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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.”

13
Feb
2013

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:

14
Feb
2013

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.

06
Mar
2013

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.

11
Mar
2013

Video: ‘Favorite gay Marine,’ and his new boyfriend

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jLoZTZjzhNo

A U.S. gay Marine who has gathered a massive following on YouTube after coming out on video has a new boyfriend, and wants your questions for him. We just can’t believe how sweet they both are.

13
Mar
2013

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.”

13
Mar
2013

Hagel a disappointing choice from Obama

07
Jan
2013

Dan Choi convicted in White House protest case

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

Choi supporters Diane Olson and Robin Tyler of Los Angeles (left) and Mariam Ben-Shalom of Milwaukee (front right) join Choi (center) in a rally outside the courthouse. Supporters, who packed the courtroom, gave Choi a standing ovation when the trial ended. (Washington Blade photo by Lou Chibbaro, Jr.)

A federal judge on Thursday found gay former Army Lt. Dan Choi guilty of a misdemeanor offense of disobeying a lawful order by police to disperse from the White House fence during a November 2010 protest against “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge John Facciola issued his verdict and sentenced Choi to a $100 fine on the last day of a non-jury trial in a case that has dragged on for two-and-a-half years.

Choi and 12 others had handcuffed themselves to the White House fence at a time when the activists said President Obama and Congress weren’t doing enough to advance legislation to repeal the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law that barred gays from serving openly in the military.

The verdict and sentence came after an emotionally distraught Choi broke down and cried repeatedly during the five-hour court session on Thursday as more than 50 friends and supporters, many of whom came from throughout the country, looked on in a packed courtroom.

Choi began the day’s activities by leading a contingent of supporters to the White House, where they stood at the site of the White House fence before walking about a mile to the courthouse.

He and several of his supporters who are military veterans arrived at the courthouse wearing their military uniforms.

“I apologize for my emotions but I don’t apologize for my humanity,” Choi told Facciola as he represented himself without an attorney.

When Facciola pronounced Choi guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, Choi replied that he would appeal the verdict. When the judge announced the sentence would be limited to a $100 fine, which many of Choi’s supporters considered a rebuke to prosecutors, Choi shouted, “I refuse to pay it…Send me to jail.”

“You have a right to appeal,” Facciola said before adjourning the trial without responding to Choi’s assertion that he would not pay the fine.

“This trial began in August 2011 and was suspended, and what do you think Dan was doing for the next two years,” asked Choi’s friend, former Army Capt. James Pietrangelo, an attorney who provided Choi with legal help. “This case was basically crushing him to death. And you saw the result of his mental state in there today.”

Pietrangelo told supporters before the trial resumed on Thursday that Choi was struggling with a recurring bout of post-traumatic stress disorder. Choi has said in media interviews that the stress disorder stemmed from his combat duty in the Iraq war, where he served as an Arabic linguist and field engineer.

Choi emerged as a nationally recognized advocate for the repeal of DADT in 2009, when he came out as gay in an interview on the Rachel Maddow show while a member of the Army Reserves. Army authorities discharged him under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” a short time later.

Pietrangelo and other supporters of Choi have rallied behind Choi’s decision to fight what he has said was an effort by prosecutors, at the behest of the White House, to single him out for a harsher prosecution because of his criticism of the Obama administration on the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” issue.

Choi and his lawyers argued during the first week of the trial in August 2011 that prosecutors charged him and the other 12 protesters who handcuffed themselves to the White House fence under a federal rather than local D.C. regulation that carried a maximum sentence of six months in jail and $5,000 fine.

In nearly all previous civil disobedience arrests at the White House, protesters have been charged under a D.C. municipal regulation that carries no jail time and a small fine similar to a parking ticket, Choi’s attorneys argued.

Choi was the only one of the 13 people arrested in the November 2010 White House protest that did not agree 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.

Assistant United States Attorney Angela George, the lead prosecutor in the case, said during her closing arguments on Thursday that Choi’s political beliefs were irrelevant to the prosecution.

At an earlier stage of the trial she said prosecutors chose to charge Choi under the stricter federal regulation because he had two prior arrests at the White House related to protests against DADT, and the government has the discretion to adjust its charges for repeat offenders.

