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Obama ‘blindsided’ Gates over ‘Don’t Ask’ repeal

Former HRC president says defense chief ‘somewhat disingenuous’ in new book

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Robert Gates, Pentagon, Department of Defense, gay news, Washington Blade

Defense Secretary Robert Gates reportedly said he was blindsided by President Obama’s announcement that he would repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Robert Gates’ new tell-all book is stirring controversy, including among LGBT rights advocates, who are hitting back at leaked excerpts regarding “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal.

According to a preview of “Duty” in media reports, including in the Washington Post, the former defense secretary identifies “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal as among the issues he said he endured “continued conflict and a couple of important White House breaches of faith” over the course of 2010.

Although Gates reportedly writes he supported the decision to move toward open service, he says Obama “blindsided” him and then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen with one day’s notice that he would announce his request to repeal the law.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Gates also takes a jab at Obama by saying “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal was among the few military issues about which the president expressed interest.

“The only military matter, apart from leaks, about which I ever sensed deep passion on his part was ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,'” Gates reportedly writes.

Based on the media outlet’s depiction of the portion of the book, it’s hard to tell what Gates is referring to by Obama’s announcement that he would move to end “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Gates may be referring to the 2010 State of the Union address in which Obama pledged to “work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are.”

Nonetheless, LGBT advocates who contributed to the effort to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” are scratching their heads over the depiction that Gates was “blindsided” by the president’s plans.

Joe Solmonese, former president of the Human Rights Campaign, said his memory of what happened “doesn’t really square” with Gates’ reported recollection of the administration’s efforts to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

“If anything, I think they were particularly sensitive to making sure that Secretary Gates and Adm. Mullen were completely engaged in the process,” Solmonese said. “At each step along the way, my recollection, my memory, what I witnessed being part of the process was that was something they were incredibly sensitive to.”

Recalling that the Obama administration set up a 10-month study over the course of 2010 to examine the potential impact of open service, Solmonese said the administration approached repeal “with a deference toward” Gates and Mullen. They both endorsed the study when they announced it before the Senate Armed Services Committee in February 2010.

Nathaniel Frank, a political commentator who formerly worked for the University of California’s Palm Center on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” said Obama was “clear from the start” he wanted open service and it’s “hard to see” how Gates could have felt blindsided.

“The two men were doing a delicate dance over how much to prioritize repeal among many important issues, and both were under a lot of pressure to deliver,” Frank said. “I don’t know what their private conversations involved, but eventually the president came to understand that the political window for repeal was closing, and he had to move forward.”

Solmonese added he thinks Gates included in his book disparaging remarks about “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal as part of a broader theme of disappointment with the administration. Although Solmonese said he wouldn’t speculate on Gates’ motivation, he said the former defense secretary’s claim he was “blindsided” is “somewhat disingenuous to me.”

“This was a United States senator and a candidate for president, and the president all through the first part of his term who ongoingly talked about his intention to end ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,'” Solmonese said. “Quite frankly,  it was a rather long time from that particular moment, if that’s what he’s talking about, until we actually ended ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.'”

But not all LGBT advocates who worked on the transition to open service share the same view.

Jarrod Chlapowski, who worked on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” as part of HRC and the now-defunct Servicemembers United, said “it’s possible” Gates didn’t expect repeal would happen because there was a question over whether open service or the Employment Non-Discrimination Act would be a priority for the LGBT movement.

“There are a number of events prior to that which indicated that DADT was sexier than ENDA: Patrick Murphy’s push in the House (coordinated with Voices of Honor), the rise of Dan Choi, the standing ovation during the HRC dinner in 2009,” Chlapowski said. “I remember talking to David Smith the next day who was absolutely shocked that DADT resonated so strongly among HRC’s major donors, and you can bet that shock was shared by the administration.”

Chlapowski said the “sudden announcement” that Gates recalled would be consistent with the sudden change in priorities for the LGBT groups.

“So the narrative that the administration worked closely with Gates on a long-term strategy only to pull out the rug from under Gates jibes with the sudden recalibration of the entire gay rights movement at roughly the same time,” Chlapowski said.

The White House didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on Gates’ remarks regarding “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

Even after Congress voted to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the president signed the repeal measure in December 2010, Obama, Gates and Mullen waited nine months to formally lift the ban in September 2011. Over the course of that time, military officials engaged with troops to prepare for the change in law, saying their duties wouldn’t change with open service.

Winnie Stachelberg, vice president of external affairs at the Center for American Progress, said she won’t comment on Gates’ recollection because she wasn’t part of his discussions. However, she said whatever the challenges in getting there, the end result to open service was seamless.

