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White House: Gay troops benefits issue has Obama’s attention

White House, Jay Carney

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said benefits issue for gay troops ‘has the president’s attention’ (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney asserted on Friday that President Obama is considering the issue of outstanding partner benefits that could be extended to gay service members administratively.

Under questioning from the Washington Blade, Carney said Obama is focused on further implementation of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal and “the need to ensure that proper benefits are provided,” but referred further questions to the Pentagon.

“The president is absolutely focused on and aware of the need to further implement DADT [repeal], and to ensure that proper benefits are provided,” Carney said. “You know, for more details, I would point you to the Defense Department, but this is an issue the president is aware of and it has his attention.”

Asked by the Blade whether it was reasonable to conclude the Pentagon needs prodding, Carney replied, “Again, this issue has the president’s attention.”

Since the time “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was lifted in September 2011, Pentagon officials have said they’ve been examining possible partner benefits that are currently withheld from gay troops. However, the Pentagon hasn’t taken any action since that time.

While major ticket items like health and pension benefits are precluded under the Defense of Marriage Act and other federal law governing rights of U.S. service members, LGBT advocates say other benefits could be extended administratively, such as military IDs and joint duty assignments, as well as access to housing and family programs.

The issue has received more attention in the wake of controversy over a spousal club at an Army base in Ft. Bragg, N.C., refusing to offer membership to Ashley Broadway, the spouse of the lesbian service member. Groups like the Human Rights Campaign and OutServe-SLDN have called on the Pentagon to action, as has Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), who has circulated a letter among U.S. House members calling for the extension of these benefits.

Kevin Nix, a spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign responded to Carney’s answers saying that the Pentagon can extend partner benefits to gay troops at any time.

“I would just reiterate that the secretary can issue regulations tomorrow  — a simple fix really that’s doesn’t run afoul of DOMA,” Nix said. “All of this country’s servicemembers, their spouses and partners should be treated equally.”

Defense secretary nominee Chuck Hagel, whom President Obama tapped to replace Panetta upon his departure, is expected to answer questions on issues pertaining LGBT troops during his confirmation hearing set for Thursday. In a letter to Sen. Barbara Boxer last week, Hagel already expressed commitment to extending partner benefits to gay troops, saying, “I will do everything possible to the extent permissible under current law to provide equal benefits to the families of all our service members.”

A transcript of the exchange between the Washington Blade and Carney follows:

Washington Blade: Jay, there’s been a lot in the news recently about how service members with same-sex partners aren’t receiving certain benefits that could be extended administratively at any time at the Pentagon. They include military IDs, joint duty assignments and access to certain family programs. Is the President aware of this issue and will he direct the Pentagon to take action on this if they don’t do it on its own?

Jay Carney: I can tell you broadly, I don’t have specifics for you. The president is absolutely focused on and aware of the need to further implement DADT [repeal], and to ensure that proper benefits are provided. You know, for more details, I would point you to the Defense Department, but this is an issue the president is aware of and it has his attention.

Blade: The Pentagon has saying since “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was lifted in September 2011 that they’ve been reviewing this issue, but no action has been taken. Isn’t it reasonable to conclude that they need a little prodding?

Carney: Again, this issue has the president’s attention.


Queery: Stephen Decker

Stephen Decker, Queery, gay news, Washington Blade

Stephen Decker (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Stephen Decker always knows the day of Scarlet’s Bake Sale is going to be a long one. He’s typically on site at the Eagle from noon until about 9 p.m. but he says it’s always worth the effort. And he should know — he’s been one of the volunteers for about 20 years. For the last three years, he’s been the chair.

“It’s so much fun to watch the competition,” he says. “Trying to see them all outbid each other for that cake or item. It’s just full of fun.”

Scarlet’s Bake Sale, named after the late Ed Nesbit (whose drag name was Scarlet), is now in its 42nd year. This year’s event is Sunday from 5-8:30 p.m. at the D.C. Eagle (639 New York Ave., N.W.). Look for the event page by searching “Scarlet’s Foundation” on Facebook. This year’s proceeds will benefit SMYAL. Typically about 80 people attend. In addition to the auction, four awards are presented each year. Last year, Decker says about $8,800 was raised for LGBT charities.

The most memorable entry over the years?

“Oh my goodness, there’ve been so many,” Decker says. “One year we had a group bring in a watersports-themed cake. It actually had a figure standing up and a recycling pump in it, so he would actually be peeing on a man down in a pond. It, to me, was the most spectacular.”

