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From surviving ‘Don’t Ask’ to Space Force: An epic journey for Gen. Lauderback

Lesbian flag officer manages intel for newly minted service

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Gen. Leah Lauderback is director of intelligence for the Space Force. (Photo courtesy of the USAF)

You might not know it, but there’s a role for the U.S. Space Force in Afghanistan.

It could well be one of the many topics Maj. Gen. Leah Lauderback, director of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance for Space Force, is briefed on each morning when she comes into her office at the Pentagon.

Lauderback, speaking last week with the Washington Blade, said that speaks to the role of the newly minted service as primarily a “space-enabling capability.”

“You can’t do anything with your iPhone as an example, with your computer, with the GPS in your car without those space-enabling capabilities,” Lauderback said. “And so that truly is our role in Afghanistan, to support the United States contingent that is there today, and that’s through our GPS capabilities or communications capabilities.”

Lauderback assumed the role as head of the office overseeing intelligence for Space Force last year shortly after the previous administration created it. With a record of intelligence-gathering roles in her three decades of serving in the Air Force, the sister service to Space Force, Lauderback is a natural fit for the crucial position in the new service.

Still technically serving in the Air Force, Lauderback said she intends to leave the role next summer for a Guardian (the term bestowed to service members in the Space Force), and was chosen for the current role because she was a senior intelligence officer at the U.S. Space Command. Lauderback, nonetheless, said she was eager to take on those duties for a new service because she found the work “fascinating.”

“There is a lot of activity that is happening on orbit, and it’s not all good activity, right?” she said. “There are threats that present themselves almost on a daily basis. And so we were very busy, one, standing up to command at that time but then doing operational missions on a daily basis to compete with other near-peer competitors out there as well as to mitigate areas where we were in trouble from a threat perspective.”

One example Lauderback identified as a recent achievement came last year when a Russian satellite got very close to a U.S. satellite, and Gen. John Raymond, now commanding officer of U.S. Space Force, was able to push out into the media that the United States was concerned it was a Russian weapons system. The incident, Lauderback said, demonstrated U.S. capability to “call out the bad behavior and unprofessional behavior we thought of Russia.”

For an openly gay woman like Lauderback, the role as head of intelligence for a U.S. service holds special significance. Such a position would have been out of reach for an openly gay person in years past, when more LGBTQ people were closeted and the pervasive view was employing them in intelligence roles would be a national security threat if they were blackmailed.

Lauderback, who served when the military asked applicants whether or not they were homosexual and barred those who responded “yes,” recognizes the importance of an openly gay woman now heading up an entire office of intelligence for a U.S. military service.

“It’s really very significant that the fact that I can be out means that nobody can hold this over my head and I can serve openly and be the best intelligence officer that I could possibly be,” she said.

But it took a while to get there. Lauderback graduated from college in 1993, when “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” became the law of the land, and has had assignments in the military since that time as she continued to pursue advanced degrees. Under that law, Lauderback had to keep quiet about being a lesbian or risk being discharged.

“Certainly, when I first came out — and I was really enjoying my job, and I wanted to make the Air Force a career — but every day it was a concern, and absolutely made me untruthful at times, which is so embarrassing to say and humiliating at this point,” Lauderback said. “I had to lie at times. I was still hidden as a gay member in the service, but I trudged through that.”

Lauderback said during the years under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” she became “less and less paranoid” and was able to find a friend at every base where she was stationed that she could trust with the truth about her sexual orientation. Those friends, she said, supported her on base and when she went on deployment.

Things changed in September 2011. After former President Obama signed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal, the U.S. military certified it was ready to allow openly gay people in its ranks. The long ban was over and Lauderback was no longer forced to keep being gay a secret.

“I, like many others I’m sure, wept a little bit,” she said. “We had the conversations with friends about how different this was going to be, and it was very different. Immediately I felt the weight off my shoulders, immediately I knew that I had recourse if I felt that I was going to be discriminated against at any point in time, I felt that I knew I could go and make a complaint about things.”

Since that time, Lauderback married her spouse, Brenda Hall. The two have been happily married for years, Lauderback said.

Brenda Hall and Leah Lauderback (Photo courtesy Air Force)

But nearly 10 years since “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was lifted, and shortly after transgender service members were allowed to begin service after President Biden reversed the previous administration’s ban, Lauderback said issues for LGBTQ service members remain and many gay service members are still afraid to come out.

