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Pentagon pressured to act on Nat’l Guard units denying gay benefits

Levin, Smith urge Hagel to clarify ‘all married military couples must be treated equally’

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Adam Smith, Congress, Washington, gay news, Washington Blade
Adam Smith, Congress, Washington, gay news, Washington Blade

Sen. Carl Levin (left) and Rep. Adam Smith are calling on the Pentagon to ensure gay troops can apply for spousal benefits at state National Guards. (Blade file photo by Michael Key).

Top congressional Democrats on defense issues are calling on the Pentagon to take action as additional state National Guard units are refusing to process spousal benefit applications for troops in same-sex marriages, according to a letter obtained Wednesday by the Washington Blade.

In a letter dated Sept. 30, Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) and Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) write to the Defense Department to express “deep concern” over the unwillingness of certain state National Guard units to process spousal benefits for troops in same-sex marriages.

“Recently, the states of Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana and Oklahoma have refused to issue or have stopped issuing ID cards in state facilities to same-sex spouses of service members,” the lawmakers write. “Citing statewide bans on marriage for same-sex couples, local policymakers have forced these spouses to travel to federal military installations to apply for their military benefits.”

The letter is significant because it’s the first time federal lawmakers have weighed in on the issue of National Guard units refusing benefit applications for same-sex couples and because Smith and Levin are the top Democrats on the House and Senate armed services committees.

Smith and Levin urge Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to take action to reaffirm guidance he issued in August saying spousal benefits for troops in same-sex marriages should be available nationwide following the Supreme Court decision against the Defense of Marriage Act.

“We urge you to issue further guidance on this matter, reaffirming that all married military couples must be treated equally, and clarifying the state National Guards, because they are funded in large part by federal tax dollars, cannot choose to ignore this order by denying some lawfully married military couples equal access to the federal benefits to which they are entitled,” Smith and Levin write.

The number of state guard units that have announced they won’t issue spousal military IDs for troops in same-sex marriages continues to grow. On Tuesday, the South Carolina National Guard announced that in the wake of the decision, it would stop processing benefit applications altogether and direct all married couples — gay and straight to federal military installations.

According to American Military Partner Association, Indiana has started to deny benefits applications at state-run installations. The Indiana National Guard didn’t respond to a request to confirm that these benefits are being blocked. [UPDATE: After the initial publication of this article, the American Military Partner Association said Indiana rescinded the decision and will process same-sex spouses.]

Stephen Peters, president of the American Military Partner Association, echoed the sense of Smith and Levin and said the time has come for the federal government to take action.

“These service members and their families deserve better than to be treated poorly by state governors trying to score political points,” Peters said. “We again call on the Secretary of Defense for quick and decisive action.”

The Obama administration has said little in response to the state National Guard units declining the benefit applications for same-sex troops despite the Pentagon directive saying these benefits should be made available even in states that don’t recognize same-sex marriage. The Pentagon has directed troops to apply for these benefits at federal installations.

Lt. Cmdr. Nathan Christensen, a Pentagon spokesperson, declined to comment on the correspondence or its call for a federal response to the guards.

“It would be inappropriate for me to comment on the secretary’s correspondence,” Christensen said. “He responds directly to correspondence received.”

Ian Thompson, legislative representative from the American Civil Liberties Union, said the letter from House Democrats demonstrates that continued withholding of benefits at national guard installations “cannot go unaddressed.”

“The Department of Defense needs to reaffirm that, consistent with the Supreme Court’s ruling in U.S. v. Windsor, all married military couples must be treated equally, and state National Guards cannot choose to ignore this order by denying some lawfully married couples equal access to the federal benefits to which they are entitled,” Thompson said.

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Exclusive: Biden briefed on transgender deaths breaking record in 2021

At least 46 people killed in grim milestone

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President Biden was briefed on Nov. 18 on anti-transgender violence the year, a White House official said.

President Biden, in a year when the killings of transgender people are at the highest number in recorded history, has been briefed on the grim milestone of anti-transgender violence, the Washington Blade has learned exclusively.

A White House official confirmed via email to the Blade on Monday that Biden was briefed Thursday, Nov. 18 on the number of transgender and non-binary people killed in 2021, which was the same week as the Transgender Day of Remembrance.

