I’m a little late to the party on the repeal of the US military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) policy, but not as late as the repeal itself. Barring gay people from serving openly has done a disservice to American security and the code of ethics of the military since the day it was instituted back in 1993. For many years since then, the policy seemed to have disappeared from the minds of many Democrats and moderate Republicans, who, while not exactly in favor of it, seemed to mistake the lack of public debate about its consequences for an affirmation that it was working as intended. It never did.
DADT was a very bad compromise from the beginning, but it got even worse as it became clear that the military never intended to respect their end of the deal, the don’t ask part. Bill Clinton had set out from the very start of his presidency trying to make it easier for gay people to serve, but when he encountered massive resistance from his party and the military itself, he opted for a compromise that never really accomplished anything. Asking people to lie about who they are is fundamentally contrary to the ethos of the military, and something that has torn down and worn out thousands of people over the years who just wanted to serve their country, and who did so bravely. Many put themselves – or at least the version of themselves that they were allowed to show publicly – in grave danger while doing so, and for that, several got discharges based on personal revelations, third party outings and investigations into their private correspondence. Investigations into homosexual tendencies sounds like a cross between George Orwell and psychoanalysis gone bad, but despite Senator John McCain’s (R-AZ) insistence to the contrary, this has been a consequence of seventeen years of DADT.
I have to admit I didn’t think the repeal effort would get done in the lame duck Congress. It had taken so much time and so much effort to even get the issue on the agenda, and when the DADT repeal, attached to Defense Authorization bill, failed to break a Republican filibuster not once but twice, unfortunately, it looked like I had been proven right. This shouldn’t even have been controversial: A poll released just last week confirmed that nearly 80% of Americans wanted to see DADT changed, and the Democrats had done everything they could to calm the fears of people who wondered what repeal might mean. A study of the issue was put together, and after the House passed the repeal legislation in May, Senate Democrats leaned hard on a couple of Republicans to drum up the magical sixty votes to get it done. It was around that time that Senator Joe Lieberman, an ‘Independent’ of Connecticut, and Representative Patrick Murphy, a Democrat of Pennsylvania, were designated as point persons in their respective chambers, to count votes and do the necessary arm-twisting.
DADT is one of the few issues on which Lieberman has been a progressive leader, and his task may well have been the toughest one. But the work of Murphy was important in a different way. Together with outside pressure groups like Servicemembers United, the Log Cabin Republicans, Servicemembers Legal Defense Network and the No H8 campaign, he succeeded in getting the issue on the agenda, even when it seemed like President Obama, the self-proclaimed ‘fierce advocate for equality’, was looking for a reason to kick it further down the road. A conservative Democrat and an Iraq war veteran, Murphy was exactly the right messenger for the repeal cause, and even though he lost reelection in a disastrous year for Democrats, Murphy may turn out to have had a greater impact on American history during his short stint in the House than more experienced members have had over the course of decades-long careers.
DADT repeal does come at a cost, though, but not the one Republican repeal opponents often see for the military. Rather, the main reason why the repeal was able to get through in the lame duck session, was that Republican managed to defeat an omnibus spending measure to keep the government going for the next year. This is dramatic in itself, but it’s a bittersweet irony that that Republican success freed up the time to schedule a debate and a vote on DADT. And I have to admit I was somewhat surprised by the breadth of support repeal garnered from Republicans. Sure, this is an issue on which history will not look kindly at those who opposed it, but at least a couple of the ‘aye’ votes were surprises. When the vote was called, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) knew that he had 56 Democrats and the two Independents in favor (several Democrats had previously voted to sustain the filibuster, for procedural reasons), and they were feeling confident that at least four Republicans – Scott Brown of Massachusetts, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, both of Maine – would vote in favor of repeal. The vote to take up the bill, however, grew to 63 yes votes, with George Voinovich, the retiring senator from Ohio, and Mark Kirk, a newly-elected Illinois Republican, joining with the majority. The real shocker was when the margin grew even larger at final passage, as Nevada’s John Ensign and North Carolina’s Richard Burr signed on with repeal as well. Ensign, one of the most conservative Republicans in the Senate, had tipped his hand a couple of days earlier, but Burr’s vote was a real surprise. So much so that Susan Collins said she hadn’t even thought of lobbying for his vote, assuming he was beyond reach.
However, the success of the repeal effort doesn’t mean everything is solved on the matter, or that they gay rights movement should be allowed to rest on its laurels. For one thing, there is the issue of implementing the repeal. The legislation set a timeline of 60 days from the people in charge of the military sign on the go-ahead, but some senators are asking for a more gradual approach. On the other hand, Sens. Reid and Lieberman have asked Defense Secretary Robert Gates to halt the investigations of pending discharges under DADT in the interim. It sounds like a reasonable request, but it’s exactly what Obama has said he doesn’t have the authority to do, in urging Congress to take legislative action.
I’m sure Obama is proud of the repeal achievement, and he has every right to be. But for a fierce advocate, he has been surprisingly weak on gay rights issues. The Employee Non-Discrimination Act has long been in legislative limbo over the protection of transgender employees, and the White House doesn’t seem to have a clear strategy to end the impasse. The window of opportunity probably passed them, as the Republicans take over the House in January, and the margins in the Senate will be significantly narrower as well. Likewise, the White House has done nothing to move the debate on the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), another part of the Clinton legacy that was forced on him by a Republican Congress. And let’s not forget that Obama still doesn’t support marriage equality, which makes him less progressive on the issue than even a former chairman of the Republican Party, Ken Mehlman, who came out both as gay and as a gay rights champion this year.
Gay voters just got a reason to vote to reelect the president, but there are still plenty of issues to keep fighting for.