Observers of the early stage of Choi’s trial considered Facciola to be sympathetic to Choi’s contention that he was targeted for “selective” and “vindictive” prosecution because of his criticism of the Obama administration over DADT. In an important procedural ruling during the first week of the trial in August 2011, Facciola found that Choi and his lawyers presented sufficient evidence to move ahead with a vindictive prosecution defense.

But in a development considered highly unusual, prosecutor George filed a motion for a Writ of Mandamus to contest Facciola’s ruling. Following a special hearing on the issue, U.S. District Court Chief Judge Royce Lamberth overruled Facciola, ordering him not to allow Choi to pursue a vindictive or selective prosecution defense.

Choi and his attorneys responded by appealing Lamberth’s action to the U.S. Court of Appeals, putting in motion additional court hearings while the trial itself was put on hold.

After losing the appeal, Choi dismissed his lawyers, who had been providing pro bono representation, and announced he would represent himself going forward in an action known as pro se representation.

Over the past several months, Choi — with help from lawyers behind the scenes — introduced a flurry of procedural motions that Facciola denied. Choi also filed subpoenas to call 21 government and law enforcement officials, including Secret Service agents, to testify at the trial as defense witnesses. Facciola granted a series of motions by prosecutor George to quash the subpoenas for nearly all of the witnesses Choi sought to call.

At the trial on Thursday, Choi called just four witnesses, two U.S. Park Police officers who played a role in his arrest at the White House fence and two people who supported his defense – lesbian former Army Sgt. Mariam Ben-Shalom and Rev. C.T. Vivian, a nationally recognized civil rights leader and colleague of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. during the 1960s civil rights movement.

Choi asked Vivian on the witness stand about his philosophy on civil rights and what he thought about Choi’s arrest at the White House. Vivian acknowledged that he was not present at the protest in which Choi was arrested and could not offer an opinion.

“As far as I’m concerned, you were there in my heart,” Choi told him.

Ben-Shalom, who was among the protesters arrested with Choi at the 2010 White House protest, testified that she supports Choi’s First Amendment right to participate in such a protest.

Choi questioned U.S. Park Police Lt. Robert LaChance and Park Police Sgt. Timothy Hodge, who he called as witnesses to discuss the procedures and actions surrounding Choi’s arrest at the White House protest. Both played a role in Choi’s arrest. In response to Choi’s questions, the two said they did not single out Choi for his political beliefs and had no knowledge of whether higher ups at the Park Police sought to target Choi or any of the other protesters for their political views related to DADT.

Choi also pressed the officers on what he has claimed all along – that the order by police directed the protesters to leave the sidewalk in front of the White House when Choi and some of the others were standing on a ledge to which the White House fence is attached. In what Choi and his supporters acknowledge is a technicality, Choi has argued that he could not be legally charged with disobeying an order to leave the sidewalk if he was not on the sidewalk when the order was issued.

Facciola, however, said when handing down his verdict that prosecutor George established sufficient evidence through police witnesses that the order called on Choi and the other protesters to leave the area of the fence, not just the sidewalk.

One of the most dramatic moments of Thursday’s trial session came when Choi played a video, while LaChance was on the witness stand, of the 2009 interview of Choi by Rachel Maddow, in which Choi came out as gay. He said the video would provide evidence helpful to his case.

But with the lights dimmed in the courtroom and the video playing on several screens, Choi began to sob uncontrollably before shouting to the judge, “The defense rests!” He then called on Facciola to immediately begin the closing arguments for the trial.

Facciola responded by calling a recess for lunch, prompting Choi to lie on the courtroom floor yelling and cursing. At Facciola’s orders, two U.S. Marshals lifted Choi from the floor, carried him out of the courtroom and into an elevator. It couldn’t immediately be determined where they took Choi.

But when the trial resumed about two hours later, Choi returned to the courtroom with Ben-Shalom helping him walk. After George delivered her closing argument, Choi delivered a 40-minute closing argument in which he discussed his views on civil rights, religion, the First Amendment, the Iraq war and strife between Iraq’s Shiite and Sunni Muslim factions, among other topics that Choi said touched on his theme of justice and equality.

At various times during the trial and in his closing argument Choi spoke in Arabic.

