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Feds won’t enforce law barring gay veterans from spousal benefits

Holder notifies Boehner of change in Sept. 4 letter

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Eric Holder, United States Department of Justice, gay news, Washington Blade, LGBT Pride
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Attorney General Eric Holder has notified Congress the DOJ won’t bar gay veterans from spousal benefits under Title 38. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

The Obama administration has determined that it will no longer enforce a portion of U.S. code governing veterans benefits to deny gay veterans benefits for their same-sex spouses.

In a letter dated Sept. 4, U.S. Attorney Eric Holder notifies U.S. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) of the change in the way the Justice Department will enforce Title 38 of the U.S. code.

“[I]n light of subsequent developments and my recommendation, the President has directed the Executive Branch to cease enforcement of Sections 101(3) and 101(31) of Title 38,” Holder writes. “Decisions by the Executive Branch not to enforce federal laws are appropriately rare. Nonetheless, for the reasons described below, the unique circumstances here warrant non-enforcement.”

The letter cites the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling against the Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibited federal recognition of same-sex marriage, and the recent district court decision against Title 38 as part of the rationale to cease enforcement of portions of the law.

Some of the spousal benefits allocated under Title 38 are disability benefits, survivor benefits and joint burial at a veteran’s cemetery. Gay veterans were previously barred from receiving these benefits because Title 38 defined spouse in opposite-sex terms independently of DOMA.

Holder says in the letter the administration has reasoned that it couldn’t bar gay veterans from spousal benefits under Title 38 because the Supreme Court ruling against DOMA prohibits Congress from enacting laws prohibiting federal recognition of same-sex marriage.

“Although the Supreme Court did not address the constitutionality of the Title 38 provisions in Windsor, the reasoning of the opinion strongly supports the conclusion that those provisions are unconstitutional under the Fifth Amendment,” Holder writes.

Holder continues in the letter that enforcing of Title 38 to bar gay veterans from benefits would also have an adverse effect on veterans seeking protections for their families.

“[C]ontinued enforcement would likely have a tangible adverse effect on the families of veterans and, in some circumstances, active-duty service members and reservists, with respect to survival, health care, home loan, and other benefits,” Holder writes.

Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, affirmed that President Obama accepted Holder’s recommendation and directed his administration to no longer enforce Title 38 in a way that would deny benefits to gay veterans.

“This is an important step forward for the families of veterans and their ability to access survival, health care, home loan, and other benefits,” Inouye said. “As the Attorney General’s letter to Congress states, the circumstances of the situation demonstrate that this is the appropriate course of action.”

As Holder observes in his letter, Inouye said the Obama administration has discontinued enforcement of Title 38 after the House Republican-led Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group withdrew from lawsuits challenging DOMA, including those challenging the veterans’ statute.

“Even the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group has ceased to defend the constitutionality of those provisions of Title 38 in legal challenges,” Inouye said. “This announcement means gay and lesbian veterans who are legally married can better protect themselves and their children. The President believes that all couples who are legally married deserve respect and equal treatment under the law, and his Administration continues to work to implement the Supreme Court’s Windsor ruling swiftly and smoothly.”

Boehner’s office didn’t respond to a request to comment on the letter.

The district court ruling that Holder cites in the letter was the result of a lawsuit filed against Title 38 by the Southern Poverty Law Center on behalf of Tracey Cooper-Harris, a veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars who’s suffering from multiple sclerosis and seeking disability benefits for her spouse, Maggie.

Caren Short, staff attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center, said her organization is “thrilled” with the letter because it means Cooper-Harris and other gay veterans will begin to receive benefits.

“It’s great to know that the ruling in our case helped to convince the executive [branch] to no longer enforce Title 38 because it was discriminating against veterans and their spouses who have served and sacrificed just like every other veterans and every other veteran’s spouse,” Short said. “We’re extremely and are hopeful that benefits will start to flow as they should have been for our clients.”

A VA spokesperson said the department would work to act on the decision by the Obama administration “in a timely manner.”

