.

The Action Center on Race and the Economy, Make the Road, POWER Metro: Faith in Action, Free the Ballot, and Little Sis launched a website called All Eyes on Yass that features research into the various causes he supports, along with insight into the networks connecting the entities funded by his contributions.

Broadly, in Pennsylvania they fall into five categories: Advocacy against reproductive freedom and LGBTQ rights via the Pennsylvania Family Institute, lobbying on behalf of oil and gas industry interests by the Pennsylvania Manufacturers’ Association, anti-union groups supported by Commonwealth Partners, a privately owned registered investment advisory firm/independent broker-dealer, the Commonwealth Foundation for Public Policy Alternatives, which seeks to privatize public schools and defeat proposed increases to the minimum wage, and the Citizens Alliance of Pennsylvania, which advocates for lowering taxes on corporations and the rich.

Additionally, All Eyes on Yass reports that the billionaire has given massive contributions to Club for Growth and direct spending to support the electoral campaigns of right-wing Republicans including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis; U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz (Texas), Rand Paul (Ky.), and Josh Hawley (MO); U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert (Colo.), and former U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn (N.C.).

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