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Court rules against law barring gay couples from veterans benefits

Judge finds U.S. gov’t has no rational basis for withholding benefits from same-sex spouses

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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).

A federal district judge in California ruled on Thursday that enforcing Title 38 — the portion of U.S. code governing veterans benefits — to bar former troops in same-sex marriages from receiving spousal veterans benefits is unconstitutional.

U.S. District Judge Consuelo Marshall, a Carter appointee, grants summary judgment in favor of lesbian veteran plaintiff Tracey Cooper-Harris by determining the U.S. government lacks any rational basis in withholding these benefits. Marshall finds current law doesn’t advance gender equity or military purposes.

“Title 38 is not rationally related to the military’s commitment to caring for and providing for veterans benefits,” Marshall writes. “[T]he court permanently enjoins Defendants from relying on [Title 38] or Section 3 of [DOMA] to deny recognition of Plantiffs’ marriage recognized by the State of California.”

It wasn’t immediately clear Thursday night whether the ruling means the U.S. government is enjoined from blocking benefits for all gay married veterans or only the plaintiffs who filed suit in the case. However, the court declared the law unconstitutional, not just as applied to the plaintiffs.

Caren Short, staff attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center, said Friday the decision applies “just to our clients Tracey and Maggie,” but believes the administration can implement the ruling on a nationwide basis.

“We’re hopeful that now that a federal court has declared these definition in Title 38 unconstitutional that the VA will be able take steps toward providing equal benefits now to everyone,” Short said.

Jon Davidson, legal director Lambda Legal, said whether the administration will apply the ruling only to plaintiffs or other gay veterans is yet to be seen.

“In most instances, DOJ takes the position that a district court ruling against a federal agency is not binding on the agency beyond the jurisdiction of the court issuing the ruling, but I do not know what DOJ will say here, if they do not appeal, as they may simply accede to the ruling on a nationwide basis,” Davidson said.

The Justice and Veterans Affairs departments didn’t immediately respond to a request to comment Friday morning on what their next steps will be as a result of the ruling.

The lawsuit, known as Cooper-Harris v. United States, was filed in February 2012 by the Southern Poverty Law Center on behalf of Tracey Cooper-Harris, a lesbian veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars who was seeking veterans spousal benefits for her spouse, Maggie Cooper-Harris. Tracey was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and later found it was connected to her service, but was unable to receive spousal disability benefits.

The Southern Poverty Law Center asked the court to overturn both Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, which has since been overturned by the Supreme Court, and Title 38 with respect to its hold on spousal benefits for gay veterans on the basis that the laws violate due process under the Fifth Amendment.

In a statement provided by SPLC, Tracey Cooper-Harris expressed gratitude the court ruled in favor of granting veterans benefits that will benefit her and her spouse.

“Maggie and I have waited so long to receive the same benefits other married veterans and their spouses receive,” Tracey said. “We are overjoyed that the court has ended the federal government’s discrimination against gay and lesbian veterans and their spouses. Judge Marshall’s ruling confirms that the service of gay and lesbian veterans and the sacrifices of their spouses are valued equally in the eyes of the law.”

Even though the U.S. Supreme Court has struck down the Section 3 of DOMA, the U.S. government has still withheld veterans spousal benefits — such as disability and joint burial benefits — from veterans in same-sex marriages on the basis of Title 38. That law, which governs veterans benefits, defines spouse in opposite-sex terms independent of DOMA.

Just this week, the Washington Blade made public a letter from Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki stating that U.S. government is still withholding spousal benefits for veterans marriages. The letter says the department is still reviewing with the Justice Department whether the Obama administration can afford these benefits following the DOMA decision.

Stephen Peters, president of the LGBT group American Military Partners Association, commended the court for reaching the decision that Title 38 is unconstitutional.

“Title 38 clearly violated the constitutional rights of our military veteran families,” Peters said. “This decision sets our nation on a path to honoring and serving all of our veterans and their families, regardless of their sexual orientation.”

Doug NeJaime, who’s gay and law professor at University of California, Irvine, said the ruling is positive, but noted other statutes still exist barring veterans spousal benefits from flowing to same-sex couples.

“The ruling applies the reasoning of Windsor in a logical way and represents an important step forward on veterans benefits,” NeJaime said. “However, veterans benefits have traditionally not used a place of celebration rule, meaning that unlike in the general military context, same-sex couples would not automatically be eligible for benefits based on their marriage.”

It’s unclear how the case could proceed any further to higher court. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced the Justice Department wouldn’t defend Title 38 against legal challenges that contest the law on the basis that it unfairly deprives same-sex couples of veterans benefits. The House Republican-led Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group, which had taken up defense of DOMA after the Obama administration stood down, withdrew as a party from the case in July.

SPLC’s Short she doesn’t believe anyone can appeal the case now that there are no opposing parties in the lawsuit.