“VA is working closely with the Department of Justice to update its policies in a timely manner to ensure that the delivery and quality of Veterans’ earned benefits remain at the highest standards,” the spokesperson said. “Our commitment to provide all Veterans and their families with their earned care and benefits will continue to be our focus as VA implements the President’s decision announced today.”

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) said the decision from the administration was “great news.” She’s the sponsor of the Charlie Morgan Act, legislation that would have changed Title 38 to enable veterans benefits to flow to same-sex spouses.

“We are in the process of determining if additional legislation is still needed to provide full benefits for all of our veterans,” Shaheen said. “I believe every individual that serves in uniform is entitled to the benefits they’ve earned and I will keep working on this issue until we are certain that is the case.”

The decision marks the first time that the Obama administration has announced it’ll cease enforcement of a law other than DOMA as a result of the Windsor decision. All previous changes made on behalf of same-sex couples following the ruling — such as the extension of tax benefits, offering active duty troops same-sex spousal benefits and allowing bi-national couples to apply for marriage-based I-130 green cards — were the result of regulatory change after the ruling.

In a letter to Congress last year, Holder previously indicated that the Obama administration believes laws barring gay veterans from spousal benefits are unconstitutional and the administration wouldn’t defend them against legal challenges in court. Still, at the time, the administration kept enforcing the laws. That’s changed after the court rulings.

Michael Cole-Schwartz, a spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign, said the decision to no longer enforce Title 38 to bar gay veterans from benefits was the right course of action from the Obama administration.

“As the Court said in Windsor, our Constitution does not permit the federal government to single out some married couples for unfair treatment, and today’s announcement from the Justice Department rests solidly on that principle,” Cole-Schwartz said. “For the brave men and women of our armed forces and their spouses to be denied benefits as veterans would be an insult to their service.”

One question that remains in the aftermath of this letter is whether the Obama administration will also interpret the ruling against DOMA to provide spousal benefits to legally married gay veterans applying for benefits in a state that doesn’t recognize their union. A portion of Title 38 unaddressed in the letter looks to the state of residence, not the state of celebration, in determining whether a same-sex marriage is valid.

Brian Fallon, a Justice Department spokesperson, said the issue remains “under review” within the Obama administration.

“The Justice Department will continue to work with the VA on figuring out how to go forward on that issue,” Fallon said. “But in the meantime, today’s decision means that if you’re a same-sex married couple in a state that recognizes your marriage, the VA will no longer deprive you of veterans’ benefits.”

Cole-Schwartz called for further guidance from the Obama administration on whether spousal benefits will flow to veterans who have legal same-sex marriages, but live in states that don’t recognize their union.

“The Obama administration is doing right by our veterans and faithfully executing the Supreme Court’s opinion and we look forward to guidance as to how the VA will treat veterans and their spouses living in states that do not recognize their marriages,” Cole-Schwartz said.

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Republican Pa. governor nominee opposes LGBTQ rights

Former President Trump backed state Sen. Doug Mastriano

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Pennsylvania State Sen. Doug Mastriano (Screenshot/NBC News)

Republican leadership in the Keystone State are expressing quiet alarm over the emergence of radical-right state senator who secured his place as the party’s nominee in the race against Democratic nominee for governor, Josh Shapiro, who is himself currently serving as the commonwealth’s attorney general.

State Sen. Doug Mastriano, who represents Cumberland, Adams, Franklin and York Counties in the South Central Pennsylvania area bordering Maryland, was not seen as a truly viable candidate in the primary race to be the party standard-bearer until he was endorsed by former President Trump.

Pennsylvania’s gubernatorial race has serious implications for the outcome of the 2024 presidential election cycle as well. The commonwealth is a strategic swing state and the occupant of the governor’s chair in Harrisburg will lend considerable influence to a final vote count.

Mastriano is a polarizing figure within the state’s Republican Party.