“Regardless of one’s memory, I think it’s important to note that the president and the administration were firmly committed, and that the process took some challenging turns, but the end result speaks for itself,” Stachelberg said. “Repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ was a success and the concerns about undermining readiness and unit cohesion and retention never materialized.”

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District of Columbia

Trial for man charged with assaulting gay men in D.C. park postponed for third time

Indictment says attacker squirted victims with pepper spray

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Meridian Hill Park (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The trial for a 50-year-old man who was arrested July 14, 2022, on charges that he allegedly assaulted five men he believed to be gay at D.C.’s Meridian Hill Park between 2018 and 2021 was postponed for the third time last month and has now been rescheduled for Aug. 19 of this year.   

The arrest of Michael Thomas Pruden came two weeks after a federal grand jury handed down an indictment on June 29, 2022, charging him with five counts of assault on federal park land, one count of impersonating a federal officer and a hate crime designation alleging that he assaulted four of the men because of their perceived sexual orientation. 

Prosecutors with the Office of the U.S. Attorney for D.C. filed a motion in court on Jan. 10 of this year opposing a request by Pruden’s defense attorney to postpone the most recent prior trial date set for Feb. 26. 

“Following indictment in June 2022, the defendant has delayed the trial in this case several times, including by firing two prior attorneys,” the prosecutors’ motion states. “While the government has not previously objected to any continuance, no further delay is warranted,” the motion says. “This is a straightforward case that should proceed to trial as currently scheduled.”

The indictment against Pruden by a U.S. District Court for D.C. grand jury provides some of the details surrounding the case.

“After nightfall, Meridian Hill Park was informally known in the Washington, D.C., community to be a meeting location for men seeking to engage in consensual sexual encounters with other men,” the indictment says. “This practice is colloquially known as ‘cruising,’” the indictment continues. 

“Michael Thomas Pruden frequented Meridian Hill Park after nightfall and on multiple occasions, including those described below, assaulted men in Meridian Hill Park by approaching them with a flashlight, giving them police-style commands and spraying them with a chemical irritant,” the indictment states. 

Virginia court records show that the D.C. indictment against Pruden was handed down 11 months after a U.S. District Court jury in Alexandria, Va., found him not guilty of a charge of assault with a dangerous weapon for allegedly pepper spraying and hitting in the head with a large tree branch a man in Daingerfield Island Park in Alexandria, which is also known as a gay cruising site. 

Federal Public Defender A.J. Kramer, who is representing Pruden in the D.C. case, said in his own motion calling for postponing Pruden’s Feb. 26 trial date that he has at least two other unrelated trials coming up soon and what he called voluminous documents recently provided to him by prosecutors made the latest postponement necessary. 

“Firstly, while Mr. Pruden prefers to go to trial as soon as possible, counsel cannot be ready by February 26, 2024,” his motion states. “Given that the case against Mr. Pruden is actually five cases spanning a three-year period, the discovery is extremely voluminous, in excess of 7,000 pages,” he states in his motion. “Due to this as well as counsel’s other pending matters in the coming weeks, counsel is unable to effectively prepare motions and prep for trial under the current timeline.”

By the 7,000 pages of “discovery” documents, Kramer was referring to the requirement that prosecutors turn over to the defense attorney in advance of a trial details of the evidence prosecutors plan to present at a trial. U.S. District Court Judge Jia M. Cobb approved Pruden’s request for the postponement in a Feb. 5 ruling. 

Court records also show that Pruden was released on personal recognizance following his arrest into the custody of his mother, who lives in Norfolk, Va., where he has been staying since his release. Among other things, conditions for his release prohibit him from having any contact with the individuals he is charged with assaulting and require that he always remain inside his mother’s residence from sunset to sunrise. 

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District of Columbia

D.C. ceremony welcomes affirming church as ‘full standing’ UCC congregation

Bishop Abrams officially installed as pastor of UCC Empowerment Liberation Cathedral

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Bishop Allyson Abrams (far right) was installed as pastor of UCC Empowerment Liberation Cathedral.

The Mt. Rainier, Md.-based Empowerment Liberation Cathedral, which Washington Blade readers have selected for five years as the D.C. area’s Best LGBTQ Church, was honored as an official United Church of Christ congregation in a ceremony on Sunday, Feb. 25, at the Plymouth United Church of Christ on North Capitol Street in D.C.

The ceremony, organized by the Potomac Association of the United Church of Christ, which admitted Empowerment Liberation Cathedral as a UCC congregation last fall, also officially installed lesbian Bishop Allyson Abrams as pastor of the now UCC-affiliated Empowerment Liberation Cathedral.