“On the issue of Title 38’s constitutionality, it’s doesn’t appear that there will be anyone to appeal,” Short said. “The Department of Justice said that they also agreed that Title 38 is unconstitutional. They filed a brief in support of our motion for summary judgment, so it would be strange for them to appeal the ruling, which was essentially the outcome that they were advocating for. So on the issue of Title 38’s constitutionality, there isn’t likely to be an appeal.”

But Lambda’s Davidson said the Justice Department still may appeal the decision on the grounds that the federal district court in California doesn’t have jurisdiction to hear the case.

“While DOJ is not defending on the merits, it has been contesting whether the Title 38 challenge belongs in federal district court as opposed to the specialized administrative court that deals with VA benefit issues,” Davidson said. “The judge ruled against DOJ on that previously but and DOJ might appeal that issue at this point.”

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Congress

House ethics complaint filed over GOP staffer’s anti-trans email

Rep. Carol Miller’s chief of staff defended his actions

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Matthew Donnellan, chief of staff to Republican U.S. Rep. Carol Miller (W.Va.), in 2012. (Screenshot/YouTube San Diego City Beat)

A federal government employee has filed a complaint to the U.S. House Ethics Committee over an email they received from Matthew Donnellan, chief of staff to Republican U.S. Rep. Carol Miller (W.Va.), which contained combative and anti-trans language. 

The Washington Blade has seen the correspondence between the parties, in which the confrontation was apparently kicked off when the congresswoman’s top aide received an email that included the sender’s preferred pronouns in the signature box, triggering his reply.

Donnellan wrote, “As a father, it is disgusting that anyone would ever tell my son or daughter that something is wrong with them and they should take sterilizing hormones or have surgery to cut off their genitals.”  

“The fact that you support that ideology by putting pronouns in your signature is awful,” he said, adding, “You’re disgusting and should be ashamed of yourself. Don’t email me or anyone from my office ever again.” 

A senior government official told the Blade in a written statement that the email was not out of character for Donnellan:

 “I’ve heard from two colleagues several months apart about two separate transphobic emails, using identical language, from Matthew. Unfortunately these emails—though inconsistent with the typical collegiality one would expect from a Chief of Staff on the Hill—is likely a reflection of both increased partisanship on the Hill and a rise in anti-LGBTQ rhetoric from the right.

“Not only is this virtual, hate-filled temper tantrum unbecoming of a Chief of Staff, inappropriate, and unprofessional, it also hurts his boss’s constituents. DC is built on congressional staff, members of Congress, and executive officials being able to put aside their differences to find unlikely areas of commonality where they can work together. 

“Even some of the most progressive members, like [U.S. Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.) and Jerry Nadler (N.Y.)] have partnered with some of the most conservative members, like [U.S. Reps. Matt Gaetz (Fla.) and Jim Jordan (Ohio)], respectively, when they can find common ground. 

“Matthew’s refusal to work with an agency department or office just because a staffer has pronouns in their signature isn’t just hateful—it means he’s cutting off opportunities to deliver results for his boss’s constituents, especially in a divided Washington.”

Donnellan told the Blade by email that his response to the government employee is “a reply I send to anyone who uses pronouns or pushes gender ideology in any way.” 

“No one is ‘born in the wrong body’ and it’s horrific to tell anyone that they need genital mutilation surgery or sterilizing drugs,” he said. “People who push gender ideology, actively or passively, are awful and should be confronted every single time.”

“If the blunt reality of the terrible things that they are pushing is offensive to them then they should strongly reconsider what it this they believe and the harm that they are doing rather than simply trying to conform to liberal luxury beliefs,” Donnellan said. 

Addressing the complaint filed against him, Donnellan said, “I haven’t heard anything from Ethics and doubt that I will, they generally don’t waste their time with sheltered progressives being forced into the real world for the first time.”

A House Ethics Committee spokesperson declined to comment when asked if they could confirm receipt of the complaint.

Asked whether Miller might object to the way that she and her Congressional office are represented with these confrontational email exchanges, Donnellan said his boss’s “motto is ‘cut the bull’, and gender ideology is some of the biggest bull there is.”   

On Friday, the congresswoman’s son Chris Miller placed third in the Republican primary contest for West Virginia’s gubernatorial race, where the state’s Attorney General Patrick Morrissey secured his party’s nomination in a decisive victory with 33 percent of the vote. 

Leading up to the election, trans issues had emerged as a dominant focal point as the GOP candidates squared off against each other, with Miller’s campaign attacking Morrissey with allegations that he had profited from “the trans agenda” and backed a drug company that “helps turn boys into girls” when working as a healthcare lobbyist in Washington.  

In one ad that was paid for by a super PAC chaired by his father, Miller said the pronouns used by Morrissey are “money-grubbing liberal,” an interesting charge to level at the conservative Republican attorney general of West Virginia (even notwithstanding the fact that those three words are not pronouns but, rather, nouns and verbs.)

Declaring preferred pronouns in workplace email signatures has become commonplace in both the public and private sector, whether for purposes of sending an affirming message to transgender and gender expansive employees and officers or to mitigate the chances that either they or their cisgender counterparts might be unintentionally misgendered. 