The retired U.S. Army colonel has campaigned at political events that included QAnon adherents, he espoused a political agenda that embraced Trump’s Big Lie about the 2020 election, rejected measures taken to protect Pennsylvanians including masks in the coronavirus pandemic, holding an anti-vaccine “Medical Freedom Rally” rally on the state Capitol steps days after declaring his candidacy for the GOP governor’s primary race, and also mixing in messaging of Christian nationalism.

He also supports expanding gun rights in Pennsylvania and in the state Senate sponsored a bill to ban abortion once a heartbeat is detected.

NBC News noted that Mastriano pledged in his election night address that on the first day of his administration he would crack down on “critical race theory,” a catchall term Republicans have used to target school equity programs and new ways of teaching about race, transgender rights and any remaining COVID-19 vaccine requirements.

“CRT is over,” Mastriano declared. “Only biological females can play on biological females’ teams,” he added, and “you can only use the bathroom that your biology and anatomy says.”

His anti-LGBTQ views have long been part of his personal portfolio. The Washington Post reported that 21 years ago while attending the Air Force’s Air Command and Staff College in 2001, then-Maj. Mastriano wrote his master’s thesis on a hypothetical “left-wing ‘Hitlerian putsch'” that was caused by “the depredations of the country’s morally debauched civilian leaders.” Among those “depredations,” in his words, was the “insertion of homosexuality into the military.”

As the Post reported, his paper shows “disgust for anyone who doesn’t hold his view that homosexuality is a form of ‘aberrant sexual conduct.'”

The paper is posted on an official Defense Department website and lists Mastriano as the author at a time when he said he received a master’s degree from the school.

This is not the only instance of Mastriano professing anti-LGBTQ beliefs. 

In 2018, he stated his belief that LGBTQ couples should not be allowed to adopt a child. During an interview with 103.7 FM, when asked “should LGBTQ couples, i.e. two moms or two dads, be allowed to adopt?” Mastriano answered, “No.” [This takes place at the 16:00 mark.]

NBC News interviewed David La Torre, a Republican and former adviser to fellow gubernatorial candidate Jake Corman.

“As far as what a Pennsylvania government would look like with Mastriano in charge, quite frankly, it’s just not something I’m ready to think about at this point,” La Torre said, adding that while there are many unknowns, the dynamic between Mastriano and the state General Assembly, currently controlled by Republicans, would be one to watch. 

“All I know is this — he will govern as governor like he campaigned,” he said. “He would govern with a sledgehammer and expect Republicans to fall in line. And it would be one of the more fascinating tugs of war we’ve seen in Harrisburg.”

Dave Ball, chairman of the Washington County GOP, told NBC News that Mastriano’s victory was “a shame” for the party, the product of “a phenomenon that I truly don’t understand.” But any misgivings won’t stop Ball from working toward the ultimate goal: taking back the governor’s mansion, saying it’s a must-win race. (The two-term incumbent, Tom Wolf, a Democrat, is term-limited.)

As if telegraphing the battles to come should he take the governor’s chair, Politico reported: “Our biggest problem,” said Mastriano on Steve Bannon’s “War Room: Pandemic” podcast on Tuesday, “is going to be these feckless RINO-type Republicans here that will not allow us to have a fighter as governor. But we’re going to beat them and they’re going to lose power, and they’re going to be put to shame.”

Mastriano lists agenda as governor during Pa. GOP nominee victory speech:

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History making win- Out Lesbian could be Oregon’s next governor

“This will be a three-way race for the highest office in our state, and this will be an election unlike anything any of us have ever seen”

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Courtesy of Tina Kotek

The Democratic gubernatorial primary Tuesday win by Oregon Speaker of the House Tina Kotek, who had announced her run for the governor’s seat to replace incumbent Democratic Governor Kate Brown, who is term limited last September 1st, 2021, positions her to become the first Out Lesbian governor in the nation should she win the general election in November.

Kotek’s win comes during an uptick in the elections nationwide as more candidates running for office identify as LGBTQ”. More than 600 LGBTQ candidates are on ballots this year, according to the LGBTQ Victory Fund.