Another year, an elaborate 3-D chocolate sculpture of a tree was so impressive it raised $2,400 in three different auctions (each winner kept putting it back up for auction knowing it was a hot item) only to be destroyed on the ride home.

Decker, a Scenery Hill, Pa., native, came to Washington for work in 1980 and has been here ever since. He previously lived in Maryland, Virginia, Mississippi and elsewhere during his growing up years and a stint in the Air Force.

He and husband Ed Moore live together in Brookland. After a long stint as a grant manager with the International Association of Firefighters, he’s looking for a new job.

He enjoys baking, cooking, the leather community and times with friends and extended family in his free time.

How long have you been out and who was the hardest person to tell?
I have been out to myself since high school, but could never do so as the community would have never allowed it and I may not be here now if I did. One of my favorite statements when asked when I knew — it was in seventh grade with the cutest ass that sat in front of me in most all of my classes. I came out to myself in the 1980s but the hardest person to come out was more a fear of my own, it was my mother, who politely told me, “This is supposed to be news to me?” I came out to her in 1995.

Who’s your LGBT hero?
Leonard Matlovich. He received a medal of honor for killing two men and a dishonorable discharge for loving one.

What’s Washington’s best nightspot, past or present?
Loved the old DC Eagle on 7th Street before it closed. Today you will find me quite often at the Green Lantern.

Describe your dream wedding.
Our wedding was a dream. Who would ever guess that after being with my love for 22 years we would be able to wed in 2010? I wanted to elope, but our friends would not hear of that. We had an engagement party, two bachelor’s parties and a wedding with two receptions. We had about 30 great and close friends with us at the wedding and over 100 other friends that celebrated us in the other events. We were surrounded by love and it was worth every second.

What non-LGBT issue are you most passionate about?
Children with no love or home. Everyone deserves love, no matter who provides it.

What historical outcome would you change?

What’s been the most memorable pop culture moment of your lifetime?
The first Liza with a Z Concert I attended in the 1970s with another Air Force buddy who I think may have liked me for the same reason I liked him.

On what do you insist?
I insist that all are honest with me. I have always stated we can solve all issues.

What was your last Facebook post or Tweet?
It was about the Scarlet’s Bake Sale. Ask everyone to come and have fun with us.

If your life were a book, what would the title be?
“Vanilla? I Don’t Think So”

If science discovered a way to change sexual orientation, what would you do?
Hide from it. I am happy to be who I am and with whom I have chosen to live.

What do you believe in beyond the physical world?
That we are created by God to be who and what we are.

What’s your advice for LGBT movement leaders?
Keep moving forward, the job is not done. We should all have the equal rights just like every other person. Thank you, so far as we have made major movements.

What would you walk across hot coals for?
The love of my life and maybe a cup of hot chocolate on this cold day.

What LGBT stereotype annoys you most?
People who feel they have to be “straight acting.”

What’s your favorite LGBT movie?
“Rent” — it tackled AIDS, which affects everyone.

What’s the most overrated social custom?
The handshake — why not a warm hug?

What trophy or prize do you most covet?
Black Roses Community Service Award

What do you wish you’d known at 18?
That it was OK to be who I am and not ashamed of it. I let so much get away from me.

Why Washington?
I guess it is the only place I know that the museums are free and that there is so much history here. It’s hard to believe that the Supreme Court area has so much history itself. Check it out sometime.


Pentagon to offer partner benefits to gay troops

Outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta

Outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta (Blade photo by Michael Key)

The Pentagon announced on Monday that it will start the process of offering limited benefits available under current law to gay troops with same-sex partners.

In a memo dated Feb. 11 to senior Pentagon officials, outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta enumerated the benefits that will be afforded to gay troops — which include military IDs, joint duty assignments and access to the commissary — and set a goal for implementing these benefits by Aug. 31, but no later than Oct. 1.

“Taking care of our service members and honoring the sacrifices of all military families are two core values of this nation,” Panetta said in a statement accompanying the memo. “Extending these benefits is an appropriate next step under current law to ensure that all service members receive equal support for what they do to protect this nation.”

Other benefits that will be afforded are access to morale, welfare and recreation programs; sexual assault counseling; legal assistance; child care; and space-available travel on military aircraft. A full list of the benefits can be found on Attachment 2 of the Panetta memo here.

The memo states the Pentagon will “immediately proceed” with implementing these changes and provide a plan within 60 days.