Abrams founded Empowerment Liberation Cathedral in 2014 at its original location in Silver Spring, Md., as a nondenominational Protestant church that she declared would be a welcoming and affirming congregation “where all of God’s children are welcomed,” including LGBTQ people of faith. Washington Blade readers have also named Abrams the D.C. area’s Best Clergy for seven years.

Although many consider Empowerment Liberation Cathedral a “gay” church, one of its spokespersons, Kendrick Keys, told the Washington Blade ELC considers itself a welcoming church and congregation open to everyone, even though he said a majority but not all of its members are LGBTQ.  

A biography of Abrams prepared by the LGBTQ Religion Archives Network says her founding of Empowerment Liberation Cathedral came one year after she resigned as pastor of the Zion Progress Baptist Church in Detroit in 2013 and two years after she was consecrated as a bishop at Pneuma Christian Fellowship, a religious order in Orange County, Calif.

The biography says Abrams created a stir in 2013 shortly before her resignation as pastor of Zion Progressive Baptist Church, when she announced to the congregation that she had just married another female bishop, Diana Williams, who at the time was Bishop Emeritus of the Imani Temple African American Catholic Congregation.

A short time after that, Abrams and Williams moved to the D.C.-Maryland area where Abrams mapped out plans to open the Empowerment Liberation Cathedral known as ELC.

 “Bishop Abrams came to the Washington, D.C. area with a new blitz about her marriage to another female bishop,” a statement released by ELC says. “She was outcast by many organizations and religious groups for declaring you could be gay and Christian,” the statement says.

“When Abrams decided to open a church in the Washington Metropolitan Area many media outlets discussed her keeping her faith and opening a church for those who have been marginalized and disenfranchised from the church and from their legacies in churches across America,” the statement continues.

“Bishop Abrams has remained on the forefront of ministry and has united with a denomination that believes in justice and equality for all – the United Church of Christ,” says the statement.

It was referring to the United Church of Christ’s status as an LGBTQ-affirming church that welcomes LGBTQ people into its services and congregations.

A separate ELC statement says among those attending and participating in the Feb. 25 ceremony at Plymouth Church were pastors, bishops, ministers, parishioners, community leaders, organizations affiliated with ELC and the United Church of Christ’s Potomac Association.

Among them was Japer Bowles, director of D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs, who delivered a statement from Bowser.

“As Mayor of Washington, D.C., I congratulate Empowerment Liberation Cathedral as you join the United Church of Christ (UCC) family and install Bishop Alyson Abrams as pastor,” the statement says. “As you gather to celebrate this momentous occasion, may both pastor and congregation be inspired to even higher heights of achievement and service to our communities,” the mayor’s statement says.

The Capital Pride Alliance, the group that organizes D.C.’s annual LGBTQ Pride parade and festival, issued its own statement congratulating Empowerment Liberation Cathedral. The statement mentions that in 2016, Capital Pride honored Bishop Abrams as a Capital Pride Hero “in acknowledgement of her work in the faith community for the acceptance and affirmation of LGBTQ+ Christians.”

ELC spokesperson Keys said the church holds its weekly Sunday services at the Mt. Rainier Arts Center at 3311 Rhode Island Ave., Mt. Rainier, Md.

He said a nonprofit community services organization created by ELC called Empowerment Justice Center, is located at 1015 15th Street, N.W., Room 653 in D.C. The church office is also at that location, Keys said. 

Further information about church services and events can be obtained by contacting ELC at 202-798-4371 or at empowermentliberationcathedral.org.

But Keys said the church’s location in Maryland had not been updated on the website, which lists its former location in Lanham, Md., rather than its current location in Mt. Rainier.

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Virginia

Va. lieutenant governor misgenders Danica Roem

Manassas Democrat is first trans person elected to state Senate

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Virginia Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears speaks at CPAC in 2023. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Virginia Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears on Monday misgendered state Sen. Danica Roem (D-Manassas) on the Virginia Senate floor.

WVTF Richmond Bureau Chief Brad Kutner in an X post said Earle-Sears, who is a Republican, referred to Roem, who is a transgender woman, as “sir” during a debate on House Bill 964, which would allow attorneys to serve as the executive director of the Virginia Board of Medicine. 

Kutner said the Senate went “recess twice after reportedly ‘Sears refused to apologize.'”

“I’m not here to upset anyone, I’m here to do the job the people of Virginia have called me to do,” Earle-Sears later said, according to Kutner.

Roem in 2018 became the first trans person seated in a state legislature in the country when she assumed her seat in the Virginia House of Delegates.

Voters in the 30th Senate District last November elected her to the Senate. Roem is the first trans person seated in the chamber.

The Washington Blade on Monday reached out to Roem, but she declined comment.

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