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How will Obama handle National Guard units disobeying fed’l directive?

4 states refusing order to process spousal benefits for gay troops

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Barack Obama, gay news, Washington Blade
Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Barack Obama, President of the United States of America, Washington Blade, gay news

President Obama (right) could follow Presidents Kennedy and Eisenhower, who both federalized National Guard units. (Photos of Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy public domain. Washington Blade photo of Barack Obama by Michael Key).

As National Guard units in several states refuse to process spousal benefit applications for troops in same-sex marriages, one advocate says there’s a unique — yet unlikely — solution: President Obama could federalize the state units.

Ret. Lt. Col. Chris Rowzee, spokesperson on National Guard affairs for the American Military Partner Association, raised the possibility of federalizing the National Guard units to ensure states offer spousal benefits to gay troops.

“This would be an extreme example, but they could … federalize the troops, and in that case, the state governor would have zero say over what the guard unit then does,” Rowzee said. “We certainly hope that it doesn’t come to something like that. We hope that the governors of these states recognize that the right thing to do for these guardsman and these families is to give them support and the entitlements to which they are entitled.”

Rowzee added she’s not calling for Obama to take control of the National Guard units, but noted she wants some kind of response from the Obama administration.

At least four states — Texas, Oklahoma, Mississippi and Louisiana — are refusing to give troops in same-sex marriages military IDs for their partners by denying these couples’ applications at state-run facilities. That hampers the couples’ ability to receive health, pension and housing benefits afforded to other service members.

Despite an Aug. 13 directive from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel saying these benefits should be available nationwide, even in non-marriage equality states, these four states are citing state constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage as the reason they cannot enroll these couples into the Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System.

The American Military Partners Association has called for a response from the Obama administration to prompt a change from the state National Guards. The more obvious method that has been discussed before is a deprivation of federal funds for these installations as a result of disobeying a federal directive.

Chris Jenks, a former Army judge advocate general and law professor at Southern Methodist University, said federalizing elements of the National Guard and withholding funds are both viable options for Obama.

“Ultimately, if the governors of the four states persist in their order to their state National Guards to not provide benefits to same-sex married guard members, the governors run a risk that the president will federalize those state national guards,” Jenks said. “One hopes it wouldn’t come to that. But if the gay rights movement is the civil rights struggle of our time, it will be interesting to see how far the first African-American president will allow state governors to countermand him.”

In the 1950s, President Eisenhower federalized the Arkansas National Guard when the governor of that state was using it to enforce racial discrimination at Little Rock Central High School. In 1963, President Kennedy took similar action in Alabama to desegregate the University of Alabama.

The situation today, of course, isn’t exactly parallel. Eisenhower and Kennedy federalized the units in Arkansas and Alabama to force integration of schools – not to make the guard units themselves operate in a non-discriminatory manner.

Under the relevant statute, the president would have to declare a national emergency in order to bring the National Guard units of those states under his direct command.

Fred Sainz, vice president of communications for the Human Rights Campaign, said his organization is asking for a federal response to the situation, but does not endorse the idea of federalizing the National Guard units.

“We are urging Secretary Hagel to talk to these state governments about the need to have uniformity and fairness for all service members in accessing the benefits to which they are entitled by law,” Sainz said.

The Obama administration has been quiet on the issue of individual National Guard units resisting the order for nationwide spousal benefits for gay troops.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney had no immediate answer when the Washington Blade asked if Obama was aware of the issue and believes these units are violating federal policy. Carney deferred to the Pentagon, but also said he could take the question and talk about the issue later. As of last week, the Blade had not received a White House response.

Lt. Cmdr. Nathan Christensen, a Pentagon spokesperson, would only say troops in same-sex marriages are able to enroll at federal installations.

“All Federal Military installations (in Texas, Oklahoma, Mississippi and Louisiana) will issue IDs to all those who provide a valid marriage certificate from a jurisdiction that recognizes same-sex marriage,” Christensen said.

But Rowzee maintained that directing troops to travel to a federal installation isn’t an adequate solution to the problem. For starters, the issue isn’t just enrollment for benefits, but also participation in guard activities like family readiness programs.

“The rationale that they are using to deny giving me the ID cards to begin with is rationale that very easily could be applied to even something as simple at the spouse being given access to the base, being able to drive to the base to pick up her guardsmen from a deployment,” Rowzee said.

Legal experts who spoke with the Blade agreed the decision to refuse to process these applications violates federal law.

SMU’s Jenks said these states are caught between state and federal governments, but are ultimately exceeding their authority.

“I think the state governments have overreached and it’s unfortunate that they are using the National Guard in a politicized fashion, that’s not why the National Guard exists,” Jenks said. “Ultimately these efforts by the states will not be successful.”