In response to a follow-up inquiry from the Blade on which principals were in attendance at the briefing, the White House official had nothing to share.

At least 46 transgender and non-binary people have been killed, which is the highest number since efforts to record those deaths began. The violence has consistently had a disproportionate impact on transgender women of color.

The Blade first posed the question about whether Biden was briefed on anti-transgender violence to White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki on Nov. 12. At the time, Psaki said she was unsure whether Biden was briefed, but said deaths were “terrible, heartbreaking” to hear.

Biden’s briefing on the anti-transgender violence is consistent with the statement he issued on Saturday recognizing the Transgender Day of Remembrance, which decried the deaths of the 46 transgender and non-binary people killed in 2021.

“Each of these lives was precious,” Biden said in the statement. “Each of them deserved freedom, justice, and joy. Today, on Transgender Day of Remembrance, we mourn those we lost in the deadliest year on record for transgender Americans, as well as the countless other transgender people — disproportionately Black and brown transgender women and girls — who face brutal violence, discrimination, and harassment.”

Biden, who has called transgender rights “the civil rights issue of our time,” is credited with being a transgender advocate in the White House, having issued policies such as a rollback of former President Trump’s transgender military ban and signing an executive order requiring federal agencies to implement the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling against anti-LGBTQ discrimination to the furthest extent possible under the law.

The Biden administration announced in June an interagency task force charged with making the U.S. government as transgender inclusive as possible, which the White House says is ongoing.

The year 2021 reached a new record for anti-transgender murders upon the death of Marquiisha “Quii” Lawrence, a 28-year-old Black transgender woman who was shot and killed in her home in Greenville, S.C.

Biden and other transgender advocates marked the Transgender Day of Remembrance this year with the solemn acknowledgment of the 46 transgender and non-binary people lost in 2021.

Biden as a 2020 presidential candidate highlighted ongoing anti-transgender violence, including its disproportionate impact on transgender people of color. In his comprehensive LGBTQ platform, Biden repeatedly pledged he’d take steps to protect LGBTQ people from violence.

In fact, Biden predicted the killing of transgender people would end if former President Trump were voted out of office, telling attendees at the Human Rights Campaign dinner in 2019: “The fastest way to end it is to end the Trump administration.”

Democratic National Committee chair Jaime Harrison and LGBTQ Caucus chair Earl Fowlkes issued a joint statement, saying each of the lives lost “represents a family broken, a friend forever changed, or a community in mourning.”

“Today, we mourn the lives lost due to senseless violence,” Harrison and Fowlkes said. “Tomorrow, we reaffirm and rededicate ourselves to enacting the change necessary to create a future where no one is forced to hide or live in fear.”

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Biden recognizes anti-trans violence on Transgender Day of Remembrance

2021 deadliest year on record for transgender people

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President Biden recognized the deaths of 46 people on the Transgender Day of Remembrance.

President Biden issued on Saturday a statement recognizing the Transgender Day of Remembrance, noting an estimated 46 transgender and non-binary were recorded as killed in 2021 in a horrific milestone of the most violent year on record for the transgender community.

“This year, at least 46 transgender individuals in this country — and hundreds more around the world—were killed in horrifying acts of violence,” Biden said. “Each of these lives was precious. Each of them deserved freedom, justice, and joy. Today, on Transgender Day of Remembrance, we mourn those we lost in the deadliest year on record for transgender Americans, as well as the countless other transgender people—disproportionately Black and brown transgender women and girls — who face brutal violence, discrimination, and harassment.”

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, in response to a question from the Washington Blade last week on whether Biden was briefed on anti-transgender violence reaching a new record in 2021, called the grim milestone “heartbreaking to hear,” but said she was unsure if Biden was briefed on the issue.

The Biden statement implies he was briefed on the deaths because it referenced 2021 being the deadliest year on record with 46 deaths, although the White House hasn’t responded to the Blade’s request to comment on whether he was briefed on the violence.

Biden moved early on during his administration to act on transgender rights, reversing President Trump’s transgender military ban and signing an executive order directing federal agencies to implement the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision against anti-LGBTQ discrimination to the fullest extent possible.

The Biden administration has announced an ongoing created an interagency task force charged with making the U.S. government as transgender inclusive, which is the White House says is still ongoing.