However, the Pentagon won’t at this time offer certain benefits that LGBT advocates have been seeking under current law, such as access to on-base housing, covering costs for transportation to an overseas post and burial at Arlington National Cemetery.

During a news briefing on Monday, a Pentagon senior official said housing wouldn’t be offered because extending that benefit would be “violating the spirit” of the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits federal recognition of same-sex marriage.

Panetta writes in the memorandum that the Pentagon will continue to review these benefits, indicating they haven’t yet been outright rejected.

“With regard to on-base housing, burial and benefits related to command sponsorship overseas, these benefits present complex legal and policy challenges due to their nexus to statutorily-prohibited benefits and due to ongoing reviews about how best to provide scarce resources,” Panetta wrote.

A Pentagon senior legal official at the briefing said the issue of housing was “sensitive” in 2010 as the Defense Department solicited comment among service members for its report on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” because of the sense there isn’t enough housing for service members under current policy already.

“It’s a very sensitive issue because we don’t have enough housing for everybody,” the official said. “The other thing that factors is because it’s sensitive and there is a limited amount, you end up bumping people, and there’s sensitivity behind that. So, the secretary is going to let the working group work through it a little bit longer before they make a final decision.”

Asked who decided that housing shouldn’t be extended at this time, the Pentagon senior official said, “the decision was made by the department, by the department that we would not extend housing at this time.”

Despite the lack of inclusion of some benefits, OutServe-SLDN — which has called for the extension of these benefits since August 2011, before “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was lifted — praised Panetta in a statement and described the move as “substantive.”

“Secretary Panetta’s decision today answers the call President Obama issued in his inaugural address to complete our nation’s journey toward equality, acknowledging the equal service and equal sacrifice of our gay and lesbian service members and their families,” said Allyson Robinson, executive director of OutServe-SLDN.

Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, said President Obama “welcomes” the benefits extension at the Pentagon. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney had previously told the Washington Blade the president was aware of the issue.

“The president welcomes the announcement by the Secretary of Defense that the department will extend certain benefits to the same-sex partners and families of service members based on its thorough and deliberate review of this issue,” Inouye said. “This step will strengthen our military and help ensure that all our troops and their families are treated with fairness and equality.”

The move will also be followed by the Coast Guard. In a statement following the news on Monday, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano said she directed U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Robert Papp to implement partner benefits along the lines of the ones enacted in other branches of the military.

“The Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Coast Guard stand with the Department of Defense on the extension of benefits for military same-sex partners,” Napolitano said. “The extension of benefits for military same-sex partners honors our Department’s guiding principles to treat all service members and applicants equally and with dignity and respect.”

Other benefits, such as health, pension and housing allowances, are precluded from gay service members because of Section 3 of DOMA. Litigation challenging that law, known as Windsor v. United States, is pending before the Supreme Court, and justices are expected to make a decision on the constitutionality of the law before their term ends in June.

Because implementation of these benefits won’t happen until months after the Supreme Court rules on DOMA, a decision from justices striking down the law could shake up which benefits will be afforded at that time.

“In the event that the Defense of Marriage Act is no longer applicable to the Department of Defense, it will be the policy of the Department to construe the words ‘spouse’ and ‘marriage’ without regard to sexual orientation, and married couples, irrespective of sexual orientation, and their dependents, will be granted full military benefits,” Panetta wrote.

The Pentagon senior official maintained the DOMA litigation had no impact on the timing to extend benefits and it was instead based on “what it takes to actually roll out the benefit.”

“Normally, you’re looking at eight months to a year or so,” the official said. “This is a very ambitious schedule. We’re really pressing hard to do this as quick as possible.”

The Pentagon senior legal official clarified the military IDs given to gay troops with same-sex partners or spouses will be different to denote these service members aren’t eligible for certain benefits under DOMA. The card won’t be a different color, although there will be a new code in place — “DP” — in the relationship category.

Gay service members need not be married to their same-sex partner for benefit eligibility. An unmarried same-sex couple can register with the Pentagon for benefits by signing a declaration attesting to the existence of their committed relationship. Benefits also may be available in some cases to the children of same-sex domestic partners.

The Pentagon senior official estimated the new benefits would reach 5,600 active duty troops, 3,400 members of the National Guard and Reserve and 8,000 retired service members. The official also said any cost of these benefits would be negligible on the federal government.

