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The First Openly-Gay Congressman

9 May

This Thursday would have been the 74th birthday of the first openly-gay federal politician. Congressman Gerry Studds of Massachusetts was my Congressman growing up and I can proudly say that both my mother and my aunt took a major part in getting Gerry elected.

When he was first elected in 1972, he was not out of the closet. It wasn’t until a scandal outed Gerry, that he admitted publicly to being gay. Gerry was censured by Congress for having a sexual relationship with 17 year-old page Dean Hara. He fought to avoid a hearing so as to avoid outing young Hara. But instead of abandoning his post, like many outed politicians do, Gerry was re-elected six more times, until he retired in 1997 after serving the country for 25 years. He fought for many issues, including environmental and maritime issues, same-sex marriage, AIDS funding, and civil rights, particularly for gays and lesbians.

Following his retirement, Gerry continued to lobby for the fishing industry – one of the primary industries of his constituents in Massachusetts.

Gerry Studds and his husband Dean Hara

Gerry defended himself regarding the scandal by saying that he was in a consensual relationship with the the young man. In 2004, one week after Massachusetts legalized same-sex marriage, my aunt got a call from Gerry inviting her to his wedding. Gerry was marrying his partner of 25+ years, Dean Hara. Two years later, Gerry passed away following a pulmonary embolism. Due to the discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act, Dean was not eligible to receive the pension provided to surviving spouses of former members of Congress.

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BREAKING: Obama’s Dept. of Justice Will No Longer Defend DOMA

23 Feb

Big News, Folks!

While in the past, the U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ) under the direction of President Obama, has defended the discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the DoJ has announced it will no longer defend the unconstitutional law.

Freedom to Marry’s Evan Wolfson had this to say about the breaking news:

“Freedom to Marry applauds the President and the Attorney General for acknowledging that sexual orientation discrimination has no place in American life and must be presumed unconstitutional, recognizing that discriminatory laws like so-called DOMA must be looked at with skeptical eyes, not rubber stamped.

“The Administration today acknowledges that there is no legitimate reason for this discrimination and therefore it cannot be defended under the Constitution.  This a momentous step forward toward Freedom to Marry’s goal of ending federal marriage discrimination and fully protecting all loving and committed couples.”

Following is the press release from the Department of Justice:

STATEMENT OF THE ATTORNEY GENERAL ON LITIGATION INVOLVING THE DEFENSE OF MARRIAGE ACT

WASHINGTON – The Attorney General made the following statement today about the Department’s course of action in two lawsuits, Pedersen v. OPM and Windsor v. United States, challenging Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which defines marriage for federal purposes as only between a man and a woman:

In the two years since this Administration took office, the Department of Justice has defended Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act on several occasions in federal court.  Each of those cases evaluating Section 3 was considered in jurisdictions in which binding circuit court precedents hold that laws singling out people based on sexual orientation, as DOMA does, are constitutional if there is a rational basis for their enactment.  While the President opposes DOMA and believes it should be repealed, the Department has defended it in court because we were able to advance reasonable arguments under that rational basis standard.

Section 3 of DOMA has now been challenged in the Second Circuit, however, which has no established or binding standard for how laws concerning sexual orientation should be treated.  In these cases, the Administration faces for the first time the question of whether laws regarding sexual orientation are subject to the more permissive standard of review or whether a more rigorous standard, under which laws targeting minority groups with a history of discrimination are viewed with suspicion by the courts, should apply.

After careful consideration, including a review of my recommendation, the President has concluded that given a number of factors, including a documented history of discrimination, classifications based on sexual orientation should be subject to a more heightened standard of scrutiny.  The President has also concluded that Section 3 of DOMA, as applied to legally married same-sex couples, fails to meet that standard and is therefore unconstitutional.  Given that conclusion, the President has instructed the Department not to defend the statute in such cases.  I fully concur with the President’s determination.

Consequently, the Department will not defend the constitutionality of Section 3 of DOMA as applied to same-sex married couples in the two cases filed in the Second Circuit.  We will, however, remain parties to the cases and continue to represent the interests of the United States throughout the litigation.  I have informed Members of Congress of this decision, so Members who wish to defend the statute may pursue that option.  The Department will also work closely with the courts to ensure that Congress has a full and fair opportunity to participate in pending litigation.

Furthermore, pursuant to the President’s instructions, and upon further notification to Congress, I will instruct Department attorneys to advise courts in other pending DOMA litigation of the President’s and my conclusions that a heightened standard should apply, that Section 3 is unconstitutional under that standard and that the Department will cease defense of Section 3.

The Department has a longstanding practice of defending the constitutionality of duly-enacted statutes if reasonable arguments can be made in their defense.  At the same time, the Department in the past has declined to defend statutes despite the availability of professionally responsible arguments, in part because – as here – the Department does not consider every such argument to be a “reasonable” one.  Moreover, the Department has declined to defend a statute in cases, like this one, where the President has concluded that the statute is unconstitutional.

Much of the legal landscape has changed in the 15 years since Congress passed DOMA.  The Supreme Court has ruled that laws criminalizing homosexual conduct are unconstitutional.  Congress has repealed the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy.  Several lower courts have ruled DOMA itself to be unconstitutional.  Section 3 of DOMA will continue to remain in effect unless Congress repeals it or there is a final judicial finding that strikes it down, and the President has informed me that the Executive Branch will continue to enforce the law.  But while both the wisdom and the legality of Section 3 of DOMA will continue to be the subject of both extensive litigation and public debate, this Administration will no longer assert its constitutionality in court.

