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91-year-old gay veteran sues to update discharge to ‘honorable’

Spires discharged in 1948 after being seen at off-base Halloween party

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H. Ed Spires, on left. (Photo courtesy Yale Law School Veterans Legal Services Clinic)

H. Ed Spires, on left. (Photo courtesy Yale Law School Veterans Legal Services Clinic)

A 91-year-old veteran discharged from the Air Force in 1948 for being gay has filed a federal lawsuit to upgrade his discharge status from “undesirable” to honorable.

The lawsuit, filed Friday on behalf of H. Edward Spires by law student interns at the New Haven, Conn., based Yale Law School Veterans Legal Services Clinic, contends the service’s refusal to change the “undesirable” designation violates the Administrative Procedure Act and the right to due process under the 5th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

“For nearly seventy years, the United States Air Force has denied Plaintiff H. Edward Spires the dignity of an honorable discharge because he is gay,” the complaint says. “At age 91, Mr. Spires asks the military to upgrade his discharge from ‘Undesirable’ for reason of ‘homosexuality’ to ‘Honorable,’ to reflect his faithful service to his country and his equality in the eyes of the country he served.”

“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which was enacted in 1993, prohibited openly gay, lesbian and bisexual people from serving in the armed forces, but Congress repealed the law under the Obama administration. Spires was discharged prior to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” under the military’s administrative ban against gay people in the armed forces, which allowed investigations into a service member’s sexual orientation.

Upon enlisting in 1946, H. Edward Spires served as a chaplain’s assistant at Lackland Air Force Base and, among other things, helped the chaplain write letters home to distressed parents and set up the chapel for services.

But in 1948, after being seen by other service members at an off-base Halloween party, Spires’ command accused him of being gay. They allegedly subjected him to days of interrogation, pressured him to out other members of his unit and threatened to put him in jail. After refusing to cooperate, Spires was discharged from the Air Force with an “undesirable” discharge for homosexuality.

David Rosenberg, Spires’ spouse David Rosenberg and a U.S. Army veteran, said in a statement the current record doesn’t reflect his spouse’s contribution to the country.

“After being cast out of the Air Force for being a gay man, Ed rarely spoke of his military service or his discharge, humiliated by the Air Force’s labeling of his service as undesirable,” Rosenberg said. “For the past decades he has been made to feel ashamed, despite the fact that he served his country honorably.”

According to the lawsuit, Spires is in bad health and almost died weeks ago while in the intensive care unit for pneumonia. Upon his death, Spires wants to be buried with military honors, but that can only happen with a discharge upgrade.

Erin Baldwin, one of the law student interns representing Mr. Spires at the Yale Law School Veterans Legal Services Clinic, said in a statement the time has come for the Air Force to make the change for her client.

“By granting Mr. Spires justice, the Air Force will finally send the message to Mr. Spires and all veterans who received undesirable discharges for homosexuality, despite their faithful service to our country, that the honor of their service does not depend upon their sexual orientation,” Baldwin said.

Under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” upgrade of discharges for homosexuality was prohibited, but after the law was changed, the Pentagon initiated a process to upgrade the discharges. Since that time, the lawsuit says, Spires has submitted two discharge upgrade applications to the Air Force board — one in 2014 and another in 2016.

But the Air Force denied both applications, the complaint says, on the grounds it cannot locate his records due to a 1973 fire. In fall 2016, the Air Force apparently elected to reconsider its most recent denial, the complaint says, but the service hasn’t indicated by when it will complete that process.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said in a statement he has urged the Pentagon to expedite the review of the case because the record should reflect Spires “served our country with dignity and distinction.”

“While Mr. Spires is receiving expert help with his case, there may be thousands of others across the country who are encountering the same difficulties,” Blumenthal said. “The veterans who served during a period of time when discrimination based on sexual orientation was the most severe also face the obstacle of lost or destroyed records. This is no excuse for denying them their right to an honorable discharge, and the Department of Defense needs to ensure they receive fair consideration for their service to our nation.”

Hillary Clinton made a campaign promise of upgrading the paperwork for gay, lesbian and bisexual service members discharged because of their sexual orientation from designations “other than honorable” to “honorable.” Donald Trump didn’t speak on the issue.

Current policy at the Defense Department is to evaluate requests for upgrades for discharges for being gay on a case-by-case basis and to grant upgrades provided a discharge was based solely on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” or a similar policy and there were no aggravating factors in the record, such as misconduct.

In a letter dated Sept. 20, acting Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel & Readiness Peter Levine assured service members and veterans discharged under the military’s gay ban the Defense Department would assist them.

“Whether you seek to have a document revised, a discharge updated, or seek something else you believe was wrongly denied you, we have skilled, caring people and fair and effective policies to assist,” Levine writes. “If you received a discharge under less than honorable conditions and believe this is unjust, file a petition, providing whatever you can in support of the request. The Department has a demonstrably strong record of addressing these matters, and I assure you that we will continue this tradition. I know that we cannot promise an outcome, but we do guarantee a fair and effective process.”