Pentagon officials have said since the time “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was lifted in September 2011 that they’ve been reviewing the benefits issue, but no action has been taken until now. LGBT advocates, speaking on condition of anonymity, have said the military service chiefs objected to issuing these benefits because they believed the move would be seen as political if they were extended before the Supreme Court made a decision on DOMA.

The Pentagon senior legal official declined to comment on the opinion of the service chiefs when asked about any objections they might have had.

“There was a robust internal dialogue about all the issues,” the official said. “At the end of the day, the chiefs rendered their opinion and their advice to the secretary, and he considered it, and decided to do what he’s doing. To answer the question about what was the chiefs’ advice, I’ll defer to the chiefs.”

Beyond benefits, another move that LGBT advocates have been pushing for is an explicit non-discrimination policy for gay service members who feel they’re facing harassment or discrimination. OutServe-SLDN has said Defense Secretary nominee Chuck Hagel upon confirmation “must use his authority to ban discrimination” against LGBT service members.

The Pentagon senior official suggested the Defense Department was disinclined to take this action, saying, “We have not changed our policy at this time.” Asked to clarify if such a move is on the table, the senior official said, “The Pentagon’s position is always to treat all members with dignity and respect regardless of sexual orientation, and that has not changed.”

There will also be exclusion of these benefits for the partners of gay service members who are now deceased. Following the briefing, Pentagon spokesperson Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christiansen confirmed “there will not be grandfathering of benefits” for partners and spouses in this situation. That means Karen Morgan — the spouse of Chief Warrant Officer Charlie Morgan, who died Sunday after fighting DOMA and cancer — won’t be eligible for these benefits.

Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said the Pentagon took a “historic step” by extending these benefits, but said more work is necessary as long as DOMA is in place.

“It’s time to right this wrong,” Griffin said. “When the Supreme Court considers the constitutionality of DOMA in the coming weeks, they should take note of the real harm this law inflicts every day. The Court should reflect on the sacrifice made by Americans like Staff Sergeant Tracy Johnson, whose wife was killed in action late last year, or the family of Chief Warrant Officer Charlie Morgan, who succumbed to cancer earlier this week. In both cases, DOMA barred specific benefits that could soften the tragic blow of the loss of a loved one.”


Mixed reviews for Obama’s State of the Union address

Joint Session of Congress, gay news, Washington Blade, Barack Obama

President Obama delivered a State of the Union address that included a couple of LGBT references. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Speaking before a joint session of Congress on Tuesday evening, President Obama delivered the first State of the Union address of his second term that included one overt reference to gay people in addition to a veiled reference to the LGBT community as he highlighted other initiatives.

Obama’s most explicit gay reference came when he pledged to “do whatever we must” to protect U.S. troops serving the country overseas. At that point, Obama touted the extension of limited partner benefits to gay troops that was announced by the Pentagon a day earlier — possibly alluding to further benefits upon repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act.

“As long as I’m commander in chief, we will do whatever we must to protect those who serve their country abroad, and we will maintain the best military in the world,” Obama said. “We will ensure equal treatment for all service members, and equal treatment for their families — gay and straight.”

Allyson Robinson, executive director of the LGBT military group OutServe-SLDN, said Obama “was very clear” that gay service members and their families should be treated equally — but noted the work isn’t finished.

“To finish the task, the Supreme Court must strike down the so-called Defense of Marriage Act,” Robinson said. “Secretary Panetta’s successor must enact equal opportunity and non-discrimination policies that protect LGBT troops and ensure America’s military can attract and retain America’s best. And outmoded, obsolete policies that bar qualified American patriots who are transgender from military service must be eliminated.”

A less overt — but more forward looking — reference to the LGBT community came at the beginning of his speech when Obama alluded to gay people when talking about removing barriers preventing Americans from joining the middle class “no matter … who you love.”

“It is our generation’s task, then, to reignite the true engine of America’s economic growth,” Obama said. “It is our unfinished task to restore the basic bargain that built this country — the idea that if you work hard and meet your responsibilities, you can get ahead, no matter where you come from, or who you love.”

That remark has been interpreted as a call on Congress to pass employment non-discrimination protections because the absence of such a law is seen as an impediment to LGBT workers reaching economic prosperity. Prior to the address, advocates were hopeful Obama would use the occasion of the State of the Union address to push for passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and pledge to issue an executive order barring federal contractors from engaging in anti-LGBT job bias.

