@Odds | Repeal of 'Don't ask, don't tell'

Military just catching up

By Aubrey Sarvis
February 8, 2009
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SPECULATION is mounting as to when the Obama administration will take action on eliminating "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." The president is likely to follow through on this campaign promise to get rid of the law, but not in the immediate future. Nor should he.

Stimulating the economy is the top priority for all Americans. And over the next few months, there are bigger military challenges to address than getting rid of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," the law barring gays and lesbians from serving openly. But this is not to say that lifting the ban that has resulted in the discharge of 12,500 service members shouldn't be done later this year.

Fortunately, the environment Obama just stepped into is much more amenable to eliminating DADT than that of 1993, when President Clinton tried to deal with the issue.

First, Clinton didn't consult soon enough with the Pentagon when trying to integrate gays and lesbians into the military. Wisely, Obama has consulted early with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Pentagon on repeal. He understands that the support of the military is integral to repeal and the successful implementation of a nondiscrimination law.

Second, about 50 percent of Americans in the early 1990s were in favor of gays serving openly. Today, an overwhelming 81 percent favor open service, according to the latest CNN/Opinion Research Corp poll.

Attitudes within the military have changed, too. In addition to the letter signed by 104 retired admirals and generals calling for repeal, John Shalikashvili, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs during the Clinton administration, has made his views clear. "I held a number of meetings with gay soldiers and Marines, including some with combat experience in Iraq. These conversations showed me . . . that gays and lesbians can be accepted by their peers."

Third, the level of congressional support for open service has grown dramatically over the past 15 years, with a clear majority emerging to lift the ban.

Some think the administration will have the luxury of determining when any debate over "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" commences. This might be the case. Another scenario is likely.

Military brass will go before Congress this spring or summer to request their defense budget. Among their many "asks" will be money for the continued implementation of "Don't Ask Don't Tell." It is easily plausible that friends and foes of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" will use this camera-ready opportunity to ask the secretary of Defense and the Joint Chiefs their opinions of open service. The horse is out of the barn.

Whenever the debate begins, what will still be true is that "Don't Ask Don't Tell" is the only federal law on the books that forces employers to fire someone because of sexual orientation.

From a practical standpoint, it will still be true that the law just doesn't work. Through reams of vetted anecdotes and surveys of military personnel, we know troops in Iraq and Afghanistan are aware of a good portion of the openly gay men and women in their units.

And it will still be true that the military is far behind corporate America and the rest of the federal government, both of which recognize that to be competitive, sexual orientation must be a nonissue.

Let's get rid of the law this year while the environment is ripe.

Aubrey Sarvis is executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network.

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