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ask' hearing evokes
Washington, D.C.--Polls now show that three quarters of Americans think gays and lesbians should be able to serve openly in the armed services. But the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law requiring them to stay closeted will be difficult to repeal, if last week’s congressional hearing is any indication.
The Military Personnel Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee held the first hearing examining the measure since it became law 15 years ago.
The amount of time the controversial law has stood without congressional review is itself extraordinary.
Also extraordinary is the amount of resistance to repealing it against the backdrop of polls showing overwhelming public support to do so.
The poll, conducted July 10-13 for the Washington Post and ABC News mirrors the findings that the Pew Research Center has tracked over 20 years that Americans are becoming increasingly supportive of gays and lesbians.
The poll showed the highest level of support to date for gays and lesbians serving openly, up from 62 percent in 2001 and 44 percent in 2003, the year “don’t ask, don’t tell” took effect.
The witnesses and the members of Congress at the July 23 hearing were keenly aware of these findings, and that supporters of the plan 15 years ago now say it is wrong and should end. The most notable among these is former president Bill Clinton, who signed it into law.
Repeal’s chance in Congress unknown
During a national conference call held the day before the hearing, Rep. Ellen Tauscher, who is the lead sponsor of the Military Readiness Enhancement Act to repeal “don’t ask,” explained the difficulties in passing it.
The bill, originally introduced in 2005 by Massachusetts Democrat Marty Meehan, is now sponsored by Tauscher. It has 144 co-sponsors in both parties, including Ohio Reps. Stephanie Tubbs-Jones, Dennis Kucinich, and Betty Sutton, all Democrats.
Tauscher explained in the call that the purpose of the hearing was to “bring information forward and raise the issue.”
According to Tauscher, the current House leadership doesn’t want to move the bill until there is a president committed to signing it.
Senator Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee, favors repealing the law. His presumptive Republican opponent, Senator John McCain, opposes repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
Tauscher also said that no senator has shown interest in carrying the bill through that chamber.
Tauscher revealed, to the surprise of most reporters on the conference call, that no “whip count” of possible votes for her measure has been done among members of the Armed Services Committee, where the bill sits, nor among House membership. Consequently, she is not certain how strong support and opposition are.
Asked directly if the repeal would pass the current Congress, Tauscher said she did not know.
“It’s a polarizing issue,” Tauscher said, “not to the public, but politically.”
“The bill is not being heard,” Tauscher clarified. “There will be no vote. The purpose of the hearing is to eliminate debate and show the status of the play.”
“It’s all about political considerations,” Tauscher said.
Though most of the support for repeal comes from Democrats, there are a number of Democrats in critical positions who support keeping the law as it is.
Most notable is House Armed Services Committee Chair Ike Skelton of Missouri.
There are ways to move bills around an opposing committee chair, but it requires the insistence of the House speaker and majority leader. It is a prerogative seldom exercised.
Skelton was asked by the Gay People’s Chronicle if he would block the repeal bill.
In a written statement through his press secretary Lara Battles, Skelton said, “The reassessment of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ will require a number of hearings over an extended period . . . Should a political consensus for action emerge after the reassessment is complete, the Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee will respond to the interests of the committee Members.”
Skelton was also asked for a statement explaining his support of “don’t ask.”
“Chairman Skelton has no further statement at this time,” was the reply.
No active military officers testified in the hearing, which revealed another possible hurdle to eventually ending “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
Tauscher said there was no reason to invite active officers because “we know what Pentagon people would say.”
“They would say that [“don’t ask, don’t tell”] is the law and they have to support it,” Tauscher added.
However, reporters on the call pointed out that Senate Armed Services Committee Chair Sam Nunn called many active military officers during his 1993 hearings, designed to foment fear and distrust of gays in military settings.
Asked about the difference, Tauscher became silent.
Personnel Subcommittee Chair Susan Davis of California, also a co-sponsor, told Newsweek that she wanted military participation in the hearing and invited them. Davis convened the hearing.
“I had hoped to hear from the Department of Defense,” Davis said. “I wanted to include them in the hearing. We would have liked to discuss with them the recruitment and retention issues that are so vital at this time of war.”