One initiative that has emerged as states have begun to withhold these benefits from gay troops is a petition led by the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Military Partner Association calling on the Pentagon to reaffirm that all married military personnel are eligible for these benefits.

Another group that is pursuing action on the issue in Texas is Lambda Legal. Representing Alicia Butler and Judith Chedville, a lesbian military couple denied benefits at Camp Mabry, Lambda sent a letter on Sept. 13 to Texas Military Forces saying current policy “fails its troops and their families.” The letter requests a response in 10 days.

Paul Castillo, staff attorney for Lambda Legal, said he “absolutely” thinks Texas is violating federal law by denying benefits to troops in same-sex marriages.

“The state law does not inhibit the National Guard from completing a federal mission,” Castillo said. “The DEERS system and benefit administration is federally funded along with the personnel operating the system, so there’s no reason for them to discriminate in issuing the spousal IDs and enrolling them in the DEERS system.”

Castillo said Texas confirmed receipt of the letter. Since that time, Castillo said communications between Lambda and the state are ongoing, although he couldn’t elaborate on them.

Whether a lawsuit is in the works by any of these groups remains to be seen. None would rule out the possibility of litigation if nothing changes at these guard units.

For Rowzee, the decision of these guard units to withhold benefits is particularly disappointing in the wake of advancements in marriage equality throughout the country following the Supreme Court decision against the Defense of Marriage Act.

“Do I honestly believe that the governor of Texas will be forever able to defy a DOD directive? No, and I think he knows that,” Rowzee said. “I think he’s using this issue to try to gain political points, and the problem is it harms people in the meantime. It harms our military families.”

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Congress

Garcia slams effort to ban drag shows as GOP passes NDAA with anti-LGBTQ riders

Equality Caucus denounces anti-LGBTQ amendments

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U.S. Rep. Robert Garcia (D-Calif.) during the debate on Thursday over the National Defense Authorization Act (Screen capture via C-Span)

U.S. Rep. Robert Garcia (D-Calif.) slammed Republican U.S. Rep. Josh Brecheen’s (Okla.) effort to ban drag shows on American military bases during a debate over the annual National Defense Authorization Act spending bill on Thursday.

The appropriations package, which contains five anti-LGBTQ riders pushed by House GOP members, was passed on Friday.

“We know there are a lot of threats to the health and well-being of our service members and their families: poisoned water, toxic mold in military housing, PTSD, and suicide,” said Garcia, who is gay and a co-chair of the Congressional Equality Caucus.

“So I’m stunned to see that the Republican idea to protect our troops is to ban drag shows,” he said. “Mr. Speaker, my Republican colleagues want us to believe that ‘these gays are trying to murder us.’ They want us to believe that drag is harmful, or immoral and wrong. This is ridiculous.”

“We can document and celebrate drag shows on military bases since the late 1800s, and through both world wars,” Garcia continued. “The USO and the Red Cross supported drag during World War II. That’s right: the Army that defeated Hitler and saved the world included drag queens.” 

“Ronald Regan starred in a movie called ‘This Is the Army!’ — a movie about World War II that featured four drag performances,” he said. “And he’s not the only Republican president who knew that drag can be fun and sometimes silly.”

Garcia displayed a photo of former president and presumptive 2024 GOP nominee Donald Trump alongside former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who was dressed in drag.

“Mr. Speaker,” the congressman said, “drag is Art. Drag is Culture. Drag is Creativity. Drag is Comedy. And no, drag is Not a Crime. It’s not pornography. The real obscenity is when one of our colleagues, the gentlewoman from Georgia, shows literal posters of revenge porn in our Oversight Committee! If we want to end porn in government facilities, let’s ban that.”

In a statement on Friday, the Equality Caucus called out House Republicans’ politicization of the military appropriations bill.

“Like last year, House Republicans voted to add poison pill, anti-LGBTQI+ provisions to the NDAA that discriminate against our LGTBQI+ servicemembers and their families,” said Caucus Chair U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) “The Equality Caucus remains committed to preventing these discriminatory provisions from becoming law.”

