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HIV-positive D.C. attorney commissioned as officer with U.S. Army National Guard

Longtime National Guard member successfully challenged military HIV policy

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Lambda Legal CEO Kevin Jennings, at left, and Baraq Stein, at right, the partner of First Lt. Nicholas Harrison, place a lieutenant’s rank insignia on each side of Harrison’s uniform during a commissioning ceremony in which Harrison was promoted from sergeant to First Lieutenant. (Photo by John Jack Photography)

Gay D.C. attorney Nicholas Harrison, a longtime member of the U.S. Army National Guard, was officially commissioned as a First Lieutenant in the D.C. Army National Guard at an Aug. 5 ceremony.

The ceremony at the D.C. National Guard Armory located next to RFK Stadium took place a little over a year after Harrison, who was diagnosed with HIV in 2012, successfully challenged the military’s longstanding policy of banning soldiers with HIV from becoming commissioned officers in a lawsuit initially filed in 2018.

In what LGBTQ and AIDS activists consider a landmark ruling, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia handed down a decision in April 2022 declaring the military’s HIV restrictions unconstitutional. The decision ordered the U.S. Department of Defense to discontinue its policy of refusing to deploy and commission as officers members of the military with HIV if they are asymptomatic and otherwise physically capable of serving.

Two months after that ruling, the Biden administration announced it would not contest the court ruling in an appeal, and a short time later U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin issued a memorandum announcing changes in the military policy that would allow members of the military with HIV to be deployed and become officers in accordance with the court ruling.

The memorandum states that individuals “who have been identified as HIV positive, are asymptomatic, and who have clinically confirmed undetectable viral load will have no restrictions applied to their deployability or to their ability to commission while a service member solely on the basis of their HIV-positive status.”

Kevin Jennings, CEO of Lambda Legal, the LGBTQ litigation organization that represented Harrison in his lawsuit and who attended Harrison’s commissioning ceremony, called the court ruling and the Biden administration’s decision not to appeal the ruling an important advancement in efforts to remove barriers to people with HIV who wish to serve in the military.

“Today is a historic day in Washington, D.C., as we witness the commissioning of Nick Harrison,” Jennings and Lambda Legal Senior Attorney Kara Ingelhart said in a statement. “Although the journey to wearing his officer’s bars took several years, Nick’s perseverance, along with his legal team and other involved service members, helped to realize his dream of becoming an officer in the District of Columbia Army National Guard,” Jennings and Ingelhart said.

Among the more than 50 people who attended Harrison’s commissioning ceremony were family members, friends, LGBTQ rights advocates, and fellow service members.

Serving as master of ceremonies at the event was Dr. Joshua Fontanez, chair of the board for the Modern Military Association of America, the nation’s largest organization representing LGBTQ military service members, their spouses, family members, and veterans. The association joined Lambda Legal in supporting Harrison’s lawsuit to overturn the military’s HIV policy.

Donald Cravins Jr., the U.S. Under Secretary of Commerce for Minority Business Development, administered the oath of office commissioning Harrison to the rank of First Lieutenant.

And Jennings of Lambda Legal and Baraq Stein, Harrison’s partner, performed the ceremonial “Pinning of Rank” by attaching the lieutenant’s rank insignia on each side of the shoulder of the Army uniform that Harrison was wearing at the ceremony.

“This commissioning ceremony, steeped in long-standing military tradition, is intentionally focused on honoring the network of support and inspiration that brought me to this juncture,” Harrison said in remarks following his official commissioning.

“My own path has been far from conventional, leading me into the heart of a storm that allowed me to become part of a larger narrative – challenging the military’s discriminatory HIV policies through a landmark court case brought by Lambda Legal and the Modern Military Association of America,” he said.

A native of Oklahoma, Harrison joined the U.S. Army in September 2000 at the age of 23, at the time he was about to enter his third year as a student at the University of Central Oklahoma. He said he served for three years as an airborne paratrooper with a Parachute Infantry Regiment in Anchorage, Alaska.

After completing his initial enlistment in the Army, he resumed his university studies while joining the Oklahoma National Guard. He graduated in May 2005 with a bachelor’s degree and “proceeded to Oklahoma City University’s law school,” he told the Blade in a statement.

