'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' Repeal Seems Certain

Seventeen years ago, just days after becoming president, Bill Clinton rushed to fulfill a promise he had made several times on the campaign trail in 1992: he would repeal the ban on gays serving in the military.


At the time, the president could have repealed the ban with the stroke of a pen. It was an administrative directive, not federal law. Clinton, however, did not lay the groundwork for repeal. His fellow Democrat, Senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga), then chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and an opponent of the ban, held hearings which upstaged the president. Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, voiced his opposition. And Clinton had Barney Frank, an openly gay Democratic congressman, defending him. The Massachusetts Democrat had no history of military service and was not well regarded in military circles. He cast this issue as one of gay rights.

In the end, Frank helped craft a compromise: legislation that would come to be known as “Don’t Ask,Don’t Tell” (DADT). It allowed gay people to serve provided they didn’t openly declare their sexuality. But it also codified the ban. No longer an administrative directive, it was now federal law. The president would need an act of Congress to repeal it.

Since DADT has passed, discharges of gay service members have continued, with an average of over 1,000 a year in the second half of the Clinton administration and a high of 1,273 in 2001, the year George W. Bush took office. Discharges have since declined, remaining in the 600-700 range from 2003 on.


In the same time period, various interest groups representing gay people in general and gay service members in particular have pushed for repeal. While bills were introduced in Congress, neither chamber acted. In the past two weeks, however, we have seen a flurry of activity. President Obama promised repeal in his State of the Union address. Obama has adopted an entirely different strategy for repeal from that of his immediate Democratic predecessor.

Obama, like Clinton, had promised to act on behalf of gay service members but did not rush to lift the ban, offering little more than lip service in his first year in office. Indeed, many gay activists began to grow impatient with the man they backed so enthusiastically on the campaign trail. Believing the Democrat was dragging his feet, a group of left-wing bloggers called for a temporary moratorium on donations to the Democratic National Committee until Congress passed a variety of legislation backed by gay activists, including repeal of DADT.

Perhaps in response to this pressure, the administration got its act into gear. Instead of having a left-wing congressman spearhead the effort, last October, the administration reached out to Senator Joe Lieberman, an independent Democrat who is not only a long-time opponent of DADT, but is also well regarded in military circles. Barney Frank he isn’t. And indeed, Frank has been in the background on this one. Instead, one of the administration’s point men in the House has a background of military service. Patrick Murphy, a two-term Democrat from Pennsylvania who served in the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division and was the first Iraq veteran elected to Congress, is the author of the only legislation that would repeal the “don’t ask, don’t tell” restrictions.


Also, instead of bypassing the military brass, Obama has brought his top defense officials on board before pushing forward with repeal. Even Colin Powell now favors allowing gay people to serve openly in the military. Within a week of calling for repeal of DADT in his State of the Union address, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that they favored repeal but that the process would take time:

Any change in the policy would not come any time soon, the two officials made clear. Both Admiral Mullen and Mr. Gates told the committee that there would be a Pentagon review, taking up to a year, to study how to implement any change before they expected Congress to act on a repeal.

Before changing military policy, they’ll conduct a special investigation into how the ban can be repealed without hurting the “morale or readiness of the troops.” They understand that this is not just about scoring a victory for gay rights; it is also about maintaining the effectiveness of our armed forces. By putting legislators with a record of support for, and service in, our armed forces at the forefront of the effort for repeal, and by working with the military brass to make sure this is done with proper regard for the military’s concerns, the Obama administration’s actions on gays in the military stand in stark contrast to those of Bill Clinton’s team. The Obama administration, understanding that some service members still harbor doubts about repeal, recognizes that it must show that allowing gay people to serve openly will not hinder the effectiveness of our armed forces.


A Military Times poll in December 2008 found that 58 percent of U.S. troops do not want gays to serve openly in the armed forces, with nearly a quarter of respondents saying they would leave the armed forces — or consider doing so — if the ban were lifted. Yet polls of British soldiers “found that as many as two-thirds of soldiers said they would consider leaving the service if gays were allowed in,” yet when the ban was lifted in the UK, “few soldiers actually chose to depart.”

Should the Obama team succeed in lifting the ban, their success may be as much a consequence of their strategy as it is of changing attitudes. While polls in 1993 showed a majority of Americans opposed allowing gays to serve openly in the military, even a majority of conservatives favor lifting the ban today. Last May, Gallup found that 58% of conservatives favored allowing “openly gay men and lesbians to serve in the military.” Indeed, in explaining his change of heart on the matter, Powell cited changing social attitudes:

“Attitudes and circumstances have changed,” Powell said. “It’s been a whole generation” since the legislation was adopted, and there is increased “acceptance of gays and lesbians in society,” he said. “Society is always reflected in the military. It’s where we get our soldiers from.”


These changing attitudes have made it easier for gays to live openly in American society, and may well make it easier for them to serve openly in our armed forces — provided of course that such service does not hinder troop morale or undermine unit cohesiveness.


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