The Air Force declined to comment on the lawsuit and deferred to the Justice Department, which also declined to comment.

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Bill to ban conversion therapy dies in Puerto Rico Senate committee

Advocacy group describes lawmakers as cowards

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Puerto Rico Pulse nightclub victims, gay news, Washington Blade

 

A Puerto Rico Senate committee on Thursday killed a bill that would have banned so-called conversion therapy on the island.

Members of the Senate Community Initiatives, Mental Health and Addiction Committee voted against Senate Bill 184 by an 8-7 vote margin. Three senators abstained.

Amárilis Pagán Jiménez, a spokesperson for Comité Amplio para la Búsqueda de la Equidad, a coalition of Puerto Rican human rights groups, in a statement sharply criticized the senators who opposed the measure.

“If they publicly recognize that conversion therapies are abuse, if they even voted for a similar bill in the past, if the hearings clearly established that the bill was well-written and was supported by more than 78 professional and civil entities and that it did not interfere with freedom of religion or with the right of fathers and mothers to raise their children, voting against it is therefore one of two things: You are either a hopeless coward or you have the same homophobic and abusive mentality of the hate groups that oppose the bill,” said Pagán in a statement.

Thursday’s vote comes against the backdrop of continued anti-LGBTQ discrimination and violence in Puerto Rico.

Six of the 44 transgender and gender non-conforming people who were reported murdered in the U.S. in 2020 were from Puerto Rico.

A state of emergency over gender-based violence that Gov. Pedro Pierluisi declared earlier this year is LGBTQ-inclusive. Then-Gov. Ricardo Rosselló in 2019 signed an executive order that banned conversion therapy for minors in Puerto Rico.

“These therapies lack scientific basis,” he said. “They cause pain and unnecessary suffering.”

Rosselló issued the order less than two weeks after members of the New Progressive Party, a pro-statehood party  he chaired at the time, blocked a vote in the Puerto Rico House of Representatives on a bill that would have banned conversion therapy for minors in the U.S. commonwealth. Seven out of the 11 New Progressive Party members who are on the Senate Community Initiatives, Mental Health and Addiction Committee voted against SB 184.

“It’s appalling. It’s shameful that the senators didn’t have the strength and the courage that our LGBTQ youth have, and it’s to be brave and to defend our dignity and our humanity as people who live on this island,” said Pedro Julio Serrano, founder of Puerto Rico Para [email protected], a Puerto Rican LGBTQ rights group, in a video. “It’s disgraceful that the senators decided to vote down this measure that would prevent child abuse.”

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Undocumented LGBTQ immigrants turn to Fla. group for support

Survivors Pathway is based in Miami

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Survivors Pathway works with undocumented LGBTQ immigrants and other vulnerable groups in South Florida. (Photo courtesy of Francesco Duberli)

 

MIAMI – The CEO of an organization that provides support to undocumented LGBTQ immigrants says the Biden administration has given many of his clients a renewed sense of hope.

“People definitely feel much more relaxed,” Survivors Pathway CEO Francesco Duberli told the Washington Blade on March 5 during an interview at his Miami office. “There’s much hope. You can tell … the conversation’s shifted.”

Duberli — a gay man from Colombia who received asylum in the U.S. because of anti-gay persecution he suffered in his homeland — founded Survivors Pathway in 2011. The Miami-based organization currently has 23 employees.

Survivors Pathway CEO Francesco Duberli at his office in Miami on March 5, 2021. (Washington Blade photo by Yariel Valdés González)

Duberli said upwards of 50 percent of Survivors Pathway’s clients are undocumented. Duberli told the Blade that many of them are survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking and victims of hate crimes based on their sexual orientation and gender identity.

“Part of the work that we have done for years is for us to become the bridge between the communities and law enforcement or the justice system in the United States,” said Duberli. “We have focused on creating a language that helps us to create this communication between the undocumented immigrant community and law enforcement, the state attorney’s office and the court.”

“The fear is not only about immigration,” he added. “There are many other factors that immigrants bring with them that became barriers in terms of wanting to or trying to access the justice system in the United States.”

Duberli spoke with the Blade roughly a week after the Biden administration began to allow into the U.S. asylum seekers who had been forced to pursue their cases in Mexico under the previous White House’s “Remain in Mexico” policy.

The administration this week began to reunite migrant children who the Trump administration separated from their parents. Title 42, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rule that closed the Southern border to most asylum seekers and migrants because of the coronavirus pandemic, remains in place.

Duberli told the Blade that Survivors Pathway advised some of their clients not to apply for asylum or seek visa renewals until after the election. Duberli conceded “the truth of the matter is that the laws haven’t changed that much” since Biden became president.

Survivors Pathway has worked with LGBTQ people in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody in South Florida. American Civil Liberties Union National Political Director Ronald Newman in an April 28 letter it sent to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas called for the closure of the Krome North Service Processing Center in Miami, the Glades County Detention Center near Lake Okeechobee and 37 other ICE detention centers across the country.