Tico Almeida, president of Freedom to Work, was among those who interpreted the remarks as an allusion ”to the need to outlaw workplace discrimination against LGBT Americans” — but called on Obama to take more action.

“First, the president should sign the executive order adding LGBT workplace protections to almost 25 percent of all American jobs,” Almeida said. “Second, he should encourage Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to keep his three-year-old promise to bring ENDA to a vote on the Senate floor for a long overdue vote.”

Almeida added he wants Obama to “explicitly call on both chambers of Congress to pass ENDA” in another speech sometime before the Senate vote expected this year.

Fred Sainz, vice president of communications for the Human Rights Campaign, took a broader view.

“I think that it’s broader and more significant in that it includes kind of a broad sweep of the inclusion of gay people in the middle class,” Sainz said. “And so, it has everything to do with employment and opportunity and every hope and dream that LGBT have.”

Asked whether the language satisfies his previous call for Obama to lay out plans for the LGBT executive order during the State of the Union, Sainz said he thinks it falls short of that request, but said it’s still significant.

“I don’t think he necessarily speaks to it directly, but I do think that it is further evidence of … mainstreaming of LGBT people in all aspects of American life,” Sainz said.

The LGBT references build off the stronger references that Obama made during his inaugural speech when he invoked the Stonewall riots and said ”the love we commit to one another must be equal.” In his three previous State of the Union speeches, Obama has also mentioned the LGBT community and talked about “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal.

Obama also made a reference to the global HIV/AIDS epidemic when he talked about the United States pushing to make progress in poorer countries.

The president hit on “realizing the promise of an AIDS-free generation,” then, diverting from his prepared remarks, said it’s “within our reach.” That term was coined by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as part of the Obama administration’s pledge to rid the world of the disease.

Kali Lindsey, director of legislative and public affairs for the National Minority AIDS Council, said in a statement Obama’s remarks are a call to action “to make AIDS this century’s polio.”

“This includes continued funding for PEPFAR, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, and the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program,” Lindsey said. “It also means continued implementation of the Affordable Care Act in a way that meets the needs of those living with and vulnerable to chronic and communicable diseases, like HIV.”

Obama also made an implicit LGBT reference when he called on the House to pass the version of the Violence Against Women Act reauthorization that the Senate had passed on a bipartisan vote just hours earlier. The Senate version of the bill has explicit LGBT language to help LGBT victims of domestic violence.

“Today, the Senate passed the Violence Against Women Act that Joe Biden originally wrote almost 20 years ago,” Obama said. “I urge the House to do the same.”

But an LGBT references was notably left out of Obama’s speech when he talked about the importance of passing comprehensive immigration reform without mentioning the potential separation that bi-national same-sex couples face in the United States.

Instead, Obama talked about “a responsible pathway” to citizenship that includes a background check and learning English and fixing problems in the legal immigration system. Obama included gay couples in the plan he unveiled for reform.

The LGBT grassroots group GetEQUAL expressed disappointment in the State of the Union address.

“As someone who would qualify for the DREAM Act and who is part of a bi-national family, I know first-hand that true comprehensive immigration reform must include LGBTQ families, a fair and just pathway to citizenship, and an end to harsh enforcement that separates families,” said Felipe Sousa-Rodriguez, GetEQUAL’s national field director.

Heather Cronk, GetEQUAL’s managing director, criticized Obama for not committing to signing an executive order prohibiting anti-LGBT job bias for federal contractors — noting he announced other directives, such as one related to cybersecurity. She was among those who protested at the White House on Sunday over the non-discrimination directive.

“He had his pen out today to sign other executive orders — it’s incumbent on the LGBT community to ask why he decided to put that pen away before protecting 25 percent of the American workforce from workplace discrimination,” Cronk said.

Local members of the LGBT community were among the guests during the State of the Union. The White House invited Tracey Hepner, a lesbian Arlington, Va., resident and co-founder of Military Partners and Families Coalition, to sit with first lady Michelle Obama. She’s the spouse of the military’s first openly gay flag officer, Army Brig. Gen. Tammy Smith.

Also in attendance was Kelly Costello, a lesbian Potomac, Md., resident, who was invited by Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), the sponsor of the Uniting American Families Act. Costello and her Peruvian native spouse Fabiola Morales, who married in Washington, D.C., are a bi-national same-sex couples fighting to stay together in the United States.

LGBT members of Congress praise address

While some advocacy groups were calling on Obama to take more action after the State of the Union address, LGBT lawmakers praised Obama when speaking with the Blade in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall after the speech.

