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Coast Guard enacts pro-gay non-discrimination policy

Move prompts new calls for Pentagon to enact protections for gay service members

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U.S. Coast Guard, gay news, Washington Blade
U.S. Coast Guard, gay news, Washington Blade

The Coast Guard has added sexual orientation to its non-discrimination policy (Image public domain).

The U.S. Coast Guard with little fanfare has added protections based on sexual orientation to its equal opportunity policy, prompting new calls for the Pentagon to do the same with other branches of the military.

The guidance, made public Thursday morning by the American Military Partners Association and dated Oct. 13, says “sexual orientation and genetic information” are now included as part of equal opportunity and anti-discrimination/anti-harassment policy statements within the Coast Guard. The guidance is signed at the bottom by Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Bob Papp.

“We must continue to uphold our core values of Honor, Respect and Devotion to Duty which underlie our excellence in mission execution, good order and discipline, and morale,” Papp writes. “Maintaining workplaces that are free from harassment and discrimination is essential to our readiness and to ensure we remain, Semper Paratus, Always Ready.”

Stephen Peters, president of the American Military Partners Association, commended Papp for taking action to protect gay members of the coast guard and said the Pentagon should make similar policy for other branches of the armed forces.

“We urge the Secretary of Defense to do the same in order to ensure all uniformed service members are protected from unjust discrimination, not just those in the Coast Guard,” Peters said. “While Department of Defense civilian employees are protected, the DoD has yet to add orientation to its non-discrimination policy for uniformed troops. This lack of inclusion has a direct impact on not only the service member’s ability to serve openly and honestly without fear of harassment, but their spouse and family as well.”

LGBT advocates have been pushing for the enactment of an explicit non-discrimination protections for gay members of the armed forces even before “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal. Currently, service members have no recourse for anti-gay discrimination outside of their chain of command.

In response to calls for an explicit non-discrimination policy, the Pentagon has consistently said it treats all service members with respect without committing to a new policy.

Lt. Cmdr. Nathan Christensen, a Pentagon spokesperson, responded to the renewed calls by pointing to Pentagon guidance during the process of lifting “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” stating sexual orientation won’t “be considered along with race, color, religion, sex, and national origin as a class under the Military Equal Opportunity (MEO) program.”

Christensen added that the reason for the difference between the Coast Guard and the Pentagon is the Coast Guard isn’t structured in the same way as other military services. The Coast Guard, he said, doesn’t have an Inspector General system like the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.

“Simply put: DoD directs discrimination cases on the basis of sexual orientation to be handled by the DoD IG system,” Christensen said. “As such, DoD does not include sexual orientation as part of our Military Equal Opportunity (MEO) program.”

Unlike other branches of the military, the Coast Guard operates under the Department of Homeland Security and is subject to different policy. Nonetheless, the Coast Guard often implements policy similar to the Pentagon’s.

For example, after former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced at the start of this year the Pentagon would extend partner benefits for service members in same-sex relationships, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano followed immediately with a statement saying the Coast Guard would do the same.

One advocate for enacting an explicit non-discrimination policy for troops based on sexual orientation is Acting Air Force Secretary Eric Fanning, who espoused the idea during an interview with the Washington Blade in May.

“Speaking personally, I always think it’s important to have non-discrimination policies codified to include everyone,” Fanning said. “The military, because it has a chain of command, has a different attitude about this and a different way to try to go about protecting airmen, sailors, soldiers, Marines — but Eric Fanning? Yes. I personally like to see these things in writing and codified.”

Additionally, the Coast Guard guidance says nothing about adding gender identity to equal opportunity and anti-discrimination/anti-harassment policy statements as transgender advocates are pushing for openly transgender service in the armed forces.

Brynn Tannehill, director of advocacy for the LGBT military group SPART*A, commended the Coast Guard for adding the protections, but said the service is unable to change transgender policy because it’s “modeled after that of the DoD’s.”

“We believe that it is time to revisit these outdated policies,” Tannehill said. “The SPART*A Transgender Chapter has members who are part of the Coast Guard.  The existing medical policies on transgender Coast Guard service are every bit as harmful to them as DADT was to lesbian, gay, and bisexual service members, and have nothing to do with their actual ability and desire to serve.”