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BREAKING: US District Judge Opens Door for DOMA Challenge

19 Jan

More and more challenges to the so-called “Defense of Marriage Act” (DOMA) have been hitting the courts and getting shafted by Federal Judges.

Today, we have a new ruling out of California, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, US District Judge Claudia Wilken of Oakland ruled that state employees can sue the federal government over their same-sex partners’ exclusion from long-term health care benefits. The judge denied a request from Obama’s Department of Justice to dismiss the case, opening the floodgates for lawsuits from gay federal employees around the country.

Currently, federal employees can enroll in federally-approved long-term health care plans. Employees of the state can buy coverage at below-market rates, use untaxed income to pay premiums and deduct future benefits from their taxes. The California agency has refused to sign up same-sex spouses because the Defense of Marriage Act denies federal tax benefits to any state that covers them.

Judge Wilken claimed that DOMA is “robbing states of the power to allow same-sex civil marriages that will be recognized under federal law” and made it clear she would be challenging parts of the law.

While this story doesn’t specifically address our personal stories, we thought it important to share the fact that a major decision was made today, that is in line with the decision of Judge Vaughn Walker’s which overturned California’s Proposition 8. With more and more judicial challenges to the bigoted Defense of Marriage Act, it’s only a matter of time before we see it overturned in US Courts.

The Ghosts of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell: Moving Forward

15 Nov

In a historic protest at the White House moments ago, 13 people were arrested after chaining themselves to the White House fence.  Three generations of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell activists participated in this monumental action.  Present among the demonstrators were several men and women who’ve been arrested in similar demonstrations over the decades, including the first famous Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell protest in the 90’s, and this year’s subsequent White House DADT protests.

Former Servicemembers who were arrested in April during protests at the same location, spoke to Talk About Equality about why they were returning:

“I feel we have come to a critical juncture where we need leadership from Obama and Senator Reid to get rid of this horrible policy.  I am here today because being the first Marine discharged under this policy I feel we need to send a signal to the White House and the Senate to finally do the right thing for LGBT servicemembers and pass the repeal in the Defense Authorization Bill.” Says Justin Elzie, the first Marine discharged under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, to Talk About Equality.

Here is the full list of demonstrators who were arrested today:

Lt. Dan Choi, Petty Officer Autumn Sandeen,Cpl. Evelyn Thomas, and Cadet Mara Boyd.  All four were arrested in front of the White house in April protesting Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

Robin McGehee, co-founder and director of GetEQUAL.

Former U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Miriam Ben-Shalom, who was discharged in 1976 and was the first LGBT servicemember reinstated to her position in the U.S. Military, by a U.S. Federal District Court. On July 30th, 1993, Miriam and 26 other protesters were arrested at the White House fence for protesting Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

Former U.S. Marine Corps Sergean, Justin Elzie who, in 1993, became the first Marine ever investigated and discharged under the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law.

Former Army Arabic Linguist Ian Finkenbinder, who was discharged from the Army in December 2004.

U.S. Army Veteran and Repeal Advocate Rob Smith, who was deployed to both Iraq and Kuwait before being honorably discharged after deciding not to re-enlist in the U.S. Army due to the added pressure of living under the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law.

Father Geoff Farrow, a Catholic priest who spoke out against the church’s official stance in support of California’s Proposition 8, removing the rights of same-sex couples to marry.

Scott Wooledge, a New York-based LGBT civil rights advocate and blogger who has written extensively on the movement to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” at Daily Kos and Pam’s House Blend.

Michael Bedwell, long-time LGBT civil rights advocate, close friend of Leonard Matlovich, and administrator of the site www.leonardmatlovich.com

Dan Fotou, an Organizer with GetEqual.

Civil rights activist, writer and speaker David Mixner told LGBTPOV upon the 17th Anniversary of the first DADT White House arrests:

“There was no question among those of us arrested that DADT was a horrible policy.  Am extremely proud of doing the right thing then and extremely proud of those doing the right thing today.”

This action culminates one day of advocacy for Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell repeal.  The big push needs to come from all of us in the remaining few weeks of this Congressional calendar.  Don’t let these 13 have sacrificed in vain.

Openly Gay Man Elected to Public Office

8 Nov

Photo (c) Danny Nicoletta

On this day 33 years ago, after several unsuccessful attempts, the first gay person in US history was elected to a public office.

On November 8th, 1977, Harvey Milk was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Most of us have heard about Harvey and many of us saw the incredible Academy Award-Winning Film from 2008. And many of us had no idea who he was before that film, but now we know a little more. Harvey’s murderer Dan White, was also elected to office that same day.

20 years to the day after Harvey won his office, Bill Clinton became the first sitting US President to address the Gay & Lesbian Community directly in a fundraising speech.

We spend so much time getting frustrated over how far we have to go, but we ask that you take a look at where we’ve been and how quickly we have moved forward. We have come this far because those before us have talked about who they are. Harvey Milk spoke clearly about who he was and the fact that we had to come out to create change. That truth remains. 33 years later. Talk About Equality.