For that reason, Lauderback in March helped set up the LGBTQ Initiatives Team for the Air Force and Space Force, one of the barrier-analysis working groups ordered by senior leadership. Five months later, Lauderback said the task force continues to have conversations with leadership about policies, such as wording and terminology, that make people feel unwelcome in service.

“This barrier-analysis working group is really kind of grassroots,” Lauderback said. “While there are a few of us that are of higher rank on the team, it is mostly made up of folks that are much younger, have very different experiences than we do. And so, they are uncovering what are those barriers, those unconscious biases that folks have … and identifying those areas that we can start knocking out.”

One example of a change Lauderback said the team would “love to see” is the use of pronouns in some of the signature blocks in communications from service members.

“It is well known and well practiced outside of the military in the public sphere, but within the government, I don’t think anybody’s actually brought it up to the senior leadership,” Lauderback said. “If you could use a pronoun, and especially if it’s for transgender members, it could be for women, it could be for somebody who doesn’t have a Westernized name, it was really nice to be able to say, you know, in my signature block ‘she, her, hers.’”

Lauderback said her team is working through that change and thinks “we’ll be successful at some point.”

Meanwhile, Lauderback continues to wear her main hat as head of intelligence for Space Force, for which she manages the delivery of intelligence to the secretary of the Air Force and the chief of space operations and ensures analysts are adhering to the framework for rules in gathering intelligence.

“There’s just a lot of two steps forward, one step back type of potential, where you need to have facility space or you need to have — if it’s IT equipment and things like that,” she said. “And you have to hire people. So, we’re still making all of that happen in our directorate and across the entire enterprise, but I think we’re in a really good position, and certainly for the Space Force as it continues to mature, continues to grow.”

Space is made up of, well, mostly empty space, as any scientist will tell you. However, that adage is becoming incrementally less true as entrepreneurs, such as Elon Musk, continue to launch private satellites into orbit in numbers that could surpass the nearly 2,000 belonging to the United States. Starlink, the SpaceX program that manages its satellites, has 300 satellites in orbit — and has signaled plans for an eventual goal to deploy a total of 30,000 or more.

Lauderback, asked if that was a threat or should be welcomed, downplayed any concern of private companies surpassing U.S. government presence in space, saying the entrepreneurial endeavors would lower overall costs for launching satellites.

“It’s very much something to be welcomed, and we see it as a positive,” Lauderback said. “And I know Gen. Raymond as the CSO has remarked on this a number of times. What happens when you have commercial entities like this one, they’re able to operate sometimes at a much faster pace than we can in the government, so we want to be able to take advantage of that and then secondly, they truly drive the price point down for us.”

Launching astronauts into space remains an exciting event, including the prospect of sending the next human spaceflight to the Moon, and the first-ever landing on Mars. Lauderback, however, said she couldn’t comment directly because those projects are part of NASA’s domain.

“I would say, from my perspective as an intelligence officer,” Lauderback said, “when there is more exploration in space, as there has been on every other domain — the air domain or land domain or the maritime domain — the Department of Defense needs to be prepared to protect and defend our capabilities … so as an intelligence officer that’s really part of my job is to watch what it is that other countries might be doing or what their desires and their intentions are.”

While transporting human beings to other worlds continues to be an aspiration, questions have arisen recently about whether other worlds are sending living beings to Earth amid new interest in government reports on UFOs. U.S. intelligence over the summer revealed 140 sightings by American military pilots between 2004 and 2021 — and the Pentagon has no idea what they’re seeing.

Lauderback, asked what she makes of the findings given her position as head of space intelligence, declined to comment directly on what she makes of the phenomena, citing an ongoing study in other military services, although she quibbled with the use of the term “UFOs” to describe them.

“I would say it’s not UFOs, but it’s unidentified aerial phenomena,” Lauderback said. “So I key in on the term aerial in that case. I’ll leave it to the folks that are operating in the air domain and we’re working in the space domain, so I think that’s about all that I would be able to tell you.”

Luke Schleusener, president of Out of National Security, an affinity group for LGBTQ staffers in national security, said the absence of any backlash to an out lesbian in Lauderback’s position “tells us how far much of the country has come in the decade since the repeal of DADT.”

