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February 23, 2007

Bill to end 'don't ask, don't tell' has a chance this time

Washington, D.C.--A Massachusetts lawmaker has introduced a bill to repeal the ban on gays and lesbians serving openly in the armed services.

It is the second pro-LGBT piece of legislation introduced since the Democrats took control of Congress last month. The first was a bill to add sexual orientation to federal hate crime laws, introduced January 5 by Texas Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee.

Rep. Marty Meehan of Massachusetts reintroduced the Military Readiness Enhancement Act on February 28. He has 109 co-sponsors, including three Republicans and seven freshman Democrats. Among the sponsors are Ohio representatives Dennis Kucinich and Stephanie Tubbs Jones.

Meehan also introduced the measure in the last session of Congress with 122 co-sponsors in both parties. It quietly died, although military services have fallen below recruiting goals and there is talk of reinstating the draft.

This year, Meehan chairs the oversight subcommittee on armed services and plans to hold hearings on the bill in April. He expects to pick up more co-sponsors after the hearings.

�I think we have a chance to win� this time, Meehan said.

He is cautious, however, to set what he calls �realistic goals and objectives� for its passage, which include getting a companion bill filed in the Senate as well as finding more co-sponsors and setting the hearings.

Passage is not assured, even in the House where Democrats control the balance of votes 233 to 202.

The Capitol Hill insider online magazine reports that there is a reluctance to address an issue that �overwhelmed the early days of Bill Clinton�s presidency and has been perceived as a Democratic liability ever since.�

Meehan agrees, as does Human Rights Campaign vice president David Smith, who told the magazine, �The prospects [for passage] are unclear.�

Before the 1993 compromise known as �don�t ask, don�t tell,� there was a total ban on gays and lesbians in the military, and �witchhunts� to ferret them out were common. Newly-elected President Clinton had made a campaign promise to lift the ban and allow gays and lesbians to serve openly. Congress and the military, led by Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, wanted to keep it and threatened to stop other legislative priorities of the new administration. Eventually, the military agreed to the new policy which allows gays and lesbians to serve, but only if they remain in the closet. Congress then went against a deal with the administration and enacted the policy into law.

By most accounts it has been a disaster, causing over 11,000 gay and lesbian dismissals between 1993 and 2006, including the widely publicized Arabic linguists dismissed after the September 11 attacks.

Currently there is an average of two dismissals for homosexuality a day. With the personnel needs of the military rising, high-profile retired military officers have changed their minds and want the law to go.

The most recent to come forward is retired Gen. John Shalikashvili, who chaired the Joint Chiefs of Staff when the law was passed.

Meehan said another factor in favor of his bill is that 60 percent of the countries whose troops serve with U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan have lesbians and gays serving openly. There are none of the readiness and morale problems predicted in Nunn�s 1993 Senate hearings, which featured media tours of showers aboard a submarine.

Shalikashvili �opens the door for dialogue,� Meehan said, adding that he doesn�t expect current officers to come forward.

�People entering the military today believe that gay people should serve openly,� Meehan said. �The dynamic is changing.�

Meehan also pointed to a December 2006 Zogby poll showing that three quarters of active troops are comfortable serving with openly gay colleagues.

�The resistance is from the people who have been around a long time,� Meehan said.

The law is also threatened by litigation and by the possibility of a military draft.

Sociologist Charles Moskos, the architect of �don�t ask, don�t tell,� said in 2003 that the law is incompatible with a draft. Unwilling draftees would simply tell officials they are gay, whether they are or not.

Meehan, however, may not be in Congress long enough to see the bill pass. He is one of three finalists being considered for chancellor of the University of Massachusetts at Lowell.





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