At the hearing, Davis read a statement by the Pentagon that they “do not advocate in favor of changing the policy at this time.”
Ban on open gays is ‘outdated’
The 12 member subcommittee joined by Tauscher and other Armed Services Committee members heard five witnesses--three in favor of gays and lesbians serving openly, two opposed.
Republican John McHugh of New York, the subcommittee’s ranking member, also expressed concern that military officials declined the invitation to participate in the hearing.
First to testify was retired Army Major General Vance Coleman, who was assigned to an all-black unit prior to the integration of the services.
Coleman called the armed services “the best military in the world” adding, “That is why we are better than the outdated arguments that some still use to prop up ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ ”
“I know what it is like to be thought of as second-class, and I know what it is like to have your hard work dismissed because of who you are or what you look like,” Coleman said. “I also know what a difference it made when we placed qualification ahead of discrimination and tore down the walls of racial prejudice in our fighting forces.”
“As an Army commander, I also know how disruptive it would be to remove a trained, skilled service member from a unit,” Coleman said.
“It is bewildering, and counter-intuitive, to me that we maintain a federal law that says, no matter how well a person does his or her job . . . no matter how integral to their unit they are . . . they must be removed, disrespected and dismissed because of who they happen to be, or who they happen to love.”
Retired Navy Captain Joan Darrah testified next.
“When a smart, energetic, young person, who happens to be gay, asks me about joining the service, I strongly recommend that they do not join,” Darrah said. “I love the Navy. It is painful to me to recommend to someone, who could contribute so much, to take their talents elsewhere.”
“The constant fear of being outed and fired even though your performance is exceptional, is hard to quantify,” said Darrah.
“In September of 2001, the true impact of “don’t ask, don’t tell” on me personally came into sharp focus,” Darrah said.
“On Tuesday, September 11, I was at the Pentagon attending the weekly 8:30 intelligence briefing. During the briefing, we watched on CNN as the planes hit the Twin Towers. Finally at 9:30 my meeting was adjourned. When American Flight 77 slammed into the Pentagon, I was at the Pentagon bus stop. As it turned out, the space I had been in seven minutes earlier was completely destroyed. Seven of my co-workers were killed.”
“The reality is that if I had been killed, my partner then of 11 years, would have been the last to know as I had not dared to list her in my emergency contact information,” Darrah testified.
“It was the events of Sept. 11 that made me realize that “don’t ask, don’t tell” was taking a much greater toll than I had ever admitted. It caused me to refocus my priorities, and on 1 June, 2002, one year earlier than I had originally planned, I retired,” said Darrah.
Marine staff sergeant Eric Alva testified third.
Alva, now an amputee, became the first U.S. servicemember injured during the invasion of Iraq when he stepped on a land mine.
“The supporters of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ are right about one thing,” Alva said. “Unit cohesion is essential.”
“What my experience proves is that they’re wrong about how to achieve it,” Alva said.
“ ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ is a solution looking for a problem,” Alva continued.
“That land mine may have put an end to my military career that day, but it didn’t put an end to my secret,” said Alva. “That would come years later, when I realized that I had fought and nearly died to secure rights for others that I myself was not free to enjoy. I had proudly served a country that was not proud of me. More importantly, my experience disproved all the arguments against open service by gays and lesbians.”
Testimony against repeal was ‘bonkers’
The fourth witness was the most controversial.
Elaine Donnelly is the founder and president of the Center for Military Readiness. She has never worn an armed services uniform.
Her organization is part of the religious right’s constellation of anti-LGBT groups. It appears to have been initially formed to keep President Clinton from lifting the military gay ban by executive order in 1993. The group also opposes women serving in combat.
After the hearing, the Family Research Council was the first to defend Donnelly and her gay-baiting testimony.
Donnelly told the panel that the “San Francisco left and the ACLU are imposing their agenda on the military.”
She opposes “don’t ask, don’t tell” as well as lifting the ban on lesbian and gay servicemembers.
She testified that banning lesbian and gay servicemembers is necessary, and said military recruiters should ask the sexual orientation of everyone joining.