“She’ll bring her whole self to work,” Schleusener said. “At a time of ‘resurgent great power competition,’ having diverse teams and diverse leaders will make the Space Force more effective. It’s also a matter of our government and our military best serving the nation when our public servants and service members reflect those they’re sworn to serve, at all levels.”

U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Leah Lauderback, Col. Carmelia Scott-Skillern and Lt. Col. Donna Sims pose for a photo with other attendees during a Sisters in Arms forum Oct. 25, 2017, at the Zone 1 Chapel. The forum allowed female leaders to speak to junior service women about mentorship opportunities and accomplishing goals. (U.S. Army photo by Justin Graff, 401st Army Field Support Brigade PAO)
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Dance parties: End-of-summer fun or monkeypox super-spreaders?

Health officials urge precautions as cases reach 12,689

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Health officials are urging precautions on monkeypox amid end of the summer gay dance parties. (Blade file photo by Daniel Truitt)

This is the time of year when gay men say farewell to summer with trips to the beach and resort towns for festivities, parties, and other revelry consisting of shirtless dancing and various forms of intimate contact — now a potential health risk as super-spreader events amid a monkeypox outbreak that continues to spread among men who have sex with men.

With the number of reported cases of monkeypox in the United States reaching 12,689 and demand for vaccines failing to keep up with supply, questions remain about taking precautions like those seen during the coronavirus epidemic as health experts and event organizers point to existing guidance to ensure a reasonable degree of safety.

Wes Combs, president of the CAMP Rehoboth board of directors, said his organization from the beginning of the monkeypox outbreak has been engaging with health officials at the state level in Delaware about what people should be looking for in terms of symptoms, as well as information about how people in high-risk categories can sign up to get vaccinations.

“As is everywhere in the country right now, where LGBTQ communities have big populations people are concerned, so we have received a number of calls about more information about monkeypox, about whether or not people can get vaccinated at CAMP Rehoboth,” Combs said.

A monkeypox town hall hosted by CAMP Rehoboth in conjunction with Delaware state health officials took place Tuesday, providing an opportunity to offer the latest information and answer questions about the monkeypox outbreak. CAMP Rehoboth announced it has been identified as one of two additional sites for vaccinations in addition to what the Department of Health provides from its health centers.

Rehoboth is among the many places in the United States where gay men are expected to flock to celebrate, along with Fire Island and Provincetown on the East Coast, making vaccinations against monkeypox in high demand at a time when the Biden administration is facing criticism for not making them more widely accessible. (Gay cruises for the summer, however, may not be among these events. A Carnival Cruise Line spokesperson said the charters team has no LGBTQ cruises coming up.)

Brad Perkins, chief medical officer at Karius, Inc., when asked about appropriate guidance for these end-of-summer events advised “trying to encourage community awareness and responsibility to isolate yourself and not infect others if you believe that you’ve been exposed or know that you’re infected.”

“But the longer game here is that we don’t want this disease to become endemic in the United States,” Perkins added. “And I think there’s a short-term threat, there’s a long term threat, both of them are really important [and] I think should weigh on decisions like the one you’re suggesting people need to make.”

Perkins said Karius, which works on advanced molecular technology for diagnosis of infectious diseases, is seeking to apply microbial cell-free DNA technology to create monkeypox tests earlier than options currently available, which require a sample from already developed skin lesions. The proposed testing has detected the virus in hospital patients, Perkins said, and following research over the course of the next few months may be available on an outpatient basis.

In Rehoboth, Combs said CAMP Rehoboth as a result of work with state officials is set to obtain 200 doses of JYNNEOS vaccine and, per guidance from the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, plans to distribute them in a two-dose regimen, with the first dose set for Aug. 23 and second one on Sept. 28. As of Tuesday, Combs said CAMP Rehoboth has already scheduled appointments for 135 shots in the two-doze regimen, which is more than two-thirds of the total available shots.

“We are in talks with the state to [see] if they are able to get additional doses to create a larger vaccination site that’s capable of having more people vaccinated,” Combs added. “Right now, it’s one person every five minutes — over the span of from nine o’clock to three — and that’s the rate based on the number of doses. But if we can get more, we will do more, and we tell that to the state.”