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Maryland

Hyattsville mayor dies by suicide

Kevin Ward and husband adopted son in D.C. in 2012

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Hyattsville Mayor Kevin Ward (Photo courtesy of the city of Hyattsville)

The city of Hyattsville released a statement on Wednesday afternoon announcing that their city’s openly gay Mayor Kevin Ward had died one day earlier by an apparent suicide.

“The city of Hyattsville reports with great sadness that our beloved Mayor Kevin Ward passed away yesterday, Jan. 25, from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound,” the statement says.

“Mayor Ward was a valued and trusted leader and a fierce advocate for all the people of Hyattsville,” the statement continues. “We are heartbroken at this loss and extend our deepest sympathy to the mayor’s family,” it says.

“No further information is available at this time,” the statement adds. “Details about services and remembrances will be shared when they are available.”

The Washington Post reported that U.S. Park Police disclosed that Ward was found deceased in Fort Marcy Park in McLean, Va., with a “self-inflicted gunshot wound.”

Ward, 44, became acting mayor of Hyattsville on Jan. 1, 2021, following the resignation of former Mayor Candace Hollingsworth. He was next in line to become mayor under the city’s political system in his then-position as president of the Hyattsville City Council.

He won election to complete the remainder of Hollingsworth’s term through 2023 in a May 11, 2021, special election, receiving 57.8 percent of the vote in a three candidate race, according to the Hyattsville election board. His closest opponent, Joseph Solomon, received 31.7 percent of the vote.

Nearby fellow gay mayors — Patrick Wojahn of College Park and Jeffrey Slavin of Somerset — said they got to know Ward through Maryland political circles and thought very highly of him.

“He was insightful, smart and dedicated,” Wojahn said. “He always seemed very confident and together as a person. And he had a great sense of humor.”

Slavin said he shared that remembrance of Ward, adding that he found Ward to be a “very nice person” dedicated to the people he served both as mayor and during his two terms on the Hyattsville City Council.

“There was noting in his public life that would have predicted this,” said Slavin in referring to Ward’s sudden passing.

The Washington Blade first reported on Ward in 2012 in a feature story on Ward and his then-domestic partner Chad Copeland when the two attended a ceremony at the D.C. Superior Court to complete the process of adopting their then-5-year-old son Norman. Ward and Copeland were among several gay couples who had their adoption papers signed by a judge at the ceremony.

On the website for his mayoral election campaign last year Ward said he and his family made Hyattsville their home in 2014 after he and his husband adopted their two sons.

“I am a pretty straightforward person,” he said in message to voters on his campaign website. “I believe in listening more than talking. But when I talk, I am not one to mince words or tell people what they want to hear,” he said. “I believe in doing the work. I believe that if I can help someone, then I can change her or his life,” he continued.

“This is why I dedicated my career to providing the best technology to education and to human services, to help as many people as I can,” he said.  

Ward was referring to his career in the field of educational and human services technology.

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Europe

French lawmakers outlaw conversion therapy

The National Assembly unanimously approved ban

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(Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

In a vote hailed by French President Emmanuel Macron, lawmakers in the National Assembly unanimously voted 142-0 on Tuesday to ban the discredited practice of so-called gay conversion therapy.

In a reaction to the vote, Macron tweeted: “The law prohibiting conversion therapy is adopted unanimously! Let’s be proud, these unworthy practices have no place in the Republic. Because being yourself is not a crime, because there is nothing to be cured.”

The law had already been passed by senators in December.

Those found guilty of so-called gay conversion therapy could face two years imprisonment and a €30,000 ($33,714.45) fine. The punishment could rise to three years in prison and a fine of €45,000 ($50,571.68) for attempts involving children or other particularly vulnerable people, Euronews reported.

“The practice of trying to “convert” LGBT+ people to heterosexuality or traditional gender expectations is scientifically discredited,” MP’s in support of the measure had argued previous to the final vote.

“We are sending out a strong signal because we are formally condemning all those who consider a change of sex or identity as an illness,” said Laurence Vanceunebrock, an MP with Macron’s ruling En Marche party.

Nearly every French MP who spoke on Tuesday echoed the same words; “there is nothing to cure.”

