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Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell: The Repeal

col_dont-ask-dont-tellAs I sit writing this, somewhere in the space between Memorial Day weekend and Santa Cruz Pride, I’m reflecting on what a strange trip the last few weeks has been in the fight to repeal the law known as Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT). We’ve made a significant leap forward but still have much to do. Here’s a bit about what’s happened, and what to watch for over the next weeks and months.

President Obama campaigned on a promise to repeal DADT, and reaffirmed that commitment in his State of the Union address in January, calling for its repeal “this year.” The president ordered the Secretary of Defense to set up a working group within the Pentagon to plan for the implementation of repeal, making sure to address the logistical and cultural issues that would no doubt be obstacles to implementation. The plan, when it is released in December of this year, will present a blueprint for integrating gay and lesbian servicemembers into the U.S. Armed Forces, serving openly and honestly, without disruption to military readiness, unit cohesion, morale, and recruitment.

While many in the DADT repeal movement have criticized this study as just more unnecessary foot-dragging, I have personally met with the Comprehensive Review Working Group at the Pentagon and can say that they are approaching this work with open minds, focus, and a commitment to supporting the goal of open service championed by the U.S. President and the Secretary of Defense.

At the same time, the Military Readiness Enhancement Act has been gaining support in Congress. Led by Senators Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Levin (D-Mich.) in the Senate, and Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.) in the House, the MREA has collected significant numbers of co-sponsors in both houses of congress. Just weeks ago, both House and Senate leaders strongly stated that Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell would end this year.

Here’s where things get interesting. Congress had been moving repeal forward while the White House and Department of Defense were encouraging a study-then-repeal approach. Due to the advocacy efforts of a few key organizations, and the grassroots efforts of gay and lesbian veterans and their allies, the White House was forced to find a way to get out ahead of the issue to maintain the appearance that it was in the driver’s seat. The result was a compromise, which would allow Congress to repeal the law now, but put in place a delayed implementation timeline that would still allow for the Pentagon report to be released in December, followed by a 60-day review period, before any repeal could take place.

On Thursday, May 24, the Senate Armed Services Committee and the full House voted to repeal DADT as an amendment to the annual Defense Reauthorization Bill. The reaction from gay and lesbian advocacy organizations and prominent individuals within the DADT repeal movement has been mixed. The leading organizations working on DADT are calling the compromise a victory, saying that while it won’t end soon enough, it provides a clear timeline and process for open service by gays and lesbians. A couple of new organizations and individuals on the scene, including GetEqual and Lt. Dan Choi, an openly gay West Point graduate, have firmly stated that anything but immediate repeal now is unacceptable. Lt. Choi and Capt. James Pietrangelo have begun a “Dignity Fast,” calling for President Obama to cease all DADT discharges, stop the work of the Comprehensive Review Working Group, and to immediately enact a non-discrimination policy for the U.S. military to include sexual orientation.

While two huge obstacles to repeal have been overcome, the fight isn’t over. The full Senate won’t take up the defense spending bill until later this summer, and Sen. John McCain, who once famously said that he would defer to military leaders on the topic, has vowed to fight repeal. There’s also the added complication that what is largely a spending bill contains $485 million for a project that President Obama had previously vowed to veto.

While there will no doubt be a long and noisy fight over the next couple of months, what has made the critical difference so far is the active engagement of a recently mobilized group of gay and lesbian veterans. More established LGBT advocacy organizations like HRC and SLDN, have been joined by Servicemembers United, which has quickly become the nation’s largest organization of gay and lesbian troops and veterans and their allies. These organizations have committed significant resources toward this issue and are chiefly responsible for getting gay and lesbian veterans, including me, involved in direct engagement with policy makers, and meeting with the Pentagon working group on the implementation plan.

I’m honored to be working on this issue and grateful for the support of the Santa Cruz community. As we celebrate the season of LGBT Pride, let’s remember the battles won, those yet to be won, and the many people that have been called to serve a cause greater than themselves.
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