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June 4 , 2010

‘Don’t ask’ repeal is only a first step

Delays and lack of mandate could mean years till open service

Washington, D.C.--When will gays and lesbians be able to serve openly in the U.S. military without facing harassment and discharge? Although a measure to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell” was attached to a defense spending bill last week, it could be years before open service becomes a reality, if ever.

On May 26, the House approved an amendment to the Defense Department appropriations bill that repeals the 1993 law banning military service by open gays and lesbians.

But it does not take effect until 60 days after a Pentagon study is completed and the president, defense secretary and Joint Chiefs chair sign off on it.

The House passed the measure 234 to 194. The same day, the Senate Armed Services Committee passed it 16 to 12, with Republican Maine Senator Susan Collins joining all Democrats except Virginia’s Jim Webb in affirmative vote, sending the measure to the Senate floor.

The measure was offered by independent Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, a repeal proponent, after circulating it for two months.

The delay was possibly designed to bring more centrist Democrats and moderate Republicans to vote for repeal, while at the same time, assuage those among military leadership who oppose repeal.

The fact that Lieberman circulated the bill’s text suggests cooperation with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who sent a letter April 30 to House Armed Services Committee Chair Ike Skelton of Missouri, an opponent of repealing the ban.

“I believe in the strongest possible terms that the department must, prior to any legislative action, be allowed to conduct a thorough, objective and systematic assessment of the impact of such a policy change,” Gates wrote.

“A critical element of this effort is the need to systematically engage our forces, their families, and the broader military community throughout this process,” Gates continued.

“Our military must be afforded the opportunity to inform us of their concerns, insights, and suggestions if we are to carry out this change successfully.”

“Therefore,” Gates concluded, “I strongly oppose any legislation that seeks to change this policy prior to the completion of this vital assessment process. Further, I hope Congress will not do so, as it would send a very damaging message to our men and women in uniform that in essence their views, concerns, and perspectives do not matter on an issue with such a direct impact and consequence for them and their families.”

Most strategists argued that attaching the “don’t ask don’t tell” repeal to the spending bill was the last realistic chance to pass it, despite overwhelming support for repeal.

President Obama has made some speeches that mentioned the law’s repeal, but has done little else.

Conventional wisdom holds that Republicans will pick up seats in both chambers of Congress in the November election, making repeal nearly impossible.

Allowing gays to serve openly requires two steps: Repeal of the 1993 law, and passing a new law mandating open service.

The latter is missing from Lieberman’s amendment, so if passed, the law will return to where it was in 1993 before “don’t ask don’t tell,” was passed--where the ban on gays was a regulation controlled by the military.

“Don’t ask don’t tell” took that regulatory power out of the military and enshrined it in law.

Lieberman’s amendment tracks Gates’ letter to Skelton remarkably, calling for gays to serve only after the study concludes that gays and lesbians serving “is consistent with the standards of military readiness, military effectiveness, unit cohesion, and recruiting and retention of the Armed Forces.”

The study is scheduled to be completed in December.

Then, the president, secretary of defense and chair of the joint chiefs of staff must each certify to Congress that the recommendations in the report are being followed, and that the Department of Defense has prepared policies and regulations to implement the service of openly gay and lesbian soldiers.

Until all those qualifications are met, the ban on gays and lesbians remains law and the discharges continue.

Further, Lieberman’s language gives no guidance, no timelines, and no performance benchmarks, leaving the entire process up to the discretion and political influences of those in power at the Pentagon.

A new president hostile to gays could also bring the whole thing to a halt, or, if gays are serving openly, change the policy again.

In anticipation of passage, Gates has called for servicemembers and their families to comment on how they feel about gays serving openly.

Though the bill with the repeal language is ultimately expected to pass, there are two hurdles looming.

Republican John McCain of Arizona has threatened to filibuster the entire war spending bill if it contains the language repealing “don’t ask don’t tell.”

Also, the spending package contains the purchase of backup engines for the F35 fighter jet that the president doesn’t want.

Gates said in a news conference June 1 that Obama would veto the bill if the engine was in it.

Predictably, LGBT advocates are split on the developments around repealing “don’t ask don’t tell.”

On one side are those led by the Human Rights Campaign who applaud the repeal language, trusting the Obama administration and insisting it’s the best that can be gotten now.

After the House vote, HRC put out a statement saying “U.S. House Vote Spells Demise of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

That statement also infers that gays and lesbians will be able to serve openly.

HRC is also fundraising on it, with a solicitation titled: “Double your gift to help finally repeal ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ ” that does not mention that gays will still not be able to serve openly after the current law is repealed.

On the other side are those who insist Lieberman’s language is inadequate and are taking action.

Lt. Dan Choi, a West Point graduate, Arabic linguist and Iraq War veteran fired for being gay, began a hunger strike at midnight May 26 demanding that the firings of gay servicemembers stop immediately.

He calls the Pentagon’s study “insulting, wasteful and undignified” and calls for the enactment of non-discrimination laws ensuring that gays can serve openly.

Choi’s fast can be followed online at www.ltdanchoi.com.

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