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Federal Government

Department of Education investigating BYU LGBTQ+ discipline policy

“They’ve wronged marginalized communities at BYU and they need to be held accountable for it” ~ former gay student at BYU

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Bradley Talbot, a former gay student at BYU (Photo courtesy of Bradley Talbot)

PROVO, Ut. – The U.S. Department of Education has opened an investigation into policies at Brigham Young University (BYU) that discipline LGBTQ students, aiming to determine whether or not the private religious school, owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), is violating their civil rights. 

The Education Department is investigating a complaint that came after BYU removed rules banning “homosexual activity” from its honor code in 2020, only to clarify weeks later that same-sex partnerships were still prohibited.

The probe, which opened in October of last year, will focus on Title IX, a law prohibiting universities from discriminating against students and others based on gender. 

Last year, President Joe Biden signed an executive order mandating every federal agency, including the Education Department, clarify that civil rights laws protect LGBTQ people from discrimination. However, religious schools have Title IX exemptions, making federal scrutiny rare.  

“It’s really significant that investigators are stepping in now,” Michael Austin, a BYU alumnus and vice president at the University of Evansville, told the Salt Lake Tribune. “It means there’s some reason to think the university has gone beyond the religious exemptions it has and is discriminating even beyond those.”

The investigation, headed by the Office of Civil Rights within the department, seems to be about whether faith-based exemptions apply even if the behavior is not directly related to education or expressly written in the honor code. BYU also bans alcohol, beards and piercings, among other things. 

BYU did not respond to the Blade’s request for comment. But a spokesperson told the Associated Press that the school does not anticipate any further action because “BYU is exempt from application of Title IX rules that conflict with the religious tenets” of the LDS.

Though the LDS has softened some of its rules around LGBTQ issues, the church remains opposed to same-sex marriage and sex outside of marriage. 

In a November 2021 letter to the Education Department, Kevin Worthen, president of BYU, argued that religious exemptions do apply to the school. The letter adds that all BYU students, faculty, administrators and staff “‘voluntarily commit to conduct their lives in accordance with the principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ.’”

The Department of Education responded to the letter, affirming that the university has some religious exemptions, but the department had to investigate if the complaint falls under those exemptions. 

An Education Department spokesperson confirmed the investigation to the Blade but declined further comment. 

Queer students at BYU celebrated the school’s removal of the anti-LGBTQ language in the honor code. Yet, the university announced weeks later that there was “some miscommunication” as to what the changes meant, clarifying that “the principles of the Honor Code remain the same.”

Bradley Talbot, a former gay student at BYU, was on campus during the apparent reversal, saying it “instilled a lot of fear and a lot of students.” 

“There are still a lot of feelings of betrayal and apprehension around it,” he told the Blade.

At BYU, students who hold hands or kiss someone of the same sex can face punishment, including expulsion. LGBTQ+ students face harsher discipline than heterosexual couples at the school. 

Talbot said he knew of “quite a few people” who lost their degrees and were kicked out during his time at BYU because of the gay dating ban. “People were turned in by roommates. Some people were turned in by their own parents,” he added. 

Courtesy of Bradley Talbot

The university’s clarification frustrated LGBTQ students, according to Talbot. In response, he organized a demonstration in March of 2021, lighting the “Y” that sits above BYU’s campus – one of the school’s oldest traditions – in rainbow Pride colors on the one year anniversary of the university’s letter sent to students that clarified the LGBTQ dating policy. 

“We did it to reclaim that traumatic day and spin in a positive light of support, love and unity to create more visibility and awareness,” said Talbot. “And also to take a stand that we weren’t going to put up with just being tossed around by BYU. We deserve to be a part of the BYU community and a part of the LGBTQ community.”

The school has since updated its policies, banning protests and other demonstrations on Y Mountain, where Talbot staged his demonstration, in December of last year. 

“Demonstrations should be consistent with BYU’s faith-based mission, intellectual environment and requirements described in the policy,” a statement added. 

Still, Talbot, who is now graduated, has hope that the Education Department’s investigation will “finally change” things at BYU. “This has been something that’s been going on for decades,” he said. “They’ve wronged marginalized communities at BYU and they need to be held accountable for it.”

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