Along with Brecheen’s drag show ban, the caucus highlighted four of these riders from this year’s NDAA:

  • Amendment 46 by U.S. Rep. Greg Steube (R-Fla.), which would “prohibit funds for the Department of Defense Education Activity from being used to purchase, maintain, or display in a school library or classroom books that include transgender and intersex characters or touch on topics related to gender identity or variations in sex characteristics,”
  • Amendment 49 by U.S. Rep. Cory Mills (R-Fla.), which would “ban Pride flags from any workplace, common access area, or public area of the Department of Defense,” and
  • Amendments 52 and 53 by U.S. Reps. Matt Rosendale (R-Mont.) and Ralph Norman (S.C.), which would, respectively, “ban TRICARE from covering and furnishing gender-affirming surgeries and hormone treatments,” and “prohibit the Exceptional Family Member Program (EFMP) from covering or providing referrals for “gender transition procedures”—including puberty blockers, hormone therapy, and surgeries—for servicemembers’ dependent minor children.”
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Congress

Merkley, joined by Advocates for Trans Equality, makes Equality Act push

Ore. senator said ‘our rights and freedoms are on the ballot this year’

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U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) speaks at the Senate Swamp on Tuesday. (Washington Blade photo by Christopher Kane)

U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) called for passage of the Equality Act during a press conference on Wednesday alongside Advocates for Trans Equality, who were convened on Capitol Hill for the Trans Day of Empowerment lobby day.

Instead of freedom and the opportunity to participate fully in society, the senator said, “We see hatred, we see harassment, we see homelessness, we see discrimination, and bigotry, and violence, we see unemployment, we even see state-sanctioned attempts to outlaw the very identity of our transgender members of our community.”

“Across America in 2024, in our state legislatures there have been 500 bills drafted to constrain the opportunity for transgender Americans,” Merkley said. “They take on school curriculum, or they ban gender affirming care or otherwise seek to constrain the opportunity to participate in society, by our transgender individuals, in so many different ways.”

“This is wrong,” he said. “This is unacceptable. And we need to therefore pass the Equality Act here in the halls of Congress.”

Merkley, who introduced the latest iteration of the bill in the Senate, noted the legislation would “end discrimination on sexual orientation or gender identity in employment, in housing, in public accommodations, in mortgages, in financial transactions, in jury duty — every facet of American society.”

U.S. Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), who is gay and a co-chair of the Congressional Equality Caucus, is leading the House version of the bill.

However, Merkley said, “our partners on the right side of the aisle have abandoned us. So, the responsibility to pass the Equality Act falls firmly on the Democratic Party.”

The senator called for an end to the Senate filibuster as a means of passing important legislation like the Equality Act.

Separately, in a statement to the Washington Blade, Merkley said, “Voting is the heart of our democracy. As Americans cast their ballots this fall, they have the chance to decide major issues facing our nation — from LGBTQ+ rights to reproductive freedom to so much more.”

“Democracy doesn’t exist unless every eligible voter has equal opportunity to make their voice heard,” he said. “As attacks on our LGBTQ+ friends and neighbors continue in the halls of Congress, state legislatures, and in our communities, we must all speak out and vote against this rising hate.”

The senator added, “Our rights and freedoms are on the ballot this year, and I won’t stop fighting until every American can live safely and freely as their authentic self.”

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Politics

EXCLUSIVE: Biden-Harris campaign debuts ads targeting LGBTQ voters

Ads to begin running Tuesday

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Pride month ad (Photo courtesy of the Biden-Harris 2024 campaign)

The Biden-Harris 2024 campaign will debut new ads on Tuesday targeting LGBTQ voters in battleground states for Pride Month ahead of November’s election.

“These ads will be featured across national and battleground LGBTQ+ media outlets, and will run throughout the month,” the campaign explained in a press release.

The aim is to “uplift” Biden’s record as “the most pro-LGBTQ+ president in history” while also highlighting “Donald Trump’s history of attacking their rights and his plans to go further.”

One ad that was previewed exclusively by the Washington Blade reads, “Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are fighting for the LGBTQ community!” with a photo of the president and vice president.

Another, formatted for social media, features a photo of Pride flags atop a quote from the “PBS NewsHour”: “On the campaign trail, Donald Trump has been outlining what he plans to do if elected in November. That includes rolling back the rights of millions of LGBTQ+ people. It’s part of a wider playbook to undo many civil rights advances for minority groups.”

“This Pride is an important time to remember the progress we’ve made for our community under President Biden, and the stakes of this election for LGBTQ+ Americans as Trump proudly runs to strip us of our rights,” said Biden-Harris 2024 Spokesperson Kevin Munoz, who is gay.

“From threatening IVF treatments to threatening LGBTQ+ marriages, Trump’s Project 2025 agenda would rip away our rights, and sow needless hate and division for Trump’s political gain,” he said. “LGBTQ+ Americans deserve to hear from us about these stakes, and this buy shows we will continue to show up and make our case to them in this election.”

The ad blitz on Tuesday comes after the campaign’s announcement of a paid media and organizing push for Pride month, which includes sizable investments in courting LGBTQ voters in battleground states.

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