Lesbian Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) said Obama’s LGBT-inclusiveness builds off the remarks that he gave on LGBT issues during his inaugural address.

“We started on the inaugural address,” Baldwin said. “We talked about the fact that the inclusion was poetic, and sort of weaving into the larger fabric of movements throughout our nation’s history. Today, I was pleased with the power of his language, especially with regard to seeing through the implementation of the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ and respecting not only the right to serve, but the right to full recognition for families and service members.”

Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), the only openly bisexual member of Congress, said she was pleased with the move to expand benefits for gay troops.

“It’s a no-brainer,” Sinema said. “I think the fact that not only did the Department of Defense take this action, but the president referenced it in his speech shows that there is widespread acceptance. Not only that, but this is not a controversial issue.”

Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), the first openly gay Asian-American in Congress, was seated next to Sinema in the gallery and said they nudged each other when Obama mentioned partner benefits for gay troops.

“I certainly applaud the president for not only mentioning it in his inaugural speech, but he also made a reference to LGBT equality in my first State of the Union,” Takano said. “What a thing that is, so I’m hopeful we’ll move forward in this Congress.”

One member of Congress who wouldn’t speak to the Blade about the State of the Union was anti-gay Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.). Asked whether she would provide a comment for the Blade, Hartzler replied, “Ah, that’s OK.”


Shaheen honors lesbian guardsman in Senate floor speech

Jeanne Shaheen, United States Senate, gay news, Washington Blade, New Hampshire, Democratic Party

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) honored the life of lesbian guardsman Charlie Morgan on the Senate floor. (Pubic domain photo)

The senior senator from New Hampshire took to the Senate floor on Thursday to honor the life of a recently deceased lesbian guardsman who fought against the Defense of Marriage Act.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) said Chief Warrant Officer Charlie Morgan, who died Sunday after battling breast cancer and DOMA, was one of the nation’s “outstanding citizens” and touted the late service member’s efforts in the military and LGBT advocacy.

“Many know Charlie for the national attention she received over the last several years advocating on behalf of fellow gay service members and their families,” Shaheen said. “However, first and foremost Charlie was a soldier.”

Shaheen was apparently holding back tears on the Senate floor as she informed the chamber that Morgan was “just 48 years old” upon her death.

As Shaheen noted, Morgan began her military service by enlisting in the U.S. Army in 1982 and participating in a year-long deployment to Kuwait following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Afterward, Morgan became involved in LGBT activism after being diagnosed with incurable breast cancer so that upon her death her spouse Karen Morgan and five-year-old daughter Casey Elena would have access to military spousal benefits.

A plaintiff in OutServe-SLDN’s lawsuit against DOMA, Morgan met with staff from U.S. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) last year to urge him to discontinue House Republican defense of the anti-gay law in court. She also testified before the 15-member Democratic Party draft platform committee in favor of including a marriage equality plank in the document, which was ultimately added.

“I hope that Charlie Morgan knew how many lives she touched and how greatly we admired her efforts,” Shaheen said. “I know that she will be sorely missed, and that her example will continue to guide us well into the future.”

Shaheen said she met Morgan in 2011 when she contacted the senator’s office upon her return from Kuwait. Morgan received notification that her spouse would be unable to attend a transition program known as National Guard Yellow Ribbon Reintegration. The senator said she worked with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to ensure Morgan’s family could participate.

Following Morgan’s death, Shaheen said she’s received more than 2,000 messages of support from citizens all across our country. She read a couple of them on the Senate floor. One read, “Charlie is a hero to many of us. Thank you for making your lives public so others can live their lives privately in love.” Another read, “Thank you so much Charlie for all you have done. You will not be forgotten, and your service, work and legacy will live on. Those of us left behind will honor you by continuing on in this all-important fight for equality.”

Shaheen noted Morgan died just one day before the Pentagon announced that it would extend limited partner benefits to gay troops, saying “it is unfortunate” Morgan was unable to live to see the accomplishment.

Concluding her speech, Shaheen announced that she would soon introduce a bill she called the Charlie Morgan Act, which she said would end a number of restrictions of benefits for legal spouses for service members, regardless of sexual orientation.

Smith reintroduces benefits bill for gay troops

In related news, Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, announced on Thursday that he reintroduced the Military Spouse Equal Treatment Act, which would change the definition of “spouse” under U.S. code governing the rights of service members. Smith introduced the bill for the first time last year.