“The lesson we learned today is we need to start taking care of our activists who are willing to stand up and fight back against injustice,” Ben-Shalom said after the trial ended. “Today we have as pure an example as I can ever come up with about the toll it takes on a human being to stand up and fight back,“ she said.

In addition to Ben-Shalom and Pietrangelo, out-of-town activists who came to the courthouse to support Choi were Ian Finkenbinder of Seattle and Michael Bedwell of San Francisco, who were among those who were arrested with Choi at the 2010 White House protest; marriage equality activists Robin Tyler and Diane Olson of Los Angeles; and California activist Robin McGehee, co-founder of the national LGBT direct action group GetEqual.

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

Dan Choi and other ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ repeal activists handcuffed themselves to the White House fence in 2010. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

29
Mar
2013

Hagel commits to extending partner benefits to gay troops

Defense secretary nominee Chuck Hagel has committed to extending partner benefits to gay troops (public domain photo by Lance Cpl. Casey Jones)

Defense secretary nominee Chuck Hagel has committed to extending partner benefits to gay troops (public domain photo by Lance Cpl. Casey Jones)

Defense secretary nominee Chuck Hagel has committed to extending partners benefits “permissible under current law” to gay service members as part of attempts to allay concerns among Democratic senators about his potential performance as Pentagon chief.

In a letter to Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Hagel responds to queries the California Democrat apparently expressed on issues like Iran, Israel and protection of female service members against sexual assault — in addition to asserting support for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal and a commitment to extending partner benefits for gay troops.

“I fully support the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act of 2010 and value the service of all those who fight for our country,” Hagel writes. “I know firsthand the profound sacrifice our service members and their families make, and if confirmed as Secretary of Defense, I will do everything possible to the extent permissible under current law to provide equal benefits to the families of all our service members.”

LGBT concerns persist over Hagel, whom President Obama nominated last week for defense secretary, regarding 1998 anti-gay remarks he made against then-ambassadorial nominee James Hormel — comments for which he has apologized — and a dismal anti-gay voting in record in Congress. Some LGBT advocates have been pushing Hagel to state a greater commitment to LGBT service members during his confirmation process.

Among the commitments LGBT advocates have been calling for is a secretarial directive to grant certain benefits to gay troops, such as joint duty assignments, issuance of military IDs, use of the commissary and family housing. Pentagon officials said they were looking at these benefits more than a year ago since the time “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was lifted in September 2011, but no action has been taken.

Allyson Robinson, executive director of the LGBT military group OutServe-SLDN, said in a statement she’s pleased with the commitment to partner benefits expressed by Hagel in the letter.

“Sen. Hagel’s commitment is a turning point for our gay and lesbian military families,” Robinson said. “His promise to grant these service members the family benefits they have earned demonstrates his deepening grasp of the injustice currently being done to them.”

But Robinson, who was unavailable for an interview with the Blade on Tuesday, also advised Hagel to stand firm against what she said was the reported intransigence among the military service chiefs — the chief of naval operations, the Marine Corps commandant, the Army chief of staff and the Air Force chief of staff — against implementing these benefits, as well as reluctance to taking another step for gay troops.

“The best way for Sen. Hagel to deal with that kind of foot-dragging in the Department of Defense is to take another step: the amendment of the military’s nondiscrimination and equal opportunity policies to cover our community,” Robinson said. “These documents help establish the command climate for the entire force, and for Senator Hagel to expand them in this way would send a very clear message that the days of treating LGBT service members as second class citizens will be coming to an end under his leadership.”

In a statement, Boxer on Tuesday said she supports Hagel based on the conversations she’d had with the defense secretary nominee.

“After speaking extensively with Senator Hagel by phone last week and after receiving a detailed written response to my questions late today, I will support Senator Hagel’s nomination as Secretary of Defense,” Boxer said.

Boxer isn’t the only senator who had questions for Hagel about his commitment to gay troops. Lesbian Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) said on MSNBC upon the news that Obama would nominate Hagel that she had “tough questions” for the former senator on his evolution and commitment to LGBT issues. Her office didn’t immediately respond to a request to comment on whether any conversations had yet taken place.

15
Jan
2013

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.

25
Jan
2013