In March 2006, while enrolled in law school, he was deployed to Afghanistan with the Oklahoma National Guard’s 45th Infantry Division, he recounted in his statement. Upon his return, he said he had to restart his law school studies at the University of Oklahoma in August 2007.

After receiving a law degree and Master of Business Administration degree he was deployed once again, this time to Kuwait and Iraq. “On my return, I passed the bar and began job hunting, which led me to Washington, D.C. in July 2013,” he says in his statement.

In October of 2013, he transferred his National Guard membership from Oklahoma to D.C. by joining the D.C. National Guard, where he was assigned to a military police company with the rank of sergeant, he said. During that same year, he was selected for a Judge Advocate General position, which involves duties similar to a civilian judge.

Having been diagnosed with HIV the previous year, he requested a waiver from the military’s HIV policy that would have allowed him to take on his new JAG position. But his request was turned down, prompting him to initiate a campaign to challenge what he and many others believed to be an outdated policy denying fully capable people with HIV from serving in positions as military officers.

A short time later, through support from Lambda Legal and an organization that later became the Modern Military Association of America, he filed his lawsuit challenging the military’s HIV policy that has led to what his supporters are calling the landmark event on Aug. 5 during which he became a commissioned officer.

Harrison, however, said the Army has interpreted the changed HIV rules in a way that has forced him to take his case once again to court to challenge a decision by Army officials to have him reapply to join the National Guard under the new policy rather than commission him as an officer retroactively based on his 23 years of military service.

Having to reapply, Harrison told the Washington Blade, would require him to serve in the National Guard for another eight years, even though he became eligible to retire in 2020. He has contested the decision to require him to reapply before the same court that overturned the military’s discriminatory HIV policy and before the Army Board for the Correction of Military Records, which he says has the authority to “rectify” the Army’s position on reenlistment.

Jennings of Lambda Legal said at Harrison’s commissioning ceremony that Harrison’s ongoing dispute with military officials indicates that some details related to Harrison’s case must still be worked out.

“But today we really should just celebrate Nick’s perseverance,” Jennings told the Blade. “His determination, and the fact that he has made history has paved the way for thousands of people.”

In his remarks following his commissioning, Harrison said among the lessons he has learned in his many years in the military is the need to be respectful of the military as an institution and to engage in “respectful disagreement” when at odds with others.

“When I chose to don the uniform, to become part of an institution that has had its share of failures, it was not a decision made lightly,” he said. “I embarked on this journey because I believe in the potential for change from within, in the power of standing up from within a marginalized community to serve, protect, and defend a nation that doesn’t always reciprocate in kind,” he told the gathering.

Harrison currently serves as managing partner for the downtown D.C. law firm Harrison-Stein.

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District of Columbia

Whitman-Walker celebrates opening of new Max Robinson Center

Mayor, city officials call facility major benefit for Southeast D.C.

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D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser cut a ceremonial ribbon on Monday to mark the official opening of Whitman-Walker’s new Max Robinson Center. (Washington Blade photo by Lou Chibbaro, Jr.)

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, joined by city officials and leaders of Whitman-Walker Health, cut a ceremonial ribbon on Monday to mark the official opening of Whitman-Walker’s new Max Robinson Center at the city’s St. Elizabeth’s East campus in Southeast D.C.

The six-story healthcare and research facility will enable Whitman-Walker to expand its wide range of services to the community, with a focus on Ward 7 and Ward 8 residents, officials said. Those services, which began when the facility opened its doors on Aug. 14, include primary, dental, and HIV care, behavioral health services, substance use counseling, and a pharmacy, according to a Whitman-Walker statement.

“Today, we’re opening a bigger Max Robinson Center, and in two years we’ll be opening a new hospital on this same campus – and together, these two facilities are going to change the way we deliver healthcare in D.C.,” Bowser told the crowd of about 200 that turned out for the event held in a courtyard next to the newly opened building.

“We’re incredibly grateful that Whitman-Walker is part of the legacy that we’re building on the St. Elizabeths East campus,” the mayor said. “This campus represents our commitment to Ward 8 and our community to a stronger, healthier, and equitable D.C.”