“This bill would make sure that service members and veterans with same-sex spouses receive the same benefits as their heterosexual counterparts,” Smith said. “All spouses of those serving in our Armed Services make tremendous sacrifices for our country, and no one should be prevented from receiving hard-earned benefits simply because they are the same sex as their partner.”

U.S. code under Titles 10, 32, and 38 restricts the definition of spouse to opposite-sex couples. Even if DOMA were repealed, gay service members would still be unable to receive certain major ticket partner benefits — like health and pension benefits — with these sections of U.S. code still in place. Smith’s bill would alter these provisions of U.S. code and add a favorable controlling definition of “spouse” to Title 37.

Allyson Robinson, executive director of OutServe-SLDN, said passage of the legislation would put gay service members on the same footing as their straight comrades.

“Treating service members equally, without partiality or favoritism, is one of the most basic principles of sound military leadership,” Robinson said. “For this reason, equality for LGBT troops and their families is a national security issue. Commanders should not be forced to treat some service members like second-class citizens because the federal government does not recognize their marriages.”

Among the original co-sponsors of the legislation is Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), a freshman gay member of the U.S. House. In a statement, Pocan called the legislation an important step forward after the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

“Supporting our servicemen and women and our veterans also means supporting their spouses and families, whose sacrifices often go unseen and unrecognized,” Pocan said. “This support should not be contingent on whether a member of our military is gay or straight.”

Watch a video of Shaheen’s floor speech here:


Closeted soldiers have more mental health problems

marines, gay news, Washington Blade

(Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

MISSOULA, Mont. — A new study from the University of Montana found that gay soldiers who stay in the closet while serving are much more vulnerable to mental health challenges including depression, anxiety disorders, drug use, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and suicide, Think Progress, a Center for American Progress Action Fund blog, reported last week.

Among the findings:

  • Suicide rates of 14.7 percent for LGB soldiers compared to .00003 percent for the entire veteran/soldier community.
  • LGB service members are twice as likely to develop alcohol problems.
  • Are five times as likely to show signs of PTSD
  • 68.7 percent of those surveyed were “constantly” trying to hide their sexual orientation, Think Progress reported.

Researchers said that even with the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” harassment and victimization of LGB soldiers will likely continue while past studies have shown employees in any workforce succeed more and have increased productivity with themselves and colleagues when out, Think Progress reported.


OutServe-SLDN chief delivers personal LGBT military speech

Allyson Robinson, Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, OutServe, gay news, Washington Blade

OutServe-SLDN chief Allyson Robinson delivered a personal “State of the LGBT Military Service” speech (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The transgender head of a national LGBT military group on Saturday detailed a personal story about her own transition as part of her organization’s first-ever “State of the LGBT Military Service” address.

In her speech before an estimated nearly 1,000 attendees at her group’s annual dinner in D.C., Allyson Robinson, executive director of OutServe-SLDN, said she felt “completely alone” when she made her decision to transition, but found comfort from her family.

“The day I found myself seriously considering suicide was the day I knew I needed help,” Robinson said. “So I called my sister, and my sister said, ‘I’m here for you.’ And I called my mom, and my mom said, ‘I’m proud of you courage, my daughter.’ I talked to my wife Danyelle, and she said, ‘My love for you is bigger than this. I’ll be right by your side through whatever it brings and beyond.’”

But Robinson said she “wasn’t that brave” to her tell father, a command sergeant major in the Army, that she would transition in person and instead wrote a letter informing him of her decision. Robinson said her father responded by calling and saying, “I love you as much today as the day you were born.”

Robinson, an Army veteran and West Point graduate, made her decision to transition after she left the military in 1999, but wouldn’t have been allowed to stay in the armed forces had she remained in service. The armed forces prohibits open service for trans servicemembers and expels them under a medical discharge if their gender identity becomes known.

Robinson also made news during the speech when she announced that OutServe-SLDN intended to expand the organization’s membership from 6,000 to 14,000 actively serving members by the end of 2014. Starting the process, Robinson announced new categories of membership for OutServe-SLDN that will include veterans and straight supporters.

“In the weeks and months ahead, we’ll expand further to take advantage of the full strength of America’s diverse military family – and to ensure we’re not leaving anyone behind,” Robinson said.

Additionally, Robinson said the LGBT military movement isn’t simply a struggle to achieve policy struggles — such as battles already won on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and advancing partner benefits for gay troops — but “a campaign to change hearts, minds, and ultimately a nation.”