According to the Victory Fund, at least 101 people ran or are running for the U.S. Senate or U.S. House – with 96 still actively running as of February 21, 2022. That marks a 16.1 percent increase in LGBTQ Congressional candidates compared to the 2020 election cycle, when 87 people ran.

Speaking to her supporters after it became clear she had won over Oregon Treasurer Tobias Read, who was polling second among Oregonian progressives, “This will be a three-way race for the highest office in our state, and this will be an election unlike anything any of us have ever seen,” Kotek said.

Republican state legislator Christine Drazan along with an independent candidate, Betsy Johnson are slated to be on the November ballot.

Last Fall when she announced her candidacy, she said, “I am running for Governor because I know that, together, we can reckon with the legacies of injustice and inequality to build a great future for Oregon.” She also noted, “Oregonians are living through a devastating pandemic, the intensifying impacts of climate change, and the economic disruptions that leave too many behind. We must get past the politics of division and focus on making real, meaningful progress for families across our state.” 

“A victory for Tina would shatter a lavender ceiling and be a milestone moment in LGBTQ political history, yet she is running not to make history, but because there are few people as prepared and qualified to serve as Oregon’s governor,” said Mayor Annise Parker, President & CEO of LGBTQ Victory Fund. “Under Tina’s leadership, Oregon has led in passing legislation to improve roads and education, raise the minimum wage and ensure all residents are treated fairly and equally. As governor, Tina will make Oregon a role model for the nation.”

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Karine Jean-Pierre on her firsts: ‘I am a Black, gay, immigrant woman’

High praise for first out WH press secretary

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Karine Jean-Pierre is no stranger to progressive politics.

She takes on the role of White House press secretary as part of a long career working on building political coalitions and as a spokesperson for advocates before coming to the Biden administration, which has won her close allies and admirers who continue to cheer her on. Jean-Pierre’s new position as top spokesperson for President Biden — and the first Black, first openly gay person to become White House press secretary — is the latest endeavor she pursues in that broader mission.

Rahna Epting, executive director of MoveOn.org, knew Jean-Pierre from when she worked at the progressive organization and she quickly became a rising star “because she’s so incredibly skilled at communicating in a way that real people understand.”

“She was incredibly relatable to people that were watching her at home on TV,” Epting said. “And she could speak to you know, she she did that role during the Trump era for MoveOn and she really spoke to the hearts and minds of what people were feeling and thinking during that time.”

It was during Jean-Pierre’s time with MoveOn when she was serving as a moderator for a panel with Kamala Harris and famously rose to block an animal-rights activist who was physically threatening the candidate.

When protests emerged during the Trump era over policies such as his travel ban on Muslim countries, efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and the two impeachment votes seeking to remove Trump from office, Epting said Jean-Pierre was key in MoveOn.org being at the front lines of those efforts.

“Karine was on TV and she was representing the movement in ways that sparked or electrified the energy that was actually being felt out there,” Epting said.

Jean-Pierre, 45, has a distinctive story of rising to become White House press secretary as an immigrant from a Haitian family whose parents brought her to the United States, where she was raised in Queens, N.Y., from the age of five. Jean-Pierre cared for her younger siblings growing up as her mother worked as a home health aide and her father worked as a taxi driver.

Despite these humble beginnings, Jean-Pierre nonetheless reached astonishing heights. After receiving her master’s degree from the School of International & Public Affairs at Columbia University, Jean-Pierre went on to work for President Obama, serving as regional political director for the White House Office of Political Affairs during the Obama administration’s first term, before returning to the White House after Biden was elected president.

Michael Strautmanis, now executive vice president for public engagement at the Obama Foundation, worked with Jean-Pierre in the 2008 presidential campaign and at the White House under Obama and said the first thing that came across to him was how she “always had it covered.”

“She never came and asked me for advice on something where she didn’t already have one or two or three possible solutions to the challenge that she always had,” Strautmanis said. “She was always very, very well prepared, so she just sort of stood out to me.”