Many of these end-of-summer events consist of gay men engaging in shirtless dancing in close proximity with each other as well as other intimate contact, creating ideal opportunities for a disease transmitted by skin-to-skin contact.

Be honest: While participants aren’t engaging in sexual activity as part of these events per se, they can lead to sexual encounters in the aftermath with a causal partner (or causal partners should these participants elect to have group sex to close out the night).

The CDC has guidance on its website for safer sex and social gatherings amid the monkeypox outbreak, which suggests festivals, events, and concerts where attendees are fully clothed and unlikely to share skin-to-skin contact are safer, as well as being mindful of activities (even kissing) that might spread monkeypox. Enclosed spaces, such as private and public sex parties where intimate and often anonymous sexual contact with multiple partners occurs, the CDC says, may have a higher likelihood of spreading monkeypox.

During the COVID epidemic, many group events required proof of vaccination and were even cancelled in an effort to mitigate the spread of the dangerous and potentially fatal disease. The same, however, cannot be said about events during the monkeypox outbreak, where the disease can be painful, but not fatal, and the availability of vaccines has not kept up with demand.

Combs said he’s unaware of any event being cancelled in Rehoboth due to monkeypox and, in fact, its biggest fundraiser of the year, the annual Sundance dance party is on track to happen over Labor Day weekend. Additionally, Combs said he cannot foresee a proof of vaccination requirement “largely because the availability of vaccines is so difficult to get right now, and there’s…high demand and low supply.”

“Certainly we understand what worked well with COVID, and that was getting information education out to the public about how this virus is transmitted and providing as much access to vaccines as possible,” Combs said. “So the one thing that is different is the number of vaccines available seems to be much lower, so I know that there’s lots of pressure being placed on the government at all levels to ensure that they get more supply to meet the demand that appears to be there.”

Perkins, asked whether precautions taken during COVID would be appropriate for monkeypox, drew a distinction between the two diseases, pointing out “the sort of positive take on monkeypox is that we’re somewhat prepared for this threat, mostly through efforts to prepare for smallpox.”

“Certainly, the most relevant one I think the community at this point is if you think you have been exposed, or, particularly if you’ve been exposed and you’re ill, getting vaccine, accessing the vaccine that’s available, or at least discussing being vaccinated as prophylaxis or at least, if not prophylaxis, prevention of infection, at least decreasing the severity of illness if it does occur,” Perkins said. “I think as is you know, it’s one of the good news stories of the efforts that have been taken to date.”

Although to date the transmission of monkeypox has been overwhelmingly among men who have sex with men, Perkins predicted that could change.

“In fact, we’re starting to see more cases outside that circle,” Perkins said. “I would expect that that will increase unless we control this epidemic. I think that will be a certainty moving forward that we’ll see a broader distribution of cases, because certainly the transmission of this infection, unlike HIV…includes routes of transmission that are non-sexual.”

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Court rules transgender people have legal protections under ADA

Judge writes gender dysphoria not excluded under law

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A federal appeals court has become the first to rule transgender people have protections under ADA.

Transgender people have additional protections from discrimination under federal law for having a disability if they experience gender dysphoria, the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday in a consequential decision that marks a first for a federal appeals court.

A three-judge panel on the Fourth Circuit, which has jurisdiction over Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina, determined the Americans with Disability Act prohibits discrimination against people with gender dysphoria — despite explicit language in the law excluding “transsexualism” and “gender identity disorder” as protected classes.

U.S. Circuit Court Judge Diana Gribbon Motz, an appointee of Bill Clinton, wrote in a 56-page decision gender dysphoria doesn’t fall under the those two categories in the law because “gender dysphoria is not a gender identity disorder.”

“[T]he ADA excludes from its protection anything falling within the plain meaning of ‘gender identity disorders,’ as that term was understood ‘at the time of its enactment,'” Motz writes. “But nothing in the ADA, then or now, compels the conclusion that gender dysphoria constitutes a ‘gender identity disorder’ excluded from ADA protection.”

As a result, the appeals court remanded the case for additional review to the lower trial court, which had come to the opposite conclusion and determined transgender people aren’t covered under ADA.

The case was filed by Kesha Williams, a transgender woman with gender dysphoria who spent six months incarcerated in the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center. Although she was initially housed in a women’s prison, she was transferred to a man’s prison when officials learned she was transgender and was faced with delays in getting transition-related care as well as harassment from fellow inmates and prison officials.

