Obama campaigned on its repeal. Will he actively engage?
by Steve Charing
March 2 marked another historic date in the ongoing struggle for lgbt equality. Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-CA) introduced legislation to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" to ensure that all qualified Americans can serve openly in the military regardless of sexual orientation.
"This law has failed our country and our military for 15 years," Rep. Tauscher (pictured) said in her announcement. "It harms military readiness and discriminates against patriotic young men and women who want to serve their country. It's time for Congress to right this wrong."
The Military Readiness Enhancement Act will replace the ban with a nondiscrimination policy that will make our military not just more fair, but also more effective, backers say.
Since the advent of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" 15 years ago, over 13,000 service members have been discharged. Many valuable Arabic linguists as well as other gay and lesbian service members holding "mission critical" jobs have been discharged as a result of the policy, which most Americans view as a failure. It's estimated that every year 3,000 men and women who want to enlist or re-enlist decide not to because of this law.
President Obama has stated his willingness to repeal the current policy. But will he make the same mistake as President Bill Clinton?
Following through on a campaign promise, in 1993 President Clinton tried to end the military ban on gays and lesbians through an executive order. But he was met with stiff opposition from the Joint Chiefs of Staff including chairman General Colin Powell, commanders in the field, and by members of Congress, led by Senator Sam Nunn a Georgia Democrat who chaired the Senate Armed Services Committee.
President Clinton did not enjoy a strong relationship with the military from the outset. He was perceived by many as a draft dodger during the Vietnam War and had done little to reach out to the military. That lack of credibility as commander-in-chief mobilized the anti-gay forces within the military.
The debate that ensued put Democrats on the defensive and divided the military between veterans and current service members. Social conservatives used the issue to bludgeon President Clinton and questioned his patriotism. As a result, it usurped President Clinton’s thin layer of political capital and forced him to eventually settle for the compromise legislation that has been in place since 1993.
Since that time, public attitudes as well as of those who served have shifted towards allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military. An ABC News-Washington Post poll conducted in July found increasing civilian acceptance of gays serving in the military. Seventy-five percent of Americans in the poll said gay people who are open about their sexual orientation should be allowed to serve in the military, up from 62 percent in early 2001 and 44 percent in 1993.
This past November in Annapolis, over 100 retired generals and admirals have called for the repeal of the policy. To bolster their position, studies have been conducted that show that openly gay service members do not negatively impact morale or unit cohesion.
"As is the case with Great Britain, Israel, and other nations that allow gays and lesbians to serve openly, our service members are professionals who are able to work together effectively despite differences in race, gender, religion, and sexuality," the officers wrote.
President Obama is in the midst of trying to help fix the economy, healthcare, energy dependence, education, fighting two wars, as well as other key priorities. Although he wants "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" to be repealed, he was more likely to make the push later in his term so that he can use his political capital to deal effectively with the current economic crisis. Moreover, he wants to build a consensus with the military brass, in particular, so that the repeal would be easier for Congress to swallow.
But the introduction of this bill could force the president into the spotlight on this issue—sooner than he had hoped—and will give Rush Limbaugh’s Republican Party another opportunity to mobilize the base.
Aubrey Sarvis, Executive Director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, is urging the lgbt community and allies to write their congressmen to have them co-sponsor the bill. The bill will go before a subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee for a hearing.
How President Obama uses his leadership skills and spends his political capital may provide an insight on his commitment to gay rights in general. He didn’t want to fight this battle now, but it looks like he must.