Whitman-Walker and city officials noted that the new building replaces the longtime LGBTQ supportive health care organization’s original Max Robinson Center that opened in 1993 on Martin Luther King Boulevard in Anacostia about a mile away from the new facility. The center was named in honor of award-winning TV news journalist Max Robinson who became the first African American to serve as co-anchor of a network news program at ABC News in 1978. Robinson died of complications associated with HIV/AIDS in 1988.

Bowser and others who spoke at the event praised Whitman-Walker for providing high quality healthcare through its Max Robinson center for underserved communities in city neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River.

The opening of the new Max Robinson Center comes on Whitman-Walker’s 50th year since its founding in 1973 as an LGBTQ community health clinic in a church basement in Georgetown, Whitman-Walker CEO Naseema Shafi noted at the ribbon cutting event.

“We are thrilled to unveil this once-in-a-lifetime healthcare and research expansion during our 50th anniversary year,” Shafi said. “Our new healthcare home will significantly improve access to excellent healthcare for all residents,” she said.

Among other things, the new facility will allow Whitman-Walker to serve an additional 10,000 patients per year more than it was able to serve at the original Max Robinson Center, a statement released by Whitman-Walker says. An important part of its services will include mental health and behavioral services, officials said.

There are more than 40 exam rooms, eight dental suites, six group therapy rooms and a psychotherapy suite in the new facility, the officials said in the statement.

The statement says the new building will also serve as headquarters for the Whitman-Walker Institute, an arm of the healthcare organization that for many years has conducted HIV related research. It says the new facility will allow Whitman-Walker to expand its research “from 19 to over 60 clinical trials, including innovations in cancer research and continued progress toward finding a cure for HIV.”

Others who attended or spoke at the event included D.C. Council members Christina Henderson (I-At-Large), Trayon White (D-Ward 8), and Vincent Gray (D-Ward 7); Japer Bowles, director of the Mayor’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs; Latrena Owens, executive director of St. Elizabeths East Development; and Debrah Wells, a Whitman-Walker patient who said the substance use treatment and counseling she received at the Max Robinson Center “saved my life.”

Also speaking were Louis Dubin, managing partner of Redbrick development company, which led the development of the building project; and Jim Davis, president of Davis Construction, the company that built the new facility. Both pointed out that they worked with banks and other lenders along with financial support from the city that made the financing of the new Max Robinson Center possible.

Whitman-Walker CEO Shafi told the Washington Blade after the ribbon cutting event that while Whitman-Walker has expanded its services to include the wider community in the years since its founding as an LGBTQ clinic, its commitment to serving the healthcare needs of the LGBTQ community continues in all its facilities, including the new Max Robinson Center.

“What’s interesting about Whitman-Walker of today — when we started in 1973, we were started by community for community, and we were responding to the needs at that time particularly of the LGBTQ community,” she said. “So, now we’ve continued to take care of people, we will continue to do so,” she added.

“And this new site in Congress Heights gives us the opportunity to take care of even more community members, parts of the LGBTQ community and the greater Washington region,” she said, noting that Whitman-Walker currently has about 2,500 transgender or gender expansive people in care, and 3,500 people with HIV in care.

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District of Columbia

Man charged in 2019 D.C. gay murder sentenced to 16 years

Distraught family members urged judge to hand down longer prison term

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Vongell Lugo was stabbed to death on Jan. 6, 2019. (Courtesy photo)

Former U.S. Navy Hospital Corpsman Collin J. Potter, 31, who earlier this year pleaded guilty to second-degree murder while armed for the Jan. 6, 2019, stabbing death of gay D.C. resident Vongell Lugo, was sentenced Sept. 15 by a D.C. Superior Court judge to 16 years in prison and five years of supervised probation upon his release.  

The sentencing took place at a hearing in which Assistant United States Attorney Peter V. Roman, the lead prosecutor in the case, described in gruesome detail how Potter stabbed Lugo 42 times inside Lugo’s Northwest D.C. apartment shortly after the two met at a D.C. bar and Potter accepted Lugo’s invitation to come to the apartment.