Among the group advocating in the case for additional protections under ADA were LGBTQ groups, including GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders and the National Center for Lesbian Rights, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief before the Fourth Circuit.

Jennifer Levi, GLAD’s transgender rights project director, said in a statement the decision is a “huge win” for transgender advocates because “there is no principled reason to exclude transgender people from our federal civil rights laws.”

“It’s incredibly significant for a federal appeals court to affirm that the protections in our federal disability rights laws extend to transgender people,” Levi said. “It would turn disability law upside down to exclude someone from its protection because of having a stigmatized medical condition. This opinion goes a long way toward removing social and cultural barriers that keep people with treatable, but misunderstood, medical conditions from being able to thrive.”

The idea transgender people are covered under ADA has been controversial even among transgender people. On one hand, reading the law to include transgender people gives them added legal protections. On the other hand, transgender advocates have been fighting for years to make the case that being transgender isn’t a mental disorder. The American Psychiatric Association removed “gender identity disorder” as a type of mental disorder with the publication of DSM–5 in 2013, replacing it with “gender dysphoria.”

Although the Fourth Circuit is the first federal appeals court to rule transgender people have protections under the Americans with Disabilities Act, other courts have come to the same determination. In 2017, a federal trial judge in Pennsylvania ruled transgender people are able to sue in cases of discrimination under ADA despite the exclusions under the law.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post misattributed and mischaracterized the change to DSM-5. The Washington Blade regrets the error.

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Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania Governor bans conversion therapy using state funds

Tom Wolf signs executive order directing agencies to discourage practice

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Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf (D). (Photo courtesy of the Office of the Governor of Pennsylvania)

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf, (D) signed an executive order Tuesday that banned use of state funds for conversion therapy and also directs state agencies to discourage conversion therapy. The order will also put measures in place to ensure state offices implement culturally appropriate care and services to LGBTQ constituents.

“Conversion therapy is a traumatic practice based on junk science that actively harms the people it supposedly seeks to treat,” said Governor Wolf in a press statement. “This discriminatory practice is widely rejected by medical and scientific professionals and has been proven to lead to worse mental health outcomes for LGBTQIA+ youth subjected to it. This is about keeping our children safe from bullying and extreme practices that harm them.”

Advocates from The Trevor Project attended Tuesday’s signing of the executive order, commemorating it as a victory for LGBTQ young people in the state. On Wednesday, The Trevor Project will be hosting a town hall meeting in Philadelphia to discuss the impact of the executive order with community members.

“Taxpayers’ dollars must never again be spent on the dangerous and discredited practice of conversion ‘therapy’ — which has been consistently associated with increased suicide risk and an estimated $9.23 billion economic burden in the U.S.,” said Troy Stevenson, Senior Campaign Manager for Advocacy and Government Affairs of The Trevor Project.

“Thank you Gov. Wolf for your leadership and for taking bold action to protect and affirm LGBTQ young people across the Commonwealth. We urge the state legislature to pass comprehensive state-wide protections and for governors across the nation to follow the Keystone State’s lead in ending this abusive practice.”

After the signing the Governor also noted:

“The Trevor Project’s Youth Mental Health Survey showed that rates of negative mental health outcomes among LGBTQIA+ youth are much lower in communities, schools and families that are accepting and supportive of LGBTQIA+ people. That’s why I signed this executive order to protect Pennsylvanians from conversion therapy and the damage it does to our communities. Because all of our youth deserve to grow up in a commonwealth that accepts and respects them.

“I want LGBTQIA+ youth and individuals across Pennsylvania to know that I stand with you. I see you, I respect you and I support you. My administration will continue to support policies to keep children safe from bullying and harmful practices.”

“We have worked tirelessly over the last year to collaboratively get this executive order drafted, through discussions with advocates, parents, and many stakeholders. With this action, the practice of conversion therapy has its days numbered in Pennsylvania​,” said Rafael Alvarez Febo, executive director of the Pennsylvania Commission on LGBTQ Affairs. “Young people should never be punished for being who they are and that’s what socalled conversion therapy does, while causing sometimes irreparable trauma to individuals.” 

With the signing of this executive order, Pennsylvania is now the 27th state in the country to enact statewide protections against the practice of conversion therapy.

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