Political Notes: Takano pushes for LGBTQ veterans commission

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Monday May 6, 2024
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Congressmember Mark Takano is pushing for a federal commission look into the experiences of LGBTQ servicemembers who served when the now-repealed "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy was in place. Photo: From Facebook
Congressmember Mark Takano is pushing for a federal commission look into the experiences of LGBTQ servicemembers who served when the now-repealed "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy was in place. Photo: From Facebook

Gay Congressmember Mark Takano (D-Riverside) continues to push for a federal commission that will look into the experiences of LGBTQ servicemembers who enlisted in the military when its homophobic "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy was in place. It would also be tasked with offering ways for the U.S. Department of Defense to address the lingering effects on the impacted LGBTQ military veterans.

Roughly 114,000 servicemembers were discharged on the basis of their sexual orientation between World War II and 2011, when DADT was repealed. Another 870,000 LGBTQ servicemembers had their military careers impacted by hostility, harassment, assault, and law enforcement targeting due to the anti-LGBTQ military policies in place.

"I don't believe repeal of DADT is the end of the injustice to our military servicemembers," Takano, co-chair of the Congressional Equality Caucus, told the Bay Area Reporter during an April 29 phone interview.

The B.A.R. spoke to Takano ahead of his keynoting this year's GLBTQ+ Asian Pacific Alliance 2024 Anniversary Banquet May 18. GAPA's gala event, with a theme of "VANGUARD: Standing for QTAPI Inclusion, Awareness & Community," will be held at the Marines' Memorial Club in San Francisco.

In the two most recent sessions of Congress Takano has introduced his Commission on Equity and Reconciliation in the Uniformed Services Act. It would establish a fact-finding commission tasked with collecting testimonies from servicemembers, veterans, families, advocacy organizations, government agencies, and others about various LGBTQ issues in the military.

The commission would then make recommendations to Congress about "a path forward" that the military, its various branches, government agencies, and service providers can follow to ensure equity for LGBTQ Americans who wish to serve. Takano sees the effort as similar to the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians established in the 1980s to examine how Japanese Americans were interned in camps during World War II.

Of Japanese descent himself, Takano watched that commission's hearings as he was graduating college. It led to the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 that granted redress of $20,000 and a formal presidential apology to the survivors of the internment policy.

"Some people began to testify about their experience," recalled Takano. "Emotionally, it was a very difficult thing for many people to do. They had never spoken about it and lived decades with tremendous shame."

LGBTQ servicemembers who were drummed out of the military or served in fear that they would be outed and forced to resign should also be given an opportunity to tell the country how that impacted their lives, argued Takano.

"It is important for their sakes to be given the opportunity to testify before an official body about what happened to them," said Takano, the Democrats' ranking member on the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs. "Otherwise, we are not going to know all the ways they have had to deal with their injustices. To have justice, you first have to reckon with the injustice. We have to reckon before we reconcile.

Last September 20, on the 12th anniversary of DADT's repeal, Takano once again promoted his bill creating the commission. Supporting it has been Congressmember Sara Jacobs (D-San Diego), who serves on the House Armed Services Committee and represents a district with many military members and veterans.

"Our country has never made amends for official discriminatory policies like 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' and the transgender military ban — and that failure still haunts today's service members and veterans," stated Jacobs. "That's why I'm so proud to co-lead this bicameral legislation that will right these historic wrongs, investigate the past and present impact of anti-LGBTQ+ policies, and help us move forward to build and sustain a diverse, inclusive, strong, and welcoming military."

Its chief backer in the U.S. Senate is Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut. Their bill has yet to have a committee hearing, and with a conservative-dominated Republican caucus controlling the House, it has little chance of being heard or adopted this year.

Nonetheless, Takano told the B.A.R. he is committed to pressing for the establishment of the commission as long as he is in Congress. LGBTQ veterans and those active in the military today deserve no less, he said.

"We need to understand their journeys and how to make their journeys less arduous and do right by them," said Takano.

He was able to push through in 2022 his Honoring our PACT Act, which expanded Department of Veterans Affairs health care and benefits for veterans who were exposed to burn pits, Agent Orange, and other toxic substances. That August President Joe Biden signed into law the bill, officially known as the Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act.

At this year's State of the Union address Biden gave in March, Takano had invited as his guest Juan Carlos Lopez-Mendoza, a California veteran and immigrant who served as an airborne infantryman in a NATO unit during the early 1990s. He had inhaled toxic fumes from burn pits in Iraq and later developed health issues.

He is one of the veterans who has benefited from the enactment of the PACT Act.

"Before the Honoring our PACT Act, Juan was receiving 30% disability. After completing a toxic-exposure screening and applying for PACT Act benefits, Juan now receives 100% disability, which has made a significant change in his life," noted Takano in announcing his invitation to the veteran.

As it happens, Lopez-Mendoza is a gay man who served under DADT and left the military because of the policy. He brought his husband with him to the U.S. Capitol for Biden's address.

"I am one of the many veterans who have seen their benefits increase because of the landmark PACT Act that was authored by Congressman Mark Takano and was signed into law by President Joe Biden," stated Lopez-Mendoza. "I am excited to hear from the president about his accomplishments and vision for our nation — and know he will keep putting country ahead of politics."

Pushes for fair treatment of LGBTQ youth

Takano has also been pushing for the fair treatment of LGBTQ youth, as their rights have come under blistering attacks by Republican lawmakers across the country in recent years. He was among several members of Congress who introduced the Rise Up for LGBTQI+ Youth in Schools Initiative on April 12 to coincide with the Annual Day of (No) Silence.

Also known as the National Day of Silence, the yearly event often sees students vow not to speak that day as a way to combat anti-LGBTQ bullying and harassment. The congressional resolution calls on state legislatures and localities to adopt laws and policies "that prohibit bias-based victimization, exclusion, and erasure."

"LGBTQ students across the country who are being targeted by this wave of culture war politics are being denied safety in the educational institutions that are supposed to support them," stated Takano, a former teacher who had served on a community college board in Riverside County. "We need to protect LGBTQ student's right to thrive, to find joy in learning, to discover their passions, and to embark on the rest of their lives in educational settings that support and affirm them. We have to do better and those in power must demand it."

During his recent interview with the B.A.R. Takano said the Equality Act, a federal LGBTQ rights omnibus bill, also needs to be passed by Congress and become law. Biden reiterated his desire to sign in in his State of the Union address this year.

He hailed the Biden administration's recent rule change to have Title IX in federal education law protect the rights of LGBTQ students. But Takano expressed concern that the a future president could rescind the new rule since it falls short of being federal law.

"This is wonderful that the administration made the commitment to do that," said Takano. "But we definitely need to go beyond an administrative interpretation and rule making, and ensure sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination is really steeped in law. That is what the Equality Act would do."

Unfortunately, the federal bill has languished in Congress for decades. And like Takano's LGBTQ military commission bill, the Equality Act is also seen as having zero chance of being passed out of the House this year.

Keep abreast of the latest LGBTQ political news by following the Political Notebook on Threads @ https://www.threads.net/@matthewbajko.

Got a tip on LGBTQ politics? Call Matthew S. Bajko at (415) 829-8836 or e-mail [email protected]

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