“It’s a campaign to change hearts, minds, and ultimately a nation,” Robinson said. “It’s not enough to check off the items on our policy agenda one by one and say one day, ‘We’re done.’ We’re working to create a military that truly embodies the values of fairness and equality it protects, one that leads the nation in inclusion rather than lagging behind it.”

Cathy Renna, a lesbian New York-based public affairs specialist, was in attendance at the the dinner and told the Washington Blade she thought Robinson’s speech was “inspiring and educational.”

“The people in that room know that ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ being repealed was in many ways the beginning, not an end,” Renna said. “But, in fact, there’s so much more to do, and I think Allyson very, very boldly and smartly outlined what some of things to do are that we need to pull together and continue to make in the military related to LGBT people.”

One outstanding item that Robinson cited in her speech is an end to the Defense of Marriage Act. Even though the Pentagon has started the process for granting certain benefits, major ticket items — health and pension benefits — still aren’t available to gay service members.

Also during the dinner, a tribute was paid to the late lesbian New Hampshire guardsman Charlie Morgan, one of the plaintiff’s in OutServe-SLDN lawsuit against DOMA. She died last month of breast cancer.

Morgan’s partner, Karen Morgan, accepted an award on Charlie Morgan’s behalf. It was also announced that Hawaii Gov. Neil Abercrombie had declared Feb. 15 would be Charlie Morgan Day in that state.


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Dan Choi trial to resume March 28

Dan Choi, White House, Don't Ask, Don't Tell, DADT, GetEqual, gay news, Washington Blade

Former Army Lt. Dan Choi was arrested in 2011 after chaining himself to the White House fence. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

The trial of gay former Army Lt. Dan Choi for his November 2011 arrest for chaining himself to the White House fence to protest “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is scheduled to resume on March 28 in U.S. District Court in D.C.

The trial, which began in August 2011, has been on hold for more than a year over procedural disputes. The prosecutor initiated a highly unusual procedure known as a Writ of Mandamus that successfully overturned a ruling by the judge allowing Choi’s attorneys to argue that Choi was targeted for “selective” and “vindictive” prosecution.

Choi appealed the ruling barring him from using a selective and vindictive prosecution defense, but lost his appeals to higher courts.

At the White House protest, Choi and 12 other LGBT activists and supporters were charged with disobeying a lawful police order to disperse from the White House fence after each of them attached themselves to the fence with handcuffs.

The protest came at a time when many activists, including Choi, believed the Obama administration wasn’t pushing hard enough to persuade Congress to repeal the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law barring gays from serving openly in the military. Congress has since repealed DADT.

Choi was the only one of his fellow protesters that did not agree to an offer by prosecutors to plead guilty to the charge in exchange for having the case dismissed if they weren’t arrested again at the White House within a four-month period.

He argued that he had a constitutional right to protest at the White House fence and called on the government to drop the charge without imposing any conditions. Assistant U.S. Attorney Angela George, the lead prosecutor, refused that request.

In addition to his constitutional argument, Choi’s attorneys cited a technical breach by U.S. Park Police officers who made the arrests. The officers ordered Choi and the other protesters to disperse from the sidewalk in front of the White House, but Choi and some of the others were standing on an elevated ledge on which the White House fence is attached, not the sidewalk.

Thus Choi was not legally bound to obey the police order, his attorneys argued.

One of his supporters, attorney and gay Army veteran James Pietrangelo, argued in an amicus brief last October that the case should be dismissed because Choi has been improperly denied the ability to call certain witnesses, including gay former White House staffer Brian Bond.

Choi’s attorneys argued at the trial in August 2011 that Bond exchanged emails with the Secret Service and others at the White House in what appeared to be an effort to single out Choi for harsher prosecution. The White House has declined to comment on those allegations, but lead prosecutor George called such claims completely false.

She has argued that Choi’s political beliefs and sexual orientation are irrelevant to the case and that Choi’s arrest was based only on his refusal to obey the police order to disperse from the White House fence.

In a statement released on March 5, Choi said George “has unrelentingly pressed this case for three years now, demanding the maximum jail sentence: 6 months in federal penitentiary.”

Choi added, “My applications to re-enlist in the Army were denied solely because of this trial. Whether it is to ‘teach me a lesson,’ or prevent my reinstatement, or bully those who practice free speech, this prosecution will not give up.”


Hagel a disappointing choice from Obama