The road leading to the Krome North Service Processing Center in Miami on June 7, 2020. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Survivors Pathway responded to trans woman’s murder in 2020

Survivors Pathway has created a project specifically for trans Latina women who Duberli told the Blade don’t know they can access the judicial system.

Duberli said Survivors Pathway works with local judges and police departments to ensure crime victims don’t feel “discriminated, or outed or mistreated or revictimized” because of their gender identity. Survivors Pathway also works with Marytrini, a drag queen from Cuba who is the artistic producer at Azúcar, a gay nightclub near Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood.

Marytrini and Duberli are among those who responded to the case of Yunieski “Yuni” Carey Herrera, a trans woman and well-known activist and performer from Cuba who was murdered inside her downtown Miami apartment last November. Carey’s boyfriend, who had previously been charged with domestic violence, has been charged with murder.

“That was an ongoing situation,” noted Duberli. “It’s not the only case. There are lots of cases like that.”

Duberli noted a gay man in Miami Beach was killed by his partner the same week.

“There are lots of crimes that happen to our community that never gets to the news,” he said. “We got those cases here because of what we do.”

Yunieski “Yuni” Carey Herrera was murdered in her downtown Miami apartment in November 2020. (Photo courtesy of social media)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Patrick O’Connell, acclaimed AIDS activist, dies at 67

Played key role in creating red ribbon for awareness

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Activist Patrick O’Connell was instrumental in creating the red ribbon to promote AIDS awareness. (Photo courtesy of Allen Frame; courtesy Visual AIDS)

Patrick O’Connell, a founding director of the New York City-based AIDS advocacy group Visual AIDS who played a lead role in developing the internationally recognized display of an inverted, V-shaped red ribbon as a symbol of AIDS advocacy, died on March 23 at a Manhattan hospital from AIDS-related causes, according to the New York Times. He was 67.

Visual AIDS said in a statement that O’Connell held the title of founding director of the organization from 1980 to 1995.

During those years, according to the statement and others who knew him, O’Connell was involved in the group’s widely recognized and supported efforts to use art and artist’s works to advocate in support of people with HIV/AIDS and efforts to curtail the epidemic that had a devastating impact on the art world.

Thanks to a grant from the Art Matters foundation, Visual AIDS was able to retain O’Connell as its first paid staff member in 1990, the group said in its statement.

“Armed with a fax machine and an early Macintosh computer, Patrick helped Visual AIDS grow from a volunteer group to a sustainable non-profit organization,” the statement says. “A passionate spokesperson for the organization, he helped projects like Day Without Art, Night Without Light, and the Red Ribbon reach thousands of people and organizations across the world,” the group says in its statement.

“We were living in a war zone,” the statement quoted O’Connell as saying in a 2011 interview with the Long Island newspaper Newsday. “But it was like a war that was some kind of deep secret only we knew about,” O’Connell said in the interview. “Thousands were dying of AIDS. We felt we had to respond with a visible expression,” he told the newspaper.

With O’Connell’s help, Visual AIDS in 1989 organized the first annual Day Without Art in which dozens of galleries and museums in New York and other cities covered art works with black cloths to symbolize the mourning of those who died of AIDS. Among those participating were the Brooklyn Museum, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which replaced a Picasso painting with a “somber informational placard,” according to the New York Times.

In 1990 O’Connell helped Visual AIDS organize the first Night Without Light, which was held at the time of World AIDS Day. New York City’s skyscraper buildings, bridges, monuments, and Broadway theaters turned off their lights for 15 minutes to commemorate people who lost their lives to AIDS, the New York Times reported.

In the kickoff of its Red Ribbon Project in 1991, McConnell helped organize volunteers to join “ribbon bees” in which thousands of the ribbons were cut and folded for distribution around the city, the Times reports. Those who knew McConnell said he also arranged for his team of volunteers to call Broadway theaters and producers of the upcoming Tony Awards television broadcast to have participants and theater goers display the red ribbons on their clothes.

Among those displaying a red ribbon on his label at the Tony Awards broadcast was actor Jeremy Irons, who was one of the hosts. In later years, large numbers of celebrities followed the practice of wearing the red ribbon, and in 1993 the U.S. Postal Service issued a red ribbon stamp.

The Times reports that O’Connell was born and raised in Manhattan, where he attended Fordham Preparatory School and later graduated from Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., in 1973 with a bachelor’s degree in history. According to Visual AIDS, O’Connell served as director of the Hallwalls arts center in Buffalo, N.Y. from 1977 to 1978 before returning to New York City to work for a gallery called Artists Space.

The Times reports that O’Connell learned in the middle 1980s that he had contracted AIDS and began a regimen of early AIDS treatment with a cocktail of over 30 pills a day. His involvement with Visual AIDS, which began in 1989, ended on an active basis in 1995 when his health worsened, the Times reports.

As one of the last remaining survivors of his New York contemporaries who had HIV beginning in the 1980s, O’Connell continued in his strong support for AIDS-related causes through 2000s and beyond, people who knew him said.
Visual AIDS says it is gathering remembrances and photos for a tribute post for O’Connell on its website. It has invited people to share their memories of him by sending written contributions and images via email to: [email protected].

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