Jean-PIerre brings all this background to the role of White House press secretary in addition to achieving many firsts in the appointment as a Black woman, an LGBTQ person and an immigrant. Her partner is Suzanne Malveaux, a CNN reporter and former White House correspondent.

In her maiden briefing on Monday as White House press secretary, Jean-Pierre said the opportunity granted to her in her new role was not just an achievement, but the culmination of work from many who came before her.

“I am obviously acutely aware that my presence at this podium represents a few firsts,” Jean-Pierre said,. “I am a Black, gay, immigrant woman, the first of all three of those to hold this position. I would not be here today if it were not for generations of barriers — barrier-breaking people before me. I stand on their shoulders. If it were not for generations of barrier-breaking people before me, I would not be here.”

Asked by April Ryan of The Grio, a Black news outlet, about the many firsts she achieved by taking on the role as White House press secretary, Jean-Pierre recognized the signal that sends and brought up an article from a newspaper that went to her elementary school in Hampstead, N.Y.

“And these kids wrote me a letter,” Jean-Pierre said. “And in the letter, they talked about how they can dream bigger because of me standing behind this podium. And that matters. You know, as I started out at the beginning: Representation matters. And not just for girls, but also for boys.”

A White House spokesperson said Jean-Pierre was unable to make the Washington Blade’s deadline in response to an interview request for this article. Among the questions the Blade planned to ask was whether or not she feels a special obligation to represent and speak for the communities in her role as White House press secretary.

It wasn’t a straight line for Jean-Pierre to get to the position as White House press secretary. Although she worked for Harris in the Biden campaign, she came to the White House as deputy White House press secretary under Jen Psakl, who was responsible for Biden. (At the start of the Biden administration, Politico reported that Jean-Pierre’s relationship with the vice president became strained and Jean-Pierre was effectively estranged in the final five months of the campaign.)

But Jean-Pierre quickly won high praise in her role as a Biden spokesperson. In May 2021, when she gave her first on-camera briefing as a substitute for Psaki, Jean-Pierre was considered effectively to have knocked the ball out of the park and reportedly won a round of applause from her colleagues upon retuning to the press office.

Ester Fuchs, who was an instructor for Jean-Pierre when she was at Columbia University’s School of International & Public Affairs and later her colleague when she returned as a lecturer, said key to understanding Jean-Pierre’s success in communications is her balance of optimism and realism.

“She showed really a deep understanding of American politics, and particularly divisions in American politics,” Fuchs said. “But she was very much committed to the idea that the American Dream was still real for people like her, but with a kind of realpolitik understanding of what were the roadblocks, and always very committed to equity and fairness and making sure that people who were new immigrants or from high -needs population had a chance to be heard.”

The high praise Jean-Pierre receives from her former colleagues and friends undermines the argument in conservative media she was selected for the role of White House press secretary only because she checks off numerous boxes in the base of the Democratic Party’s coalition. Tucker Carlson of Fox News, for example, aired a segment last week deriding the appointment as the latest example of identity politics. Carlson mocked supporters for saying being LGBTQ is “the only thing you need to know” about Jean-Pierre, essentially ignoring the commitment and achievement she has made in getting there.

But there’s also a boon of having a good personality. Jean-Pierre’s smile as a means of being effective in disarming and comforting people was one of her features that came up two times independently among the people close to her the Blade consulted for this article.

Strautmanis said he’ll be watching to see whether or not Jean-Pierre’s humor comes out in her new role in White House press secretary as well as her capability to make people around her implicitly trust her, but ultimately predicted she would “kick ass.”

“She just engenders a tremendous confidence,” Strautmanis said. “And so, I think that’s the other thing that people are going to see, which is that as she speaks, you’re just gonna have a sense that, ‘You know, I trust what this person is saying,’ and I think that’s a really hard thing to do in that in the work that she’s done before in that job. But I think that’s why she transitioned from being a political staffer into communications, because she has that ability in communications to be up front, be direct, be honest, and yet still kind of push forward a particular agenda. I think that’s a rare combination.”

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