The Death of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’

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.

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5 Responses to The Death of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’

  1. Jessie carty says:

    Very interesting to read your take on this. Things in America are just nutty right now but nice to see that something good came out of losing the democratic congress!

  2. queerlefty says:

    Thanks, Jessie.

    The lame duck looks like it’s going to be surprisingly productive, with the (weak) tax cut compromise, DADT repeal, and the START treaty now looking like it’s headed for passage. The Republican obstructionism infuriates me, though. They’re even holding up the 9/11 first responders health bill! The Senate is badly in need of filibuster reform.

  3. Bryan Borland says:

    Not long ago, President Obama took counsel with former President Clinton. The result? Extension of the Bush-era tax cuts for the rich and the repeal of DADT. What does this tell me? Obama has finally learned how to play in DC. He’s moved more toward the center, compromising on some things to get other goals accomplished. What you’ll see in the next year is the Moderate Obama, not Change Has Come Obama, and interestingly enough, Moderate Obama might be the one who ushers in change.

    Great read!

    • queerlefty says:


      first, I feel it’s important to remember that Obama actually got a lot of things done in the two years of one-party rule, despite institutional constraints and a Republican Party hellbent on denying him any wins whatsoever: Equal pay, health reform, financial regulation, START, student loan reform, the stimulus, unemployment extension, DADT etc. I’m an definitely no moderate, but if I was a senator, I nonetheless think I would have voted for the tax cuts deal, however reluctantly.

      As for your hope that a more moderate Obama can bring results, I would love to be optimistic, but I can’t say I am. Sure, the DADT and START votes showed that there is a potential block of moderate Republicans, but the hardest and most important thing Obama has to do might be to get them to abandon their leadership’s desire for party-line votes on cloture. It doesn’t matter if they’d like to vote for the bill itself, if they always vote against cloture. And even supposed moderates like the two women from Maine have followed the party line on almost all cloture votes, making the 60 vote threshold almost mandatory for any piece of legislation. As long as the Republican analysis remains that their shot at the presidency is bolstered by gridlock, I don’t see how Obama can get much done, unless he decides to cave on most of his priorities.

      The Republican strategy could of course change, or Mitch McDonnell could show himself utterly incapable of keeping his moderates in check, but until I see proof of that, I remain skeptical. In the outgoing Congress, Republican wouldn’t even stand by their _own_ proposals, per Obama’s deficit comission (co-sponsored by Republicans who voted against it), or campaign finance disclosure, or most glaringly, Republicans ahistorical opposition to the individual mandate in health reform (originally a counter-proposal from Republicans against Bill Clinton’s plan).

      Happy holidays!

  4. Chef E says:

    I am normally ‘on the fence’ when it comes to politics, but I agree there is a pattern with politicians, and the ball bounces as it will with each song they sing…so to speak…

    I am so glad you commented on Jessie’s blog J.- otherwise as I have said before I get busy and forget to come over, so its a reminder.

    Love your blog! love it!

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