“It makes no sense for the Department of Defense to forbid routine questions on induction forms that help to determine eligibility for military service,” Donnelly said. “Such a policy forces the armed forces to assume the risk that persons who engage in homosexual conduct will be inducted or retained in the military.”
Donnelly warned of “forced cohabitation with homosexuals” in all branches of the military, “and a burden to people with religious convictions.”
“We are not talking about a Hollywood world here,” she continued.
Donnelly’s rant, which wandered from her written statement, also warned that “sexual conduct would increase threefold” if gays were allowed to serve.
As “evidence” she presented a statement from Cynthia Yost, a former Army medical corpsman who claimed to have been “gang assaulted by a group of black lesbians” in 1974.
“Do we want to have a sexualized atmosphere in our armed forces?” asked Donnelly.
According to Donnelly, the number of gay discharges is insignificant because more servicemembers are discharged for weight violations and for being pregnant.
“You need to think about this issue of HIV positivity,” Donnelly to the committee. “We have troops who are not deployable because of their HIV status.”
Donnelly also disparaged the British military, calling them inferior to the U.S. forces because they are accepting transgender people in the military.
“Our armed forces demands are much higher than other countries,” Donnelly said.
Retired Army Major Brian Jones was the final witness. He is also associated with the Center for Military Readiness.
“I performed long range patrols in severe cold weather conditions in teams of 10, with only mission-essential items on our backs. No comfort items. The only way to keep from freezing at night was to get as close as possible for body heat–which means skin to skin,” Jones said.
“Navy SEALS are required to do the same thing for purposes of survival,” Jones said.
“On several occasions, in the close quarters that a team lives, any attraction to same sex teammates, real or perceived, would be known and would be a problem. The presence of openly gay men in these situations would elevate tensions and disrupt unit cohesion and morale. This would be the case even if there is no attraction involved.”
“Introduction of homosexual men under these conditions would create unnecessary tension and potential for disruption that would be disastrous in terms of increased risk to individual soldier’s lives as well as mission accomplishment,” Jones said.
During the questioning of the witnesses, McHugh asked Darrah if she would still join the Navy if she realized she was a lesbian at the time of joining.
Darrah replied she would not. Alva said he would join because it is a challenge.
‘When did you come out as hetero?’
Arkansas Democrat Vic Snyder, a physician, lambasted Donnelly, telling her that bringing up HIV is inappropriate.
“By this analysis we ought to recruit only lesbians into the military because they have the lowest incidence of HIV in the country,” Snyder said, before calling the rest of Donnelly’s testimony “bonkers.”
“Ms. Donnelly, are you asserting that our servicemembers are not professional enough to serve with homosexuals?” asked Pennsylvania Democrat Patrick Murphy, a freshman legislator and Iraq veteran.
Murphy also expressed that he was insulted by Donnelly’s remarks.
“Ms. Donnelly, when did you decide to come out as heterosexual?” asked New Hampshire Democrat Carol Shea-Porter.
“Ms. Donnelly, are you aware that the Army is allowing 10 percent of new recruits to come in with moral waivers? asked Shea-Porter. “Moral waivers” permit recruits with criminal records to enter the services.
“Ms. Donnelly, I don’t know why these good people are your targets,” Shea-Porter said of gays and lesbians.
Connecticut Republican Christopher Shays, also a co-sponsor, called the current policy “unpatriotic” and “absolutely cruel.”
“Would you tell me, Ms. Donnelly, why I should give one twit about [Darrah’s] sexual orientation when it did’t interfere one bit with her service?” Shays asked.
“I respect everyone’s military service,” Donnelly said.
“How do you respect their service? You want them out,” snapped Shays. “How does the relationship that Capt. Darrah has with her partner have any impact on the service as long as it is her own personal experience?”
“We have people who serve under conditions of little or no privacy,” answered Donnelly. “Forced intimacy is the term used in the law. That’s what it’s all about, Congressman.”
Tauscher remarked that repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell” is “about having the most perfect union.”
“We have to make sure the military reflects American values,” Tauscher said.
Tausher has promised to reintroduce the bill in January when the new Congress begins.