Superior Court Judge Marisa Demeo handed down her sentence after listening to testimony by Lugo’s mother, brother, and sister, and seven of Lugo’s friends, who presented highly emotional victim impact statements describing Lugo as a beloved figure whose brutal murder had a devastating impact on their lives.

Nearly all of the 10 who spoke – eight in the courtroom and two through a live video hookup – urged the judge to hand down a far greater prison term than the 14 to 16-year sentence that prosecutors with the Office of the U.S. Attorney for D.C. offered and Potter accepted in exchange for pleading guilty as part of a plea bargain deal. The plea arrangement made it clear that the judge would make the final decision on what the sentence should be.

Under D.C. criminal law, judges have the discretion to hand down a sentence of up to life in prison for a second-degree murder conviction.

Many of the family members and friends wept as they described Lugo, 36, as a loving, caring person who enriched their lives and who was taken from them by Potter in an unimaginable act of violence.

The sentencing took place a little over seven months after Potter, who was 26 at the time of the murder, pleaded guilty to the charge of second-degree murder while armed and prosecutors dropped their original charge of first-degree murder while armed and other related charges as part of the plea bargain deal.

Court records show that at the request of prosecutors, a D.C. Superior Court grand jury on Aug. 20, 2019, indicted Potter on five counts related to the murder, including two counts of first-degree felony murder while armed, felony murder while armed with aggravating circumstance, and kidnapping.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office has declined to disclose why prosecutors offered the plea deal that included dropping those charges and allowing Potter to plead guilty to second-degree murder rather than bringing Potter to trial on the first-degree murder and other charges.  

Attorneys familiar with this type of case have said prosecutors usually offer a plea deal when they are uncertain whether they can convince a jury to find someone guilty beyond a reasonable doubt at a trial.

At the Sept. 15 sentencing hearing, Potter’s defense attorney, Matthew Davies of the D.C. Public Defender Service, told the judge one reason why the plea offer made sense was it avoided a trial in which Potter would likely have used the defense of insanity or severe mental health problems, that Davies said his client is currently grappling with.

Davies pointed to information submitted by the defense that Potter has a history of trauma brought about by being sexually abused as a child. He said Potter also has an alcohol abuse problem and related mental health issues, and those factors led to the stabbing incident that took the life of Lugo.

He asked the judge to hand down a sentence of 14 years of incarceration, saying that would adequately serve the cause of justice for this case.

The subject of Potter’s mental health also surfaced in a 10-page sentencing memorandum that Roman filed in court two days before the sentencing, and which Roman summarized at the hearing, including the recommendation of a sentence of 16 years of incarceration.

The sentencing memo begins by describing Lugo as an “openly gay man who was born and raised in Trinidad & Tobago before emigrating to the United States with his family several years ago.” One of Lugo’s friends told the Washington Blade that Lugo had been working as an associate manager for a company that provides language translation services.

The sentencing memo says police arrived at Lugo’s apartment about 4 a.m. on Jan 6, 2019, when two neighbors called 911 after hearing Lugo screaming for help through the walls of their adjoining apartments.

It says police arrived shortly after Potter, who was fully nude and covered in Lugo’s blood, had dragged Lugo’s nude body outside the apartment door into the apartment building hallway.

“After the police arrived, the defendant made several statements,” the sentencing memo says. “He repeatedly referred to Mr. Lugo as his girlfriend and as a female and stated that Mr. Lugo’s injuries were self-inflicted,” the memo continues. “The defendant then banged his own head against the wall and started screaming obscenities and that he did not want to live,” it says.

Several of the close to 20 friends and family members of Lugo who were sitting in the courtroom as prosecutor Roman presented these details were crying.

Defense attorney Davies told the judge that he informed Potter that he had a strong defense based on mental health issues if the case went to trial. But Davies said Potter expressed strong opposition to going to trial and subjecting Lugo’s family to additional trauma.

Court documents show Potter was arrested at the scene and has been held in jail since that time as the case dragged on for more than four years since the January 2019 murder.  

Court records also show that Lugo and Potter met at the Black Whiskey, a bar on 14th Street, N.W.  where Lugo was a regular customer. Although some of Lugo’s family members and friends who spoke at the sentencing hearing said they considered the murder a hate crime, court records show police and prosecutors did not list the case as a hate crime.