The Biden-Harris administration has pushed for agencies to adopt the practice along with other measures and policies to advance the rights and wellbeing of trans and gender expansive employees across the federal government. 

In a 2021 announcement of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s issuance of updated guidance on the agency’s email signature block, Michael Watts, director of civil rights for the U.S. Forrest Service, noted that “There are plenty of gender-neutral names out there, or names from other cultures that might not give you enough information to know their gender.” 

While the inclusion of pronouns was not made mandatory at USDA, he urged employees to “strongly consider taking this small but important step toward supporting inclusiveness in the workplace.” 

“The use of pronouns in our email signatures and getting into the habit of including pronouns in our introductions doesn’t really cost us anything,” Watts added, arguing that the move constitutes “a meaningful exchange to others and makes it easier for people to be respectful in how they address each other.”

“I just think it’s the right thing to do,” he said. 

Official guidance published by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, which is responsible for administering policies across the U.S. federal civil service, stipulates that agencies should “take steps to provide the option for employees to include the pronouns they use in employee systems and profiles, including email signature blocks, employee directories and employee profiles.”

Some have gone further, such as by adding pronouns to email signatures for all employees, as the U.S. Department of State did in 2023, while others like USDA have established, as official policy, that “employees are encouraged to include their pronouns in the first line of their email signature block (e.g. he/him/his). Signature blocks are a simple and effective way for individuals to communicate their identified pronouns to colleagues, stakeholders, and customers.”

“For example,” the USDA writes, “adding pronouns to signature blocks also has the benefit of indicating to the recipient that you will respect their gender identity and choice of pronouns.”

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State Department

State Department travel advisory warns of potential anti-LGBTQ violence

FBI issued similar warning this week

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(Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress)

The State Department on Friday issued a worldwide travel advisory that warns of potential violence against LGBTQ people and LGBTQ-specific events.

“Due to the potential for terrorist attacks, demonstrations, or violent actions against U.S. citizens and interests, the Department of State advises U.S. citizens overseas to exercise increased caution,” reads the advisory. “The Department of State is aware of the increased potential for foreign terrorist organization-inspired violence against LGBTQI+ persons and events and advises U.S. citizens overseas to exercise increased caution.”  

The advisory further urges U.S. citizens to:

  • Stay alert in locations frequented by tourists, including Pride celebrations and venues frequented by LGBTQI+ persons.
  • Enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) to receive information and alerts and make it easier to locate you in an emergency overseas.
  • Follow the Department of State on Facebook and Twitter.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Homeland Security Investigations earlier this week issued a similar advisory.

The advisory notes June 12 will mark eight years since the massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla.

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The White House

White House acknowledges IDAHOBiT, reiterates support for global LGBTQ rights

WHO on May 17, 1990, declassified homosexuality as a mental illness

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Pride flags fly from an apartment's terrace in Warsaw, Poland, on April 11, 2024. The International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia commemorates the World Health Organization's declassification of homosexuality as a mental illness. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

The Biden-Harris administration on Friday used the annual International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia to reiterate its support of LGBTQ and intersex rights around the world.

“On the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia, my administration stands in support and solidarity with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI+) people around the world as they seek to live full lives, free from violence and discrimination,” said President Joe Biden in a statement. “This is a matter of human rights, plain and simple.” 

“The United States applauds those individuals and groups worldwide working to defend the rights of LGBTQI+ people wherever they are under threat,” he added. “We are grateful for the contributions that LGBTQI+ people make every day across our nation.”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken echoed Biden.

“On this day, we reflect upon the violence and discrimination lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI+) persons worldwide suffer and re-commit ourselves to opposing these acts,” said Blinken in his own statement. “This year, like every year, we state unequivocally: LGBTQI+ persons deserve recognition of their universal human rights and human dignity.” 

IDAHOBiT commemorates the World Health Organization’s declassification of homosexuality as a mental disorder on May 17, 1990.

Blinken in his statement notes LGBTQ and intersex people around the world “continue to face insidious forms of stigma and discrimination.”

Dominica last month became the latest country to decriminalize consensual same-sex sexual relations. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni in May 2023 signed his country’s Anti-Homosexuality Act that, among other things, contains a death penalty provision for “aggravated homosexuality.”

“Even as more countries make meaningful advancements towards full equality; LGBTQI+ persons continue to be sentenced to death for daring to live their sexual orientation or gender identity, subjected to coercive conversion ‘therapies’ and ‘normalization’ surgeries, discriminated against while receiving health services, restricted from exercising fundamental freedoms, and denied the dignity of same-sex partnership and fulfillment of family,” said Blinken. 

“As we reflect upon the injustices that LGBTQI+ persons and their allies endure, we must not forget that today is fundamentally a day of action,” he added. “On this day and every day, the United States stands with LGBTQI+ persons around the world. We will continue to advocate for the rights of LGBTQI+ persons not just because we have a moral imperative to do so, but because it helps to strengthen democracy, bolster national security, and promote global health and economic development.”

The Tonga Leitis Association is among the myriad LGBTQ and intersex rights groups around the world that acknowledged IDAHOBiT.

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