Read Biden’s full statement below:

November 20, 2021
 Statement by President Biden on Transgender Day of Remembrance
 This year, at least 46 transgender individuals in this country—and hundreds more around the world—were killed in horrifying acts of violence. Each of these lives was precious. Each of them deserved freedom, justice, and joy. Today, on Transgender Day of Remembrance, we mourn those we lost in the deadliest year on record for transgender Americans, as well as the countless other transgender people—disproportionately Black and brown transgender women and girls—who face brutal violence, discrimination, and harassment.
 
In spite of our progress strengthening civil rights for LGBTQI+ Americans, too many transgender people still live in fear and face systemic barriers to freedom and equality. To ensure that our government protects the civil rights of transgender Americans, I charged my team with coordinating across the federal government to address the epidemic of violence and advance equality for transgender people. I continue to call on state leaders and lawmakers to combat the disturbing proliferation of discriminatory state legislation targeting transgender people, especially transgender children. As I have said before, these bills are nothing more than bullying disguised as legislation, they are un-American, and they endanger the safety and well-being of our children. I also continue to urge the Senate to swiftly pass the Equality Act so that all people are able to live free from fear and discrimination.
 
Transgender people are some of the bravest Americans I know. But no person should have to be brave just to live in safety and dignity. Today, we remember. Tomorrow—and every day—we must continue to act.
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House resolution introduced to recognize Transgender Day of Remembrance

2021 deadliest year on record with 47 recorded deaths

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Reps. Marie Newman (left), Pramila Jayapal (center) and Jennifer Wexton have introduced a resolution to recognize the Transgender Day of Remembrance Photos of Newman and Jayapal public domain; Washington Blade photo of Wexton by Michael Key).

On the eve of the Transgender Day of Remembrance, a trio of House Democrats have introduced during a year with the highest recorded deaths of transgender and non-binary people a resolution that would officially recognize the annual occasion.

The measure was introduced by Reps. Marie Newman (D-Ill.), Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) and Jennifer Wexton (D-Va.), who are known as vocal transgender advocates and members of the Transgender Equality Task Force, as part of group of 62 members of the U.S. House, according to a statement from the LGBTQ Equality Caucus. The resolution would commemorate Nov. 20 as the Transgender Day of Remembrance.

Newman, who’s been open about having a young transgender daughter, said in a statement violence against transgender Americans, particularly Black and Brown transgender women, has become a “national epidemic.”

“With this resolution, we are not only recognizing the far too many souls lost to violence this year but also honoring their memory with a commitment to fight against anti-trans hate, rhetoric and violence,” Newman said. “Transgender Americans face hateful and disgusting attacks — verbal and physical — every single day just for simply existing in the world, and each of us has a fundamental obligation to speak out against it.”

The Transgender Day of Remembrance comes with 2021 having the highest number of recorded killings of transgender and non-binary people in a single year. A total of 47 deaths have been recorded, according to the LGBTQ Equality Caucus.

Wexton said in a statement the ongoing deaths of transgender people are “cannot be overlooked or ignored,” calling 2021 the deadliest year on record.

“Our trans friends and neighbors face greater threats of violence, bullying, and discrimination in nearly every aspect of their lives, and they deserve justice and equality,” Wexton said.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, under questioning from the Washington Blade last week on whether President Biden was briefed on 2021 being the deadliest year on record for transgender people, said the grim milestone is “terrible and heartbreaking” although she said she was unsure on whether Biden was briefed.

The White House hasn’t responded with any update on whether or not Biden has been briefed as of the eve of the Transgender Day of Remembrance.

Jayapal, who in addition to being a transgender advocate has been the face of the $1.75 trillions Build Back Better plan approved recently in the House, said in a statement the names of each of the transgender dead should be spoken aloud, the action should follow.

“Our resolution acknowledges this truth as we continue our dedicated work to strengthen hate crime laws, pass the Equality Act through the Senate, and ensure that every transgender person is able to live freely as themselves,” Jayapal said.

An LGBTQ Equality Caucus spokesperson didn’t respond Friday to the Blade’s request to comment on whether House leadership gave the sponsors of the legislation any indication the resolution would obtain a floor vote.

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