“He was a beautiful gay man, and everyone loved him,” Hannah Donnelly, one of Lugo’s friends and co-workers said in presenting her victim’s impact presentation in the courtroom.

Another friend said in her impact statement that Lugo invited her to join him to watch D.C.’s Capital Pride parade. She and nearly all the others who presented their impact statements at the hearing were not gay or lesbian themselves but said Lugo was beloved because he always did all he could to help them and support them in their everyday lives.

“He was like a brother to me,” said Gregory Porter, one of Lugo’s friends who, along with his wife, presented their victim impact statements in the courtroom. “There was never a thought that he would no longer be a part of our life,” Porter told the judge. “We ask for equal justice. We ask the court to invoke the maximum possible sentence,” he said.

Victoria Lugo, Lugo’s mother, was the first of the family members and friends to deliver her victim’s impact statement. Looking directly at Potter, she told him there was nothing her son could have done to him to justify what Potter did.

“You have taken my child from me, Mr. Potter,” she said while crying. “My heart hurts,” she continued. “No mother should have to go through this.”

Potter, who was dressed in an orange prison jumpsuit, accepted Judge Demeo’s invitation to speak before she handed down her sentence.

“I’d like to say I am truly very sorry,” Potter told the judge. “I accept the consequences of my action,” he said. “I feel I will spend the rest of my life having a positive impact on other people’s lives to make up for what I have done,” he said.

After listening to Potter, the presentations by Lugo’s family members and friends and hearing remarks from prosecutor Roman and defense attorney Davies, Judge Demeo said she would accept the plea agreement. She said the circumstances surrounding the case, including what she called the “brutal nature of the crime,” warranted that she issue a sentence representing the upper end of the plea agreement of 16 years’ incarceration and five years of supervised release.

She said she would order that the facility where Potter is incarcerated will provide him with mental health treatment.  

“There is no doubt that this was a horrific crime,” she said. “Vongell Lugo was shown by witnesses to be a wonderful soul,” she added.

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District of Columbia

Brent Minor steps down as head of Team DC

LGBTQ sports organization grew under his leadership

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Brent Minor (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Brent Minor, executive director of the D.C. area LGBTQ sports organization Team DC, announced in a Facebook posting on Thursday that he is stepping down from his position.

“After more than 20 years of leading Team DC, first as its board president and then as the executive director, I have decided it is time to move on and retire from this part of my life,” Minor said in his announcement. 

“It has been a joy and a privilege to establish and grow this organization over the years and help make sports a more welcoming place for all participants,” he said.

Minor has been credited with helping Team DC become one of the nation’s largest LGBTQ sports organizations, which currently includes more than 40 LGBTQ or LGBTQ-supportive sports teams or sports leagues as affiliated members.

Under Minor’s direction, Team DC has also established annual Pride Night Out LGBTQ game day events held in the arenas or stadiums for at least a dozen D.C. professional sports teams, including the Washington Nationals baseball team, the Washington Wizards basketball team and the Washington Commanders football team.

As many as 10,000 LGBTQ sports fans and their supporters have attended the Night Out at the Nationals games in recent years.

“I am grateful beyond words to all of my friends and colleagues like you who have helped me in this effort,” Minor said in his Facebook posting.

“Team DC is poised to take on the next phase of its journey and so am I,” he wrote. “Stay tuned for what is next!”

Minor told the Washington Blade he will leave his position at Team DC next week at a time of the year when there are not as many events and activities that the organization becomes involved with.

Miguel Ayala, the current president of the Team DC board of directors, said the organization would be putting out a statement on Sept. 18 announcing plans for the organization going forward. 

The executive director’s position has been Team DC’s only full-time paid staff possible for the nonprofit, mostly volunteer organization.

“It’s something I’ve been toying with for quite a while,” Minor told the Blade. “And it just seemed like a good time in the life of the organization,” he said.

Minor added that that Team DC officials will have sufficient time to plan the 2025 World Pride Sports Festival scheduled to be held in D.C. as part of the international LGBTQ World Pride celebration.

“So, this will allow enough time for whoever is going to be doing that to have time to get in and make sure it’s kind of their thing,” Minor said